Salt: A World History, by Mark Kurlansky (Jonathan Cape)

Salary.  Soldier.  Salzburg.  Salacious.  A grain of salt lies at the heart of many words in our language.  Salt has, at different times in human history, been currency and salary, particularly in the ancient military; it has been the mainstay of towns and civilizations; and, strangely, it has been associated with fertility.  The Romans called a man in love salax, which means ‘in a salted state’, and many a French or German bridegroom went down the aisle with a handful of salt secreted on his person. 

This book is a fascinating collection of facts and anecdotes about the one rock eaten by humans.  Mark Kurlansky’s attempt to make a narrative of this collection shows its seams, and at times he overstates his case.  I am left with a hazy notion that not only was the American Revolution really occasioned by a salt dispute, but the French Revolution was, too.  Call me an amateur historian, but Kurlansky is on contentious ground here.  Every layperson knows that the American Revolution was in fact about tea – which Americans don’t even drink, or at any rate, know how to make properly; the French Revolution, on the other hand, was about cake (or, as they say in France, “gateau”), and the eating thereof.  Kurlansky conveniently glides over these facts.

But the facts he does uncover are illuminating.  On the seemingly haphazard placement of America’s secondary roads, for instance:  Kurlansky reveals that these roads are really widened trails, originally cut by animals looking for salt.  The animals stopped when they found a salt lick, and the road stopped there, too.  One such trail near Lake Erie was made by buffalo, and the salt lick they found, which became a settlement, is Buffalo, New York.  I wonder how many of Buffalo’s inhabitants know that.

Yet about some salty stories, Kurlansky is strangely silent. Ever since I was a child, and no doubt before, the Cerebos salt container has sported an image of a child trying to sprinkle salt on a bird’s tail.  I attempted this too, in the belief that it would prevent the bird from flying.  Why I would want to do this isn’t clear to me now, but where did this belief come from?  And why do people throw salt over their left shoulder?  Or is it their right shoulder?  Again, Kurlansky is silent.

Still, for its attractive hardcovers and abundance of information, this book is certainly worth its … oh, forget it.  Kurlansky, author of Cod, does for the ubiquitous condiment what he did for the ubiquitous fish, tracing its multifarious effects on human history and endeavour.  You just know where he will turn his attention next:  Potato will complete the picture; all of history, wrapped up in newspaper.

Christchurch Press

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Tim Tweets