Who knew that the everday kitchen compound we call salt was once a form of currency?
Mark Kurlansky did, and he painstakenly documented that and many other random facts in Salt: A World History. The book is detailed look at the crystalline compound we all know and love, from its early days as a form of high-value currency, to its present place in our kitchens, yards, and vocabulary.
I picked up the book because it, like its sister work Cod, was met with rave reviews and spent some time on the NYTimes best sellers list. Some of the highlights:
It's true that before it became commonplace in the home, salt was a highly-valued commodity, often used as currency. In a time before refrigeration and processed foods, salt was a critical component in food preservation, and was a high-priced luxury. In fact, salt cellars on the table were the sign of a wealthy home; they often took elaborate forms that today are considered valuable works of art (like this Cellini salt cellar).
Salt mines were so elaborate during the 1600s that royalty would descend t0 the mine's core where they would dine in rooms carved entirely from salt, view chapels carved out of salt rock, and use chandeliers carved from salt crystals.
In time, developments in agriculture and canning meant food could be produced and stored throughout the year, decreasing man's reliance on salt for preservation. And while it is no longer considered a high-priced or scarce resource, salt is still ingrained (ha) in our daily lives.
The human body needs salt to function; it helps muscles and nerves work, and regulates blood pressure.
Many common words in our vocabulary are derived from the word salt (or, the Latin sal, to be exact); among them:
- salad (originally, salted greens)
- salary (money given to Roman soldiers to buy salt)
- salacious (for years, salt was thought to be associated with fertility, and thus "salacious" and "salty" became synonyms for lustful)
- salami (seasoned sausage)
Anglo Saxons called a saltwork a wich, so many of the salt-producing towns in England earned names with the -wich suffix (e.g., Sandwich). (I'm not sure if our present day towns with this suffix trace their histories to salt-production, or are simply carry-overs of European names).
And there are thousands of other uses for the compound, like de-icing roads, cleaning tarnished silver, and relieving tired feed, to name a few.
So salt is a pretty fascinating substance. And while Kurlansky does a good job of bringing these things to light, I found his book tedious at times, and a bit unfocused. Mention of a particular salt-based cuisine, for example, spiralled into a discourse about the region of the world in which it was created, or a related crop or food product (e.g., talk of its early use in Chinese soy sauce led to a lengthy discussion about the soy bean, and Marco Polo's visit to Kublai Khan in China). No doubt intended to amplify the lowly compound's place in history, I found these tangents distracting from the story at hand.