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Salt | Grain of Life Review By David Williams

Two new works tell the spicy story of salt

Review By David Williams
Special to The Seattle Times

 

On March 12, 1930, a 61-year-old man began a 240-mile long, 25-day march to obtain a pinch of salt from the coast of the Arabian Sea. When he arrived, he walked into the sea and splashed water on himself in a rite of purification. He then turned around, waded back on shore, and picked up a chunk of coarse salt

With this small act, Gandhi, who had begun the walk with 78 followers and now led thousands, broke the law and helped jump start the Indian fight for independence from the British. We who live in the era of Morton Salt may not relate to the role salt has played in revolution and war. But until the 20th century, salt was one of the world's most important resources — or so argue Mark Kurlansky and Pierre Laszlo in their books, "Salt: A World History" and "Salt: Grain of Life," respectively.

Although the books share a similar title and often cover the same salt-related events, they take distinctly different approaches. Kurlansky, author of the well-received "Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World," has written a 450-page tome, focusing mostly on cultural history with numerous forays into food.

His book follows a time line, tracing salt use from the Chinese and Egyptians, through medieval Europe, the American Revolution and the Civil War, and ultimately culminates with the modern fascination with exotic salt in cooking. It is thoroughly researched, filled with arcane and interesting facts, and (for the most part) a pleasure to read. Early chapters, where he shows several times that people valued salt, struggled to obtain it, and cured food with it, are a bit repetitious, but after establishing the basics, the book moves along.

Laszlo, a professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Liege, Belgium, does not follow a linear route. He bounces from discussions of language to science to economics to art history. Laszlo calls his book an "ignorant treatise" that "indulges in exploring byways, in finding shortcuts, and in seeking harmony of language with the world." As such, you feel as if you are on a voyage with a slightly eccentric uncle who keeps heading down strange alleyways only to re-emerge where he started. You always have to stay on your toes and pay attention, but the effort is worth it.

The main importance of salt was its ability to preserve organic matter. Through osmosis, salt draws out harmful bacteria and absorbs moisture, and allows a food product that would have gone rancid to remain edible for months or years. The Egyptians appear to have been the first to discover this, but cultures around the world made use of salt to preserve anything from meat to vegetables to pharaohs.

Salt played a critical role not only because of its utility but because of its scarcity. A simple childhood experiment of letting saltwater evaporate shows how one can obtain salt, but what if you need pounds of it or do not live near saltwater? People long ago figured out how to boil saltwater for salt, how to make large evaporation ponds and how to mine it, but these processes were slow, labor intensive and often weather dependent.

More critically, the state often controlled the production and transport of salt.

Only in modern times has salt become affordable and widespread, with the United States alone producing more than 40 million metric tons per year. Ironically, salt, which was once so valuable that Roman soldiers were paid with it, is now mostly used for de-icing roads in our country, an ignoble state for a product with such a rich and world changing history.

After reading either of these books, however, you will not tke this humble substance so lightly.