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: