Monday, November 26, 2007

Salt: A World History

Salt: A World History, by Mark Kurlansky
$10.88 at Amazon.com
ISBN: 0142001619
This is a fascinating work of non-fiction that reads as easily as a novel. It visits dozens of cultures around the world and through time, yet somehow never gets too bogged down in details or becomes tiresome. It was quite popular a few years ago, but I'm posting on it today in case some of you missed the craze.
Salt has been necessary for human civilization since prehistoric man began herding animals (animals need salt licks to live in captivity). In all ages, salt has been invested with a significance far exceeding its natural properties. Homer called it a divine substance, and
Plato claimed it was eaten by the gods.
Salt has been considered a miracle drug, an aphrodisiac, and a magical talisman. It has had, literally, thousands of uses for billions of people.
Our story begins in ancient China, where salt is used to make pickled vegetables, a food staple. Soon it is also used to cure meat, the only way to store it before the invention of refrigeration. In Egypt it is quickly used to preserve decomposing corpses; Natron salt is an essential ingredient
in their famous mummies.
To the Romans, salt was a necessary part of empire building, and it is to them that we owe the tradition of putting a salt-shaker on the dinner table. At times, soldiers were even paid in salt, which was the origin of the word salary and the expression "worth his salt". Jesus famously described his followers as "the salt of the earth".
In the New World, salt plays a surprising role in the Revolutionary
War and the early history of the United States. Demand for the mineral motivated the founding fathers to build the Erie Canal, allowing its cheap transport from the town of Salinas to New York for sale and export. The prosperity created by the canal brought stability to the young nation and expanded its culture inland, from the coast to the Great Lakes.
My favorite chapter involves a visit to the Dead Sea, arguably the most unusual body of water on Earth because its high salt content
has made the water thick and oily. Almost anything can float on the Dead Sea. Its proximity to Jerusalem and other holy sites makes it a key player, geographically.
We learn a lot about the process of salt production, but Kurlansky keeps the science manageable and easy to follow. This is a very interesting and creative book, fun to read, and impressive for turning a seemingly mundane topic into an epic spanning centuries and continents.
Check this one out. It's fast-paced, fun, and truly educational.

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