Mark Kurlansky: Salt: A World History (Penguin, 2002)

I bought the rock in Spanish Catalonia…. it was, after all, despite a rosy blush of magnesium, almost pure salt, a piece of the famous salt mountain of Cardona. The various families that had occupied the castle atop the next mountain had garnered centuries of wealth from such rock.
I took it home and kept it on a windowsill. One day it got rained on, and white salt crystals started appearing on the pink. My rock was starting to look like salt, which would ruin its mystique. So I rinsed off the crystals with water. Then I spent fifteen minutes carefully patting the rock dry. By the next day it was sitting in a puddle of brine that had leached out of the rock. The sun hit the puddle of clear water. After a few hours, square white crystals began to appear in the puddle. Solar evaporation was turning brine into salt crystals.
For a while it seemed I had a magical stone that would perpetually produce brine puddles. Yet the rock never seemed to get smaller. Sometimes in dry weather it would appear to completely dry out, but on a humid day, a puddle would again appear under it. I decided I could dry out the rock by baking it in a small toaster oven. Within a half hour white stalactites were drooping from the toaster grill. I left the rock on a steel radiator cover, but the brine threatened to corrode the metal. So I transferred it to a small copper tray. A green crust formed on the bottom, and when I rubbed off the discoloration, I found the copper had been polished.
My rock lived by its own rules. When friends stopped by, I told them the rock was salt, and they would delicately lick a corner and verify that it tasted just like salt.
Those who think a fascination with salt is a bizarre obsession have simply never owned a rock like this.

To those of us who buy a 2-pound canister of salt every couple of years (maybe every four or five years, if we do little cooking) and leave it on the topmost shelf until the saltshaker needs refilling, it seems a bizarre notion that salt often determined the population centers and shifting fortunes of the ancient and medieval world. For those of us who have been cautioned about excess salt in the modern diet, it’s surprising that lack of salt halted armies and dissipated cities. And where salt is freely available on every table in America, we have to remember that salt production, transport, and trade was, for several thousand years, the primary occupation of a sizable percentage of humanity, when it was far more life-and-death than seasoning a french fry.

Kurlansky’s book puts salt at the center of every society, from ancient Chinese administration and the Mayan empire to medieval Europe to the American Civil War and Indian independence. It’s not a casual-reading book. I could spend three to six months using this as a text central to a host of other sources on world history and science (and it would require other sources; this presentation is often more broad than deep). A quick read was all I had time (and mental stamina; I’m still pretty befuddled) for right now, so I’m mostly going to stick to the “fun stuff” in this post. But be assured, there’s plenty more within the pages.

What “fun stuff” could salt provide, you may wonder? How about the underground salt cathedrals, just outside Krakow, Poland:

In 1689, the mines began offering miners daily Catholic services at their underground place of work. The miners of Wieliczka begin carving religious figures out of rock salt. Three hundred feet below the surface, miners carved a chapel out of rock salt with statues and bas relief scenes along the floor, walls, and ceiling. They even fashioned elaborate chandeliers from salt crystals.
Increasingly, the mine had visitors. In the early 17th century, as in Durnberg, the Crown began to bring special guests, mostly royalty. They came to dance in ballrooms, dine in carved dining rooms, be rowed in underwater lagoons. In 1830, the Wieliczka Salt Mine Band, which still performs, was started because of the quality of the acoustics in the mine.

Not only is the Band still available, you can visit the mine on your next trip to Europe, and even hold your wedding or business meeting in the rooms carved from salt.

Ancient China was, like most societies, deeply invested in salt, and provide some interesting perspectives. Soy sauce was invented as a way to stretch the preservative and culinary power of salt; it started out as fermented fish sauce, with soybeans added for bulk. Later, the fish was dropped, though it was retained in Southeast Asia. Salt and Iron government monopolies were a long-term source of debate through several early dynasties. And perhaps most interestingly, Kurlansky tells of the brine wells, dug in Sichuan about 250 BCE, where workers would sometimes become ill and even die, or where occasional explosions would occur. Within a few hundred years, the Chinese learned to tame the evil spirits causing these misfortunes by a system of bamboo pipes channeling them to boiling houses where they lit flames to evaporate the brine into salt. This is considered the first use of natural gas in the world. It wasn’t for a couple of millennia, until geology became established as a science, that we learned how underground salt deposits trap organic material, leading to the frequent partnership of salt and oil or gas. In fact, Texas became an oil state when companies drilling for salt discovered oil instead.

Egypt’s salty contribution to the world was, of course, mummification (which used natron rather than sodium chloride) and, culinarily, the olive. It seems olive oil was widely used for thousands of years throughout the Mediterranean region, but olives themselves were considered inedible until some Egyptian discovered they were edible if soaked in brine. But it turns out the best olives for oil are not the best olives for eating, so one had to decide.

Salt was a valuable commodity, so mines turned up in Europe as well. Some of the earliest mines, around the time Julius Caesar approached Gaul, were tended by Celts. This was all pretty normal, until a more recent discovery:

Only in the 1990s did Westerners become aware of the mummies that had been found in the Uyghur Autonomous Region of China. …As with the early Egyptian burials that are 1000 years older, the corpses have been preserved by the naturally salty soil.
….These unknown People were in appearance notably similar to the large blue eyed blonde Celtic warriors described by the Romans almost two millennia later. Their conical felt hats and twill jackets bore a close resemblance to those of the salt miners in Hallein and Hallstatt – not unlike the much later plaids of the Scottish Highlands.…Textile historian Elizabeth Wayland Barber concluded that even the weave was nearly identical workmanship. Why Celts might have been in the salty desert of Asia many centuries before there were known to be Celts remains a mystery.
In the centuries when the Celtic culture was documented, beginning 1300 years after these seemingly Celtic bodies were buried in Asian salt, they did trade and travel great distances, usually selling salt from their rich central European mines.

Kurlansky’s book was published while investigation of these mummies was just beginning. As time goes on, it gets more complicated, with subsequent research bringing in Tocharian linguistics, DNA analysis, and political tragedy (yes, that Uyghur).

Salt became much less necessary after the development of canning and refrigeration/freezing technology. Salt led to other discoveries, such as potash and chlorine bleach. It was a former salt baron, Edmund McIlhenny, who, his salt fortunes in now useless Confederate dollars after the Civil War, happened upon capsicum peppers from Mexico, and created… Tabasco sauce.

The United States is both the largest salt producer and the largest salt consumer. It produces over 40,000,000 metric tons of salt the year, which earns more than one billion in sales revenue. …But little of this is table salt. In the United States, only 8% of salt production is for food. The largest single use of American salt, 51 percent, is for deicing roads.

Plot twist: After millennia of harvesting salt from the earth and sea, we are now putting it back. Some future historian might wonder why.

Kurlansky has written a few dozen books on a variety of interesting subjects, including paper, milk, the Basques, and an album of international culinary adventures with his daughter as they spin the globe and cook a meal from whatever pops up. I’m perhaps more taken with Simon Garfield’s style (and inclusion of far more diagrams, maps, and visual examples of the topic at hand), but don’t be surprised if one of these – perhaps Paper or International Night – shows up on these pages at some point.

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