Paper: Paging Through History, by Mark Kurlansky

Eight stars

Those who have been following my reviews of late will know that I have been drawn to Mark Kurlansky’s work on the history of certain edible items. In these pieces, the author depicts the evolution and exponential uses for the products throughout the centuries. Here, with the history of paper before me, some may feel that things will take a significant turn towards the mundane. Just how interesting can paper be and how can someone extol its virtues for hundreds of pages? I, too, was somewhat a skeptic, but also highly curious to see if it could be done in an entertaining and educational manner. Kurlansky posits early in the book that it it not paper, per se, that is examined here, but the evolution of human’s communication utilising paper as its conduit. Still not sold? Well, Kurlansky explores some of the early forms of written communication—from the development of ancient Chinese through intricate and interconnected symbols through the development of the Roman alphabet—and how such thoughts were placed on objects for long-term reference. Moses and those Ten Commandments were only a primitive means by which of moving from oral tradition to the document form that allowed many to view and potentially understand what had been said. Stone, clay, bark, and even animal skin seemed to be the early forms of documentation material, but paper was also being used to adequately hold words or symbols for longer periods of time. Kurlansky explores varieties of paper and their acidic levels, which also played a key role in durability, both in the short term and throughout history, as well as the varied types of plant life that could be used to create paper. From there, it was the evolution of documentation that fills the biography’s pages. Handwritten accounts served for a time, but when Gutenberg and others were able to create or hone printing presses, mass communication became possible. Interestingly enough, Kurlansky argues that history takes not the inventor of a concept but he/she who is able to find the best way to apply it to society and deifies them. That intellect has helped label concepts throughout history, pushing false praise on a number of people. As paper was less costly and easier to mass produce, it was also highly effective in the art world. No longer did an artist need to worry about waste, as they could sketch out an idea or a concept before putting it to canvass. Paper also ushered in the era of drawing and rough drafts, which proved highly useful for the likes of Michelangelo. Kurlanaky also explores some of the details around paper’s use as a political weapn, helping to fuel many a revolution through political tracts and pamphlets. There is extensive discussion of the American and French Revolutions, spread to the masses by the printed material made available. During the latter portion of the book, Kurlansky explores the economic ramification of paper making around the world, particularly paper mills and the environmental impact. The reader can see the financial side of paper and how something as simple as a sheet used for writing can be such a lucrative industry, particularly for some Asian countries, who have taken on the recycling process and redistribution of paper back into the market. For a topic that may seem rather drab, Kurlansky creates quite an interest biography that weaves the history of paper through the ages, permitting the reader to learn a little more about the building blocks of their favourtite book. Unless we’re talking about e-books, but that’s for another discussion. Highly recommended for anyone with an interest in biographies, particularly of a unique nature.

As with many of his past biographies, Kurlansky is able to pull the reader in from the beginning, laying the groundwork for what is to be an interesting piece of writing. At no time do things go ‘flat’ or lose their lustre, for Kurlansky has been able to distill all the information gathered and present it in a masterful manner, with just enough intrigue to keep the reader wanting to know more. Some may say that paper cannot be exciting, no matter how delightful the narrative, but I would disagree. Kurlansky takes hold of this topic and provides the reader with much to ponder. His ongoing theme that paper is not only so versatile but has come into its own through a variety of cultural and historical evolutions rings true. The reader is able to explore paper (and its predecessors) around the world and see how each region of the world added its own spin. Technology proved to be highly influenced by paper, something that Kurlansky also argues effectively. As the reader will notice, it was paper that brought about much of the advancements in printing and communication technology. Revolutions depended not only on overthrowing governments and monarchies, but on having the paper to rile up the masses. I had never thought of things from this perspective, but Kurlansky has a tendency of opening my mind and leaving me in awe. With jam-packed chapters that offer historical and cultural perspectives, the reader is able to see paper advancements from around the world, and the eventual connection of all these cultures into modern paper making and forms of technology that rely on this somewhat simple and forgotten cog in the larger wheel. Kurlansky breathes life into a topic that might not otherwise be of much interest, but does so in such a way that the reader cannot help but care. With easy to understand descriptions and a flowing narrative, Kurlansky shows yet again that he has a handle on the nuances of unique biographical tomes.

