Sunday, May 06, 2007

An Abundance of Riches

Salt: A World History, by Mark Kurlansky, Read by Scott Brick, Phoenix Audio, 2006

Mark Kurlansky is a historical writer who does what one reviewer referred to as the “little-big” style of writing, that is to say, he takes something little and often overlooked and from it he spins out larger truths about society and the world. To say that he does this well would be an understatement.

Salt: A World History, his fascinating history of this overlooked cooking seasoning, makes a couple very good points in its introduction. Because of its current cheapness and easy availability, we nowadays tend to forget that wars were fought, empires rose and fell, and fortunes were made and lost all on the basis of salt. Entire buildings have been constructed of salt, methods of transportation have been begun for moving salt, religious rituals around the world make use of salt, and it is the only rock we eat.

Nearly everyone I’ve mentioned the book too gives me the same look. A book about salt? that look says. How could that possibly be interesting? By skipping the overly technical aspects and much of the scientific elements involved in salt, save for the token mention that salt is comprised of a explosive metal and a poisonous gas, Kurlansky has written the kind of book that would fascinate nearly anyone who simply tried reading it. A much drier history could be written that was more cohesive if you wished to focus on one specific element, such as the development of salt procurement technologies, replete with graphs and tables. Instead, Kurlansky has written a lively book that moves about with rapidity and brio, never bogging down in any area.

While at times the author seems to suggest a little too freely that salt was the main ingredient in important historical revolutions (the American, the French, Ghandi’s in India), he does at least add this element so lacking in most other stories. If his partisanship as a salt historian has him shaking his salt cellar a little too aggressively over world events, consider it a corrective. Where he might have spent a little more time near the book’s conclusion is the environmental impacts of road salt and the increasing salinization of fresh water sources from this and due to rising sea water levels.

Since the book is an abundance of fun anecdotal portraits, and having dispensed mostly with my critical duties, I thought it would be more fun to share some of the better bits of trivia collected in Salt. Perhaps by a sampling, it could be more widely understood just how entertaining a book like this can be.

Kurlansky begins in ancient China and works his way to modern times relatively straight chronologically. The Tang dynasty in China received over half of its revenue from salt, leading to such showy displays as offering pure salt at the dinner table in a little ceramic salt cellar. What is basic on our tables was considered the height of extravagance once.
Most of the ancient practices for salt collection, such as filling a clay jar with brine, then letting the water evaporate out, then refilling with brine until the accumulated salt filled the jar, then smashing the jar open, persisted for thousands of years. The oldest human remnants in North America are such jar shards. On a large scale, this was done with a series of artificial ponds, brine pumped into one, set to evaporate for several months, then that water pumped into another lake to be replaced with fresh brine and so on. There are also, all over the world, brine springs and large pure veins of salt in the earth.

This early form of salt, irregular and large chunky crystals, impurities in the supply leading to discolorations, prone to clumping as well as oozing brine in humidity, was prized nonetheless. It often served as a means of trade and was bartered for other goods.

Near Salzburg (“Salt Town”), a collapse of a mountain in the middle ages uncovered a well preserved salt miner dating back to 400 BC, completely preserved even down to his leather pouch and brightly colored fabrics. Three miners were found in total, these were known to the Romans as Gauls (“Salt people”). These celtic types spread out as far as possible, going as far as being found perfectly preserved in Asian salt mines.

The Roman Empire (after defeating the Gauls and absorbing all their salt technology, their salted meat recipes, among other things) was the first peoples to declare common salt, that is, salt as a right belonging to all citizens. Most Italian cities were founded along nearby salt works. The first great Roman road, the Via Saleria has a name that might give it a clue as to what was behind its construction.

Salt was such an important part of Roman culture that two rather popular words in English still used today date from their original usage. The etymology of the word “salary” comes from the Romans paying their men in salt. To pay the large Roman army on the nearly continual German campaigns, generals would often set up salt evaporation ponds. Roman salt works lasted for centuries, some of them being taken over by the French monarchy and used in the 1300s.

Likewise, the origin of the word “salad” is from the Roman habit of salting their green vegetables to moderate the bitter taste, the word meaning “salted.” That one still buys canned green beans among other vegetables with salt already added is a testament to our tastes having long roots.

Later Venetian city state power was built on salt. Merchants there realized that selling and trading salt was actually more profitable than salt harvesting, and thus outsourced the salt production to Indians and Chinese and others. All imported salt supplied by Venice had to pass through the government for regulation, taxation, etc. As the money came rolling in, the Venetians had to expand their buying and their navy sailed farther and farther afield. The Venetian navy doubled as a military force and would police the Mediterranean, seizing ships and searching them for illegal salt transportation. Perhaps their most famous traveler would be Marco Polo who traveled along the Silk Road and met Kubla Khan.

Further north, Parma, the home to Italy’s dairy industry is also known for its delicious hams, cured and salted in the open air where a good dry wind passes through. The hogs in Parma were fed from milk whey from cows raised in Parma. The lesser quality meats were shipped to a nearby town where they were ground up and turned into salami, the name of which should seem, by now, familiar.

This mixing of meat and salt forms a great bulk of the book. When Kurlansky gets specifically to the mixing of salt and fish, we spend a bit of time retreading his earlier book Cod, an equally fascinating account of a food’s history. Having read Cod first, much of this portion was repetitive, including even salted fish recipes. (An amusing aspect of some of these Renaissance recipes is inclusion of such instructions as “serve in a clean dish.”)

Fish itself became a Friday food because of the Catholic Church’s expansion of “fast days” on which one was also supposed to abstain from sex. Red meat was seen as a “hot meat” and thus had sexual connotations, while aquatic meat were considered “cool” and thus unlikely to provoke salacious thinking. The legal penalty for eating meat on Friday in England was hanging and this law stood on the books until King Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church.

For those who have often wondered why “corned beef” is so named “corned,” the answer can be found when we turn our attentions toward Britain and its sailors. This name in fact arises from British sailors’ habit of referring to large salt crystal chunks as “corn bits.” Thus, heavily salted beef cooked with these large pieces came to be known as “corned.”

Liverpool was England’s most important salt port. From there, imports traded for salt entered the nation and salt itself left the empire to be sold everywhere, established societies praising the British products fine, white, regular crystals. Although Liverpool was not one, the Romans had established several salt sites throughout their colony of Britain, sometimes merely taking over the original Celtic sites and sometimes establishing their own. In a later migratory linguistic moment, we find that the Anglo-Saxon word “wich” meant “salt,” thus any city ending its name in “wich” such as Norwich is thus the site of a salt mine or brine spring.

In North America, most of the south western tribes had a salt deity, usually a goddess, to whom they sacrificed prior to going on salt hunts to brine springs. Almost every settlement in pre-Columbian America were near brine springs or other sources of salt even though salt played a relatively smaller role in their diets than in the Europeans settlers. The Aztecs ruled the local salt mines and brine springs and their fall came from the Spanish taking over the salt production. The Mayans were in collapse by the time Europeans arrived, in part due to the poor returns on their salt industry.

In the American Revolution, salt would come to play am important role. With the supply of Liverpool salt obviously cut off, the very first patent issued in the United States was for a refinement on salt production. Several battles engaged in by George Washington were to secure and hold the American salt production locales and supplies. Several measures were passed by the Continental Congress advocating salt production in each colony. Pamphlets were published and distributed freely among the colonists for bay salt production. Exemptions were offered to salt works letting their workers out of military service; New Jersey would allow each facility to exempt up to ten men.

This importance extended itself in history through the American Civil War as well. Secession exposed the South’s desperate lack of salt works. The Union blockade from England was designed to prevent the importation of Liverpool salt through the port of New Orleans. An army essentially could not subsist without salted meat which prevented spoilage and allowed for long marches. Wherever they marched, Union armies attacked Confederate salt works and when captured, they destroyed them. When the Confederates captured (or retook) a salt works, they celebrated. This shortage of salt is best demonstrated when Lee surrendered to Grant. As part of terms, he asked the conquering general for food, stating that his soldiers hadn’t eaten in two days.

Prior to the Civil War and just after the American Revolution, the Erie Canal’s backers and the surveyor who pushed the idea, presenting it first to President Thomas Jefferson then later to New York business interests after Jefferson denied them, were salt manufacturers. It was eventually built and one of its main products shipped was salt. The Trans-Ohio Canal from the Ohio River to Cleveland carried nothing but salt.

Nearby a ten-mile stretch of the Kanawha River through what is now West Virginia managed to set up the best salt works in America, giving the earlier established Onedega salt works in New York a run for its money. Cincinnati grew as a city, grew from salt pork due to Ohio grown hogs and Kanawha salt. Eventually, the Kanawha salt makers were crushed by the New York Onedega salt works’ friends in government who passed laws making it harder for the Virginia firm to compete.

Back overseas, The British East India Company’s salt policy, featuring the usual bad elements such as high taxes and a brutal enforcement policy, prohibitions on salt production at one point (when the Indian salt works produces cheaper salt than Liverpool), and a deaf ear to poverty, eventually got noticed by a small fellow named Ghandi. His salt campaign was launched through the India National Congress. He marched to the Indian Ocean with 78 followers (the number rising to thousands) and after a ritual purification, he waded to the shore and scooped up a large crystal of salt, thus breaking the British laws. All over India, people began scooping up salt, making salt, mining salt. In that single moment, that single act, the British lost their colony for all time.

Similarly, much earlier in history, one of the French Revolutionary National Assembly’s first actions was to repeal a much hated salt tax and to free from the prisons those who had been punished for offending or resisting the salt police force. This unsavory lot of men were in charge of enforcing the unpopular and unfair tax, and they often did battle with salt smugglers. One of the armed insurrections was considered a seed of the Revolution. The storming of the Bastille set free any number of salt smugglers and resistors.
Salt has always been a part of our history. Without it, health suffers; with too much of it health suffers. How much is good for you and how much is bad for you seems very particular based on where you live, your activity level, and your genetics. Kurlansky addresses this in closing, but it’s just circles. The exact formula can probably never be argued with certainty due to any number of factors playing a role, but what is without question is that salt, that simple little rock, so common today as to be given away freely at restaurants, is still important and will always be important.

In the way the world works, circularly, the various colored, irregular salt crystals of the past, which were spurned when whiter, purer salt was regularized and when consistency of shape and size was prized, are now seen as artisanal salts. They have now become the expensive style salt whereas they used to be cheaper salt eaten by the poor. The coloration of the salt is merely an indication of differing kinds of dirt in the product. Pure, regular white salt crystals are now the salt of the poor. What comes around goes around.

Reader Scott Brick smoothly moves us through the story with his usual light dry touch. Bravo.

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