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Cover Review

With a Grain of Salt

SALT: A World History, By Mark Kurlansky, Walker & Co: 484 pp., $28

January 13, 2002|MERLE RUBIN

'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.'

Mark Kurlansky


Salt enhances food and aggravates hypertension. But beyond that, who gives it a second thought? When we go to the supermarket and buy a box of Morton's, we may think more about its slogan--"When it rains it pours"--than about what's inside. When we read about insulating nuclear waste in underground salt caverns or about de-icing roads after a blizzard, we may be reminded of its versatility, but few of us know much about its illustrious history. Civilizations have flourished and fallen upon the fortune of these small white grains.

Fortunately Mark Kurlansky knows all about it. As he did in his best-selling "Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World," Kurlansky continues to prove himself remarkably adept at taking a most unlikely candidate and telling its tale with epic grandeur.

"Salt: A World History" reveals all the hidden drama of its seemingly pedestrian subject. There is even a kind of poetry in the very chemistry of salt which Kurlansky conveys in his description of its most common form, sodium chloride: "When sodium, an unstable metal that can suddenly burst into flame, reacts with a deadly poisonous gas known as chlorine, it becomes the staple food sodium chloride, NaCl, from the only family of rocks eaten by humans."

Kurlansky's journey takes him from prehistoric times to the present day, to places such as China, India, Japan, Egypt, Israel, Morocco, West Africa, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Austria, Germany, France, England, Scandinavia, the Caribbean and the United States, currently the world's largest producer and consumer of salt. The story--or, rather, the many different stories--involving its production, transportation and use send him in a variety of directions--technology, geology, trade routes, politics, economics, anthropology, religion, cookery and chemistry--and make for an immensely entertaining read.

Though something of a problem for people advised by their doctors to use less of it, salt is an indispensable element of the human diet. How much salt the body needs and how much is too much remains unclear. What is known is that as hunters, humans got all the sodium they needed by eating meat, but with the switch to agriculture came the need to add salt to a grain and vegetable diet. (This dietary deficiency explains why deer and other herbivores gravitate to salt licks). To ancient agrarian civilizations such as those in China and Egypt, salt was as vital as water.

Not surprisingly, salt came to acquire a totemic significance. Perhaps because of its association with the teeming oceans, salt has been associated with fertility. The Romans called a man in love salax, in a salted state, the origin of the word salacious. In Germany, brides' shoes were sprinkled with salt, and in Egypt celibate priests abstained from salt because it was thought to excite sexual desire.

Just as often (clearly because of its ability to preserve), salt has been seen as embodying permanence, longevity and loyalty. Because it inhibits the growth of bacteria, salt is a popular food preservative, and the ancient Egyptians used it to mummify bodies. Elsewhere in Africa and in Japan, salt was thought to ward off evil spirits; in Haiti it was thought to bring zombies back to life.

In language, proverbs using salt suggest reliability and permanence. The Bible describes God's covenant with Israel as "a covenant of salt forever...." and in Islam and Judaism, Kurlansky tells us, "salt seals a bargain because it is immutable." In the secular realm, a solid, unpretentious, trustworthy person is "the salt of the Earth." A sensible individual knows to how to take exaggerated claims "with a grain of salt." A good employee is "worth his [or her] salt." Indeed, Roman soldiers were paid in salt, the origin of the word "salary." And we shouldn't forget the salt that went into "salami" and "salad."

Only in the 20th century did the importance of salt begin to decrease. Geologists discovered that salt could be found not only in brine beds and a few salt mines but almost everywhere on Earth and, thanks to canning, freezing and refrigeration, salt is no longer our primary means of preserving food. Nowadays, the fate of salt has taken an ignominious turn, with its primary use de-icing roads.

"Today," Kurlansky philosophizes, "thousands of years of coveting, fighting over, hoarding, taxing, and searching for salt appear picturesque and slightly foolish. The seventeenth-century British leaders who spoke with urgency about the dangerous national dependence on French sea salt seem somehow more comic than contemporary leaders concerned with a dependence on foreign oil. In every age, people are certain that only the things they have deemed valuable have true value."

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