Kudos, Mr, Kurlansky, for another winner in my eyes. I have marvelled at all you have to say about these topics and this one was another winner for me. Keep up the excellent writing and I hope to find more of your biographies soon.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge:

Salt: A World History, by Mark Kurlansky

Nine stars

Let them eat salt! Literally, let everyone do so, as we all need a (moderate) dose of it. Such is one of the early discoveries in Mark Kurlansky’s biography of salt and how it shaped the world. Kurlansky uses his attention to detail and ability to entertain the curious reader in this book that explores much of how salt came to be found on most tables around the world, as well as some of the key customs and traditions that have lasted for centuries, if not millennia. The book places salt’s importance in three distinct categories throughout history, which Kurlansky develops effectively. Salt is most easily seen as a part of food/cooking, but also an important business over time, and finally a key political commodity throughout documented history. By viewing salt through these three lenses, the reader can better understand and respect how powerful and integral those small grains (or large rocks) have been to shaping the world in which we live. Interested and open-minded readers will enjoy this highly educational biography on what might seem a random and somewhat bland topic (pun intended). I challenge anyone who has the time to step outside the box and see if it’s to your taste.

It is worth mentioning that, while Kurlansky does make mention of many forms of salt through the narrative, the significant portion of the book relates to sodium chloride (NaCl), common table salt. This product is surely both a quintessential part of human function, but also found in most foods, either in core ingredients or added in preparation. Kurlansky discusses how the Chinese were some of the first to document their use of salt to create new staples in the country, namely soy sauce, which involves a fermentation process that salt helps spark. Salt has the sensational ability to pull moisture from items and create a brine that cures them in new and exciting ways, thinking of such things as picked cucumbers, meats, or even eggs. Salt as a preserving agent proved to be central to the success of permitting foods to be kept for longer periods, be it meats hunted to last throughout the winter or fish caught on the far side of the world to endure the journey back. Kurlansky briefly explores the importance that salt and cod played as teammates to bring the fish from the seaside communities to the islands and across the Atlantic (which is extrapolated in his book about the history of cod, another good read), thereby feeding the masses who could not fish themselves. Salt’s preserving ability also serve the rich well in keeping their wines before the discovery of bottling corks, where a sprinkling in the wine not only kept it fresh, but added an interesting flavour. Kurlansky mentions throughout that salt’s addition to items to keep them edible led to numerous accidental creations that we take for granted now. Sauerkraut, long deemed (by me, at least) to be a Germanic invention has some of its earliest documented findings in China, where packing cabbage in brine within barrels that previously held fermented items led to this delicacy that the likes of Marie Antoinette could not get enough of, up to the day of her death. I also came to learn that corned beef has nothing to do with corn, but embedded salt (a corned substance being one that has bits of another item embedded within it) that seeps in and creates an interesting flavour. That humans need salt is not in question, though Kurlansky does admit that salt intake is much higher now than in times of old and that sodium levels far exceed the recommended amount. I suppose we’re well preserved for years to come, allowing us to work well into old age.

While there is no doubt that salt helped feed the masses, it had to come from somewhere to make it onto tables or into the foods that were consumed. Salt was surely a lucrative and profit-rich business, according to Kurlansky, and anyone could do it on a small scale. However, large salt deposits could be handled in various ways by different companies. The first and most profitable type of business was brine ponds, used primarily for medicinal purposes. Those seeking to cure what ails them could turn to a soak in one of these ponds, usual naturally warm, and find much success. Those areas of the world able to procure the development of these ponds and keep them from drying out would see significant profits. There were other areas that used larger bodies of salt water to procure the salt needed for preserving food or making its way to the table. By creating man-made smaller basins and using the sun as a means of evaporating the water, large salt deposits remained, which could then be sold on the market. New England and parts of the Nordic countries were able to profit significantly through this method, which was sometimes paired with their cod stocks to create salted cod to sell on the world market, providing financial stability for the region. As Kurlansky discusses throughout the book, various groups were able to perfect the salt extraction method long before large machines or complex piping entered the scene. He does stress in the latter portion of the book that the lost art of salt retrieval, once passed from generation to generation, is all but lost in an era where massive factories can produce and sell salt at a discounted rate. The selling or trading of salt on the open market promised to be just as lucrative. Supply and demand would surely enter the discussion here, as would regions able to boost their economic situations by exporting salt to those in need. Kurlansky does have an interesting take on this, which I will discuss below, but there is no doubt that profits played a huge part in the salt business. Of note, salt was a significant factor in influencing Joseph Smith and Brigham Young in where they might choose to settle, away from the eyes of the majority of the American population in the mid-19th century. Looking for fertile and self-sustaining land, Young found a spot close to… yep, a ‘salt lake’, where he developed the Mormon Church and eventually helped forge Utah’s Salt Lake City. Food and business (and even religious settlements) help pave the way to a discussion of the politics of salt.

