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January 17, 2007


A World History
Mark Kurlansky – ISBN – 9780142001615

One would hardly believe that an entire volume could be written about the history of salt. After reading this, one reflects upon how hard it must have been to edit to avoid a 1,000 page tome. While true anywhere in the world:

• “Studying a road map of almost anywhere in North America, noting the whimsical non-geometric pattern of the [roads, one] could reasonably assume that the towns were placed and interconnected haphazardly without any scheme or design. [Not true] because the roads are simply widened footpaths and trails, and these trails were originally cut by animals looking for salt.”

• “The history of the Americas is one of constant warfare over salt. Whoever controlled salt was in power. This was true before Europeans arrived and it continued to be the reality until after the American Civil War.”

Throughout history salt has been a basis of considerable tax revenue since it is a commodity required by all. Empires have been built upon it, wars fought over it, and trade routes controlled to secure its supply. “He who controlled salt controlled regions. Jericho, the oldest city in the world was always a center of salt trade--for 10,000 years!

Venice flourished because of its dominance in salt distribution (50% of Venetian import tonnage was salt.) Venetians used the profits from salt to subsidize shipping of other commodities, thus undercutting competitors. In the Caribbean, shipped tonnage in salt exceeded that of sugar, molasses and rum. Indeed, the first patent in the new world was a ten year monopoly to the recipient “to employ his ideas on salt production.”

One of the most devastating losses from the American Revolution was, both during and after the war, the loss of the nation’s salt supply . . . it had depended on England, and was deprived. In the civil war, the south, having forgotten, experienced the same deprivation. Before the war salt was 0.25 cents per pound; near its end salt was over 3 cents . . . when you could get it.

While not the only issue, salt was the poster issue for the French revolution, and for India’s demand for independence. It was the primary reason that the Erie Canal was developed.

Salt concentrations are often near oil concentrations. Indeed oil was found in Texas when drilling for salt . . . while the Goderich Petroleum Company became the Goderich Salt Company when--drilling for oil--they found an enormous deposit of pure salt.

For much of history salt was a precious commodity, most commonly derived form the reduction of brine solutions with heat provided by the sun or fuel. The salt makers of Cheshire England deforested their entire area for fuel, blackened the skies with clouds of smoke, rendered pastureland barren from salt scale residue, while the earth was collapsing (from removal of the salt deposits) beneath the cities.

“The quest for salt turned unexpected corners and created dozens of industries” . . . including, importantly, better sources of salt, which made the product incredibly cheap. Once scarce, it is now one of the most widely available necessities on the planet. As it has been replaced as a preservative its use has been sought in other areas; over 50% of the salt used in the U.S. is for highway safety in winter; only eight percent is used for food production

Throughout the book Kurlansky cleverly, and interestingly, segues into regional peculiarities in cheese manufacture, offers recipes—ancient and modern—and discusses the importance of salt in western civilization. “Salt made it possible to get the rich bounty of northern seas to the poor people of Europe.” Salt cod and herring authored the doubling of protein intake for poor Europeans between the 16th and 18th centuries. The original British “katchup” was a salty anchovy sauce.

He also discusses the many kinds of salt and the various uses thereof, e.g., saltpeter in the manufacture of gun powder. Zillions of dollars and thousands of years have been spent improving the quality, purity and available of salts of all kinds.

Ironically, he notes: “after thousands of years of struggle to make salt white and even grained, affluent people now pay [a premium] for salts that are odd shapes and colors.”

Who says people don’t have too much money?

Posted by respeto at January 17, 2007 4:10 PM