Saturday, July 23, 2011

Salt, by Mark Kurlansky

For some reason, searching for 'salt' on Google nowadays turns up a lot of stuff about Angelina Jolie. Has she recently played Lot's wife in a Sodom & Gomorrah thriller, ending up as a pillar of salt?  No?  Hmm.  Too bad.

This book is non-fiction; Mark Kurlansky is a journalist who covers a whole host of subjects but is especially fond of writing about food. Salt is a 9-course meal of a book, rich with history, science, art and culture.

I adore salt, and my father also salted his food heavily, much to my mother's dismay. But then, he was German, and the Teutons have a long-held affinity for the stuff.  "Tacitus wrote in the first century A.D. that the Germanic tribes believed the gods listened more attentively to prayers if they were uttered in a salt mine." The Hanseatic League was formed in large part to guarantee the fair trade of salt, an essential product.

Our bodies need a certain amount of salt, and this book makes it clear the critical role that salt has played in not only as a seasoning but in preserving foods, making medication, sustaining livestock, making gunpowder, and de-icing roads, from the ancient to the present.  Sea salt, salt from brine springs, rock salt from mines, sodium chloride or magnesium chloride -- he covers it all. In reading about the salt content of various bodies of water, I found myself asking the sort of question that children ask (and most adults, for some reason, stop wondering about):  why are some bodies of water salty and others fresh? An instant later I read, "there is still no set explanation for the saltiness of the sea."

Kurlansky notes that most Italian cities are built proximate to salt works.
The Roman army required salt for its soldiers and for its horses and livestock. At times soldiers were even paid in salt, which was the origin of the word salary and the expression “worth his salt” or “earning his salt.” In fact, the Latin word sal became the French word solde, meaning pay, which is the origin of the word, soldier.

Salt has contributed to geographical names in Britain, as well:  "Anglo Saxons called a saltworks a wich, and any place in England where the name ends in 'wich' at one time produced salt."

The Europeans followed the Asians in producing salted fish sauces and pastes:
Ketchup derives its name from the Indonesian fish and soy sauce kecap ikan... Why would English garum have an Indonesian name? Because the English, starting with the medieval spice trade, looked to Asia for seasoning. Many English condiments, even Worcestershire sauce, invented in the 1840s, are based on Asian ideas.

Cheeses, however, seem to be a truly European method of preserving dairy products with salt.
In a 1961 speech, Charles de Gaulle, explaining the ungovernable character of the French nation, said, "Nobody can easily bring together a nation that has 265 kinds of cheese.” ...
Cheese, the more successful way to preserve milk and cream, was also a popular salted food of the poor, though only the wealthy sampled the full array of English cheeses—some 150 varieties (or at least this many were remaining in the 1970s when British cheese enthusiast Patrick Rance went on a crusade to save traditional English-cheese making).

Obtaining adequate salt was always a pressing need of Europe's poor, but salt also symbolised status and wealth among the aristocracy.  Where should each dignitary sit at table in relation to the salt, which was held in ever more ornate vessels?  (A 'nef' was often in the shape of a ship, worked in a precious metal.)

In 1378, Charles V of France hosted a famous dinner that posed the awkward question of where to place the nef. Should it be in front of him or by his guest Charles IV, the Prague-born Holy Roman Emperor? And what about the emperor’s son who was also joining them, King Wenceslaus of Germany, who would become emperor after his father’s death later that same year? It was decided that the table had to be set with three large nefs, one for each of the three monarchs. 

Although Kurlansky doesn't mention it specifically, this recalls the English expression "down from the salt", referring to one's place at the dinner table and the status indicated by it. Back in the days of grand manor houses with 30-foot dining tables, the salt cellar was typically near the middle of the table. The lord and his more esteemed guests were "up from the salt" and were the only diners allowed to partake of it.

The Wieliczka salt mine in Poland, now a tourist attraction, defies belief. The walls, ceiling, floor, chandeliers, and statues are all made from salt. Chandeliers carved from salt?!  In the 19th century, the mining company hosted formal balls in the salt ballroom.  There is, in the bowels of the mine, an entire cathedral carved from the salt.

Shifting views to the west,
The history of the Americas is one of constant warfare over salt. Whoever controlled salt was in power. This was true before Europeans arrived, and it continued to be the reality until after the American Civil War... A new nation was born with the bitter memory of what it meant to depend on others for salt.