As with most things in life, if there is a crack left open (or space between crystals, in this case), politics will seep in. The politics of salt are far-reaching and have significant impact since documented history began. Kurlansky discusses the Chinese in the millennia before the Common Era not only capitalising on salt in the region, but regulating its use and distribution across the empire. Perhaps a sign of things to come, rulers and governments sought to control who could have what, when, and how much, though there was no sense of equality. Far be it from me to inject economic terms here, but regulation most certainly led to a dilution of the free-market economies of these areas, where the capable could profit based on their vested time and interest. Equally interesting, there is a discussion of the British suppressing their Indian subjects prior to the country’s independence. Mahatma Gandhi fought the British ban on local procuring and selling of salt, feeling that the people had a right to work for themselves without being suppressed. It worked, though not until after much struggle and bloodshed. Kurlansky makes an interesting observation throughout the book, that one could always predict that war was on the horizon when militaries began procuring large amounts of salt. Campaigns of any length would require forethought and planning, as it was not always possible to predict the plentifulness of energy-rich foods. Salting products for long-term use was the key way of doing so, which took not only ingenuity, but also access to salt. In one example, Kurlansky uses the US Civil War, where some were sure Jefferson Davis and the Confederate Army was surely doomed, having no known salt reserves from which to pull. Salt as a political weapon, albeit one that cannot make you bleed (but definitely could cause one to squirm if it got into the wound, no?!). The political side of salt also served to create a significant have and have not duality, such that portions of the population or states facing one another were able to elevate prices and quantities to suit their own needs. As with many products, there is no way to completely balance distribution, though one can presume that it is greed that led to as much disparity on the world market, even with something as basic as salt. Put labour into the mix and politics cannot stay away, begging to regulate or comment on working conditions, hours, and rates of pay. Kurlansky stirs the pot throughout by sprinkling commentaries on these and many other political topics throughout the book, sure to keep the reader thinking.

This is my third food-related biography by Kurlansky and I have not read one that has not completely floored me. The subject matter might seem bland or even off-putting, but take the time to explore what Kurlansky has to say and few will drift off from boredom. The detail Kurlansky takes in his writing seeks to educate and entertain in equal measure, while not drowning the reader in minutiae. Adding historical references and some anecdotes, the reader is taken on this journey and the points being made are further solidified as being fundamental. Kurlansky also shows an interesting habit that becomes apparent to those who have read many of his biographical pieces, pulling on pieces of research at just enough depth to make his point, but expounding on them in another tome. One can see this with his pieces on salt, cod, and milk, three that I have recently had the pleasure to devour. This interchange of ideas only furthers the hypothesis that everything is interconnected on some level, part of the larger lifeblood of the world in which we live. As with his other pieces, Kurlansky also brings the point home with related recipes embedded in the larger narrative. This personalises the subject matter and, for most, permits the reader to become actively involved in the topic at hand. Kurlansky’s books would not be complete without random pieces of knowledge, what I like to call ‘dinner party fodder’. I had no idea of salt’s presumed trait as a fertility agent or aphrodisiac. I suppose men of a more advanced age in centuries past would turn to a handful of salt rather than their coloured pill to boost their ‘shaker’, though, much like the modern pill, too much can lead to heart issues. Still, there is no end to the funny information I learn when Mark Kurlansky is in the driver’s seat. Take a whirl and spice up your life!

