Toronto Globe and Mail Saturday, January 26, 2002
Salt’s savoury story
Reviewed By Zsuzsi Gartner
Salt: A World History
By Mark Kurlansky
Knopf Canada, 496 pages, $34.95
Salt: Grain of Life
By Pierre Laszlo
Translated by Mary Beth Mader
Columbia University Press,
194 pages, $35.50
Somewhere high above New York’s Rockefeller Plaza in an AOL
Time Warner boardroom, the movie of the century (never mind that
the century is still a toddler and not yet toilet-trained) is being
discussed. Someone in a nubbly prosciutto-toned linen Nehru jacket
who just flew in from L.A. is talking epic, is talking spin-offs, is
talking tie-ins, is talking action figures, is talking point-of-purchase,
is talking about the ching-ching-ching of a hundred thousand cash registers singing. “Okay, so we have
Sinbad meets The Last Emperor meets The Ten Commandments meets Gladiator meets The Scarlet
Pimpernel meets Gone With the Wind meets Gandhi meets Giant meets The China Syndrome and Erin
Brockovitch with heavy dashes of Babette’s Feast and Emeril Live!”
The author of the property in question, sitting hitherto unnoticed on a
chair by the window, slides to the floor. “Get the smelling salts!”
someone yells—because they once heard this in a movie and
because, well, some salt in the proceedings at this juncture seems
Mark Kurlansky’s almost 500-page opus on earth’s
only edible rock is the stuff of which epics are born. Basque and
Viking ships ply the seas seeking and trading salt; the Chinese come
up with myriad innovations involving the quest for salt (including
drilling and gunpowder); the Hebrews seal covenants with salt;
the first great Roman road, the Via Salaria (Salt Road) is built to
transport salt, and the words “soldier” and “salary” originate with
the Latin word for salt; the history of the Americas is constant warfare over salt, which plays a role in the
War of Independence as well as the U.S. Civil War; Gandhi’s almost mythic “salt satyagraha”(march to
the sea) begins the process of India’s independence; the drilling for salt leads to the petroleum age when
an enormous oil reserve is discovered at a Texas salt dome.
As well, the pollution from salt works and toxicby-products like
PCBs and CFCs have contributed their share of environmental de-gradation, and there are currently
controversial notions afoot about sealing nuclear waste in abandoned salt mines, which some say are not
as leak-proof as previously thought.
Kurlansky is a New York food writer who had a sleeper hit a few
years back with Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the
World. Salt cod was the foodstuff on which entirenavies and
economies rose and fell for centuries, and it seems
natural enough that Kurlansky has moved on to the substance that made it possible for cod to acquire the
status it did in the first place.
His goal is to show how salt has shaped civilization since the
earliest times, a grand goal that’s signalled with epigraphs from
Karl Marx and AdamSmith, and they’re not talking about salt. One of
the most interesting aspects of the book is salt’s role in economics,
particularly as one of the first necessities of life ever taxed. The most
reviled salt tax of all was France’s hated gabelle. Begun piecemeal in the
13th century,by 1660 it was a leading source of state revenues and spawne
still legendarys alt smugglers and a series of revolts.
I had a nagging feeling Kurlansky was overstating salt’s
predominance in world affairs (in much the same way my mother
used to try to convince us that anyone who’d ever accomplished anything of note was actually originally
For example, “To the British admiralty, the solution to a lack of sea
salt was to acquire through war or diplomacy places that could produce it.” But both Margaret Visser, in
her 1986 book of social anthropology, Much Depends on Dinner, and Pierre Laszlo, in his just published
treatise on salt, underscore the phenomenal historical importance of salt.
“To obtain salt,” Visser writes, “[man] has erected whole political and economic systems; he has fought,
built, destroyed, extorted, and haggled.”
Table salt’s role has radically decreased in modern times (the victim of canning, refrigeration, frozen foods
and health scares), and the role of salt byproducts increased, but the human craving for salt continues. I
love what Toronto playwright Michael Healey told this newspaper recently about what he needs for a
decent working day:
“It’s all about groceries, it’s all about having a decent mix of salty and sweet.”
Kurlansky includes fascinating recipes from some of the world’s
earliest cookbooks, including one credited to Apicus from the first century AD. Some of the dishes still
sound fabulous (like a mouth-watering salt cod pie from Robert May’s The Accomplisht Cook, 1685),
while others are somewhat less than PC
(saltedporpoise, anyone?). Also interesting are the stories about the
genesis of soy sauce, Tabasco sauce, Roquefort cheese, sauerkraut and ham.
But Kurlansky spends much too much time mired in the exhaustive
details of the processes of harvesting and mining salt over the centuries. I found myself crying “Uncle!”
during a lengthy section on a Cheshire salt works. What’s largely missing from the book is what Pierre
Laszlo calls “the consolations of myth.” After all, epics are fuelled by myths, are they not?
Laszlo’s Salt: Grain of Life, on the other hand, is a slender, impish
concoction. Not the kind of book about salt that you might expect
from a French chemistry professor. To say this is a
quirky book is like saying Rita Hayworth was an okay-looking gal.
Laszlo sets as his goal not a “learned treatise,” one that follows a
linear logic, but an “ignorant treatise,” one that takes shortcuts
and “indulges in exploring byways.”
Salt: Grain of Life is Calvino-esque in many ways -- filled with lightness, delightful tangents,
postmodernist hijinks. In the first pages, there are references to Carl Sandburg, Marcel Duchamp, Francis
Ponge, Primo Levi and Luis Bunuel. And although Calvino himself isn’t cited, his fellow playful Oulipo
members George Perec and Raymond Queneau are.
Proverbs and lexical zaniness appear throughout, including a two-page dissection of the Morton salt logo,
and a bizarre six-page digression on a Stendhal quote about crystallization and salt mines. Laszlo uses the
topic of saltcellars as an opportunity to write about
artists and design and IKEA and Philippe Starck and
to bemoan the homogenizing effects of the Industrial Revolution.
Laszlo does write about the economics and politics of salt: the hated
French gabelle, New England salt works, Gandhi’s march to the sea,
the chemical properties of table salt and its evil cousins PCBs and CFCs, and “the slow, gradual, and
almost insidious passage of the power exerted by seemingly innocent, lily-white salt—to the multinational
corporations presently running our global village"--
but what he seems most keen on is the language of salt.
The folks at AOL Time Warner may not be too interested in optioning Salt: Grain of Life anytime soon,
but just imagine what a guy like Bunuel could have done with this book.
Contributing reviewer Zsuzsi Gartner had stories in the recent anthologies Write Turns: New Directions
in Canadian Fiction and Islands West.