Kurlansky pays special attention to the role that salt played in the war between the states, and although I've not immersed myself in Civil War history, this is the first book I've read which suggested that salt may well have been one of the decisive factors.
In the 1939 classic film of the Civil War, Gone With the Wind, Rhett Butler sneered at southern boasts of imminent victory, pointing out that not a single cannon was made in the entire South. But the lack of an arms industry was not the only strategic shortcoming of the South. It also did not make enough salt. ...
William Tecumseh Sherman, one of the visionaries of a modern warfare in which cities are smashed and civilians starved, wanted to deny the South salt. “Salt is eminently contraband, because of its use in curing meats, without which armies cannot be subsisted.” he wrote in August 1862.

A dearth of salt also affected the Rebel cavalry, whose horses depended upon it, and the infantry, whose gunpowder required it. Sherman's destruction of saltworks throughout the south was perhaps as devastating as his scorched earth tactics.

The northern states have been blessed with many saltworks, especially around the Great Lakes.  Syracuse, NY, in particular, got its start as a salt town.  Many years ago, the company I worked for was acquired by another firm based in Syracuse. The new President tried to lure us all to relocate there, giving us a sales pitch that might have been written by a tourism marketing firm. This 'greater glories of Syracuse' pitch succeeded in convincing about 4 employees (out of 1500) to move. The city had undoubtedly grown since 1820, but it still felt like we were being deported to Siberia.
William L. Stone, passing through in 1820 when the Syracuse population was 250 people, wrote, “It was so desolate it would make an owl weep to fly over it.”

It was in the south, however -- Texas to be precise -- that drillers discovered that salt deposits are often adjacent to another interesting substance.
In 1901, two men, Pattillo Higgins and Anthony Lucas, ignored the advice of geologists and started drilling a Texas salt dome called Spindletop. No one ever looked at salt domes the same way again. No longer were terms like well and drill rig to conjure up the image of salt. Spindletop had spawned the age of petroleum... 
Also because of Spindletop, geologists took a new look at salt domes. Because salt is impenetrable, organic material gets trapped next to the salt and slowly decomposes into oil and gas. For this reason, oil, gas, or both are frequently found on the edge of salt.

In truth, the Americans had in fact not been the first to discover or to exploit this. The Chinese had beaten them to it, when they hit a natural gas deposit whilst drilling for salt. They then used the gas to power drills to go still deeper.
In 1835, a new well, the Shen Hai well, was drilled in Zigong. At 2,700 feet, it struck natural gas. At 2,970 feet, the well reached natural brine, but the drilling continued down to 3,300 feet, making it at the time the deepest drilled well in the world. Twenty-four years later, an American would be cheered for the achievement of having drilled 69.5 feet in Titusville, Pennsylvania.

In more modern times, the American Morton company prided itself on two things: producing salt of perfectly uniform, white crystals and also, on advice from the medical community, adding iodine to its salt. Morton boasted that no matter where the salt had originally come from or how it had been produced, every crystal coming out of their trademark metal spout would be identical to every other. Is this an American obsession, this compulsion for consistency? It seems so unlike the European fondness for regional specialties. Kurlansky notes that now the tide has turned, and discerning cooks are willing to pay a premium for less pure salt of different colors and crystal shapes.

Speaking of cooks, Kurlansky reprints many recipes, some dating back to the Roman empire, for dishes of all sorts.  All of them, needless to say, require salt.

Footnote:  While I was reading this book, researchers published a report that those of us with a great appetite for salt may be especially susceptible to heroin addiction, as both substances appear to share the same neural pathways.  Should I ever be offered some heroin, I must remember to reach instead for pretzels. Or sauerkraut. Or feta cheese, or brine-cured olives, or...


  1. ‎"For some reason, searching for 'salt' on Google nowadays turns up a lot of stuff about Angelina Jolie. Has she recently played Lot's wife in a Sodom & Gomorrah thriller, ending up as a pillar of salt? No? Hmm. Too bad. " LOL!!! Love love love! ♥ ♥ ♥

  2. Hey, I'm one of Angelina Jolie's fans!!! I know some people think she's weird, but she has a heart of gold. She was so touched by the plight of the orphans in Africa when she was filming there that she adopted three (I think) as her kids. She is now spending nearly all her free time to help the underpriviledged there. She is my heroine. :P


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