Kudos, Mr. Kurlansky, for never ceasing to amaze me. I know so much more now than I ever thought I could have about common table salt. What may seem so simplistic is shown to be so very exciting, with your lighthearted writing. I look forward to reading more of your work in short order.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge:

Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, by Mark Kurlansky

Nine stars

Continuing on my histories of odd things (and non-fiction binge), I returned to another Mark Kurlansky piece that may leave some readers swimming in the other direction. Kurlansky presents the cod and its importance in world history, which was surely as entertaining and educational as it was unique. Many may think cod as nothing more than a fish that finds its way onto the plate, best served with potatoes and green peas (or whatever vegetable one has on hand), but there is a great deal more to this creature of the water. Politics and industry play such key (and intertwined) roles in its discovery and ongoing exploration (exploitation?) that the reader will surely come away with a more thorough understanding of the complexity of the fish. Kurlansky offers up a few interesting insights to pique the reader’s interest, if nothing more. Rest assured, a non-fish eater though I am, I was astounded with all that came from this piece, and the impact cod has had on the world for over two thousand years.

Cod have not only been fished extensively (and exclusively) for thousands of years, but they are some of the most sought after fish for their versatile nature. Well before refrigeration became an option, fishermen discovered the ability to salt them, which not only added a flavour, but also a distinct ruggedness. Allowing the fish to last that much longer, it could be transported, sold, and stored for longer periods, thereby making it highly profitable on the world market. Throughout his piece, Kurlansky shows just how desired salted cod became, in all corners of the world. But it is not only the salted fillets that prove to be a delicious treat, but most every part of the fish. From their livers (tasting and whose oil is highly medicinal) to their heads (a delicious chowder, without eyes) and even their skin (perfect for making bags and satchels), cod is one of the most versatile fish on the market. Kurlansky discusses at one point that there is even a use for the bones, particularly amongst the ever-thinking Icelandic population. Cod as food is likely the easiest way the reader will consider this fish, but there is so much more to the discussion.

Cod was not only a form of food on which to sup, for some it was a way of life. Kurlansky explores the life of a fisherman and how entire communities would rely on the bountiful cod catches that came from off the coast. Kurlansky returns throughout the piece to discuss the importance of cod fishing to Newfoundland (Canada), New England (America), and much of the country of Iceland. Entire livelihoods were based on enough cod coming off the boats to be sold on the open market. There are many parts of the world where cod is not plentiful, but it is sought after as a staple in the diet. Kurlansky explores how overfishing by other countries has helped to deplete the stock of cod, thereby adversely affecting the lives of huge portions of the populace. This has, at least in the Canadian example, forced multi-generational fishing families to turn to financial assistance for subsistence, their pride decimated. Politics abound when it comes to fishing and those who pull cod from the water are affected like no other. Kurlansky does provide a captivating and chilling narrative about the politics of cod fishing.

One would be remiss to simply accept that cod are a food, for anything that can be sold will surely have a price tag and a profit. Kurlansky explores how centuries ago, explorers would find their way in the open waters to take advantage of this new discovery, hoping to sell it and provide a large profit margin. The Basques were able to capitalise on this for centuries, particularly because the were situated in a plentiful area. The British Commonwealth ran likely a well-oiled machine, forcing colonial fishermen to send back their catches to be sold to others, without the full profits making back to the original source. In time, other countries were able to build large boats to join the ‘game’, entering the fray and taking what they could handle. However, cod are not as fertile as one might think, nor able to replenish as quickly as they are captured. This led to a shortage of fish and a moratorium on fishing. An international agreement to extend sovereign waters led to many a clash between countries, only added proverbial blood to the water and turned ugly when the cod population shrunk. Countries went to (fish) war over cod and sanctions ensued, particularly a battle between Iceland and the UK in the 1970s. No one was safe and entire communities, as discussed above, suffered the most. This is likely some of the most disturbing parts of the narrative, as it pulls in the seal hunt and the economic livelihood of thousands of families and is only another example of how large corporations destroyed the little man for their own greed.

I am the first to admit that I do not like fish, though I was drawn to this piece and could not find a way to step back. Kurlansky has such a way with his storytelling that the reader finds themselves in the middle of the story before realising how much time has passed. Full of anecdotes and personal asides, Kurlansky personalises the topic more than many historians can do for actual human subjects. Who would have thought that cod could be such a complex food, while also being such a binding agent for small communities? Kurlansky does offer a great deal of information that the reader must digest, but it is all poignant and ties together throughout the narrative. I found myself relating events in early chapters on cod fishing to later discussions of wars between the governments of the UK and Iceland, fitting the two topics together seamlessly. With the added bonus of numerous recipes pulled from over many centuries, Kurlansky ties the discussion together and permits the reader to explore the culinary side of the topic, a less confrontational aspect of cod fishing. While there is no doubt that cod will long be a divisive topic when it comes to mass fishing quotas between countries, it is also the lifeblood for many people, which is easily forgotten, especially by a man on the landlocked Canadian Prairies. Kurlansky breathes life into the discussion and keeps the reader thinking, which can lead to talking and eventually acting on what they have come to learn.

Kudos, Mr. Kurlansky, for another stunning food-related biography. I am completely hooked and have a few more of your books to explore in the not too distant future. While I may not be rushing out to have cod-head chowder, you did get me thinking about an industry about which I know so little.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge:

Milk!: A 10, 000-Year Food Fracas

Nine stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Mark Kurlansky, and Bloomsbury (USA) Publishing for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

I remember an advertising campaign from my youth that extolled the virtues and health benefits of drinking milk. It stuck with me and I have tried to present the same positive outlook to my son. When I saw the latest Mark Kurlansky book, all about the history of milk, I could not help but wonder if it would be an entertaining read, as I knew he had tackled some other interesting food topics. One may presume the topic is quite mundane or simplistic, but the attentive reader will discover that milk and its byproducts are anything but boring, though it is one area where history has only added to the controversies, rather than neutralise them. In a book that is as eye opening as it is refreshing, Kurlansky offers the reader much insight into this product that has been a central part of history as long as female mammals have roamed the earth.

Milk has long been a controversial staple through the centuries, from the debate between breastfeeding and delivering the essential nutrients to babies, to the best ‘type’ of milk for humans to consume, and even whether to treat milk to make it safer for consumption. Kurlansky details these and other debates throughout the pages of his book, presenting arguments and views as they were documented throughout history. There remains a strong debate over pasteurisation versus raw milk, which has led to various parts of the world to adopt varying rules and regulations. While many Western countries turn to cow’s milk, there are numerous other animals whose milk is widely used, utilising the higher concentration of such mammals on differing terrains.

Liquid milk is only scratching the (fatty) surface of the discussion, as Kurlansky talked extensively about the various byproducts. Often discovered by accident, byproducts include cheeses, butters, and creams, though their variety can easily be forked into hundreds of different outcomes. The history of cheese is both long and full of political intervention, as Kurlansky discusses at length. Creation of cheese can be a laborious process and is tightly regulated, creating different colours, flavours, and consistencies. Kurlansky explores not only how different milk determines key cheese creations, but also the food intake of the cow that can vastly alter the end result. Turning to creams, history has seen the evolution of different products, based not only on filtering techniques but also the ability to refrigerate or cool for lengthy periods of time. Different people claim fame for various inventions that many take for granted now, though there was surely a fierce debate at the time to launch the best clotted creams, ice creams, and desserts that stemmed from there. Kurlansky also explores how different parts of the world tapped into shaping these byproducts with the local ingredients, creating even more differentiation across the globe.

The political and social aspects of milk are firmly rooted, particularly when government health and legislative bodies learned that they could levy fees and fierce regulations. Milk can be a highly profitable industry, though strict adherence can also lead to marginalizing those who have spent their life trying to make a living off dairy production. Kurlansky turns the focus away from North America and delves deeply into the European and Asian markets, which may shock some readers in the West. There is surely a hierarchy when it comes to milk consumption, as well as a fierce debate about how to treat the animals and the food they consumed. There is no correct answer, nor does Kurlansky try to steer the reader in any single direction, but offers a wonderful cross-section of information for a better understanding. Readers and milk enthusiasts alike can enter the debate better armed for the battle.

Kurlansky’s delivery of the topic at hand is so seamless as to create a story that flows with ease from beginning to end. While there is so much to cover, Kurlansky offers detailed discussions throughout without bogging the reader down with minutiae. Not only does he provide a rich history of milk and its evolution, but Kurlansky offers hundreds of recipes embedded in the narrative, permitting the reader to explore the more amusing side of milk’s maturation. Offering education and entertainment in equal doses, Kurlansky provides the reader with a fulfilling historical tome that will fuel interesting discussions for all. Any reader with a love of history and curiosity about food will surely find something they can enjoy in this book. “Milk. It does a body good!”… and so much more!

Kudos, Mr. Kurlansky, for such a wonderfully diverse piece. I have learned so much and dazzled others with random facts that will stick with me for years to come. Now I am convinced that I will have to find some of your other food histories and see how they compare.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: