Books

Still Reading – Salt: A World History

April 18, 2016

After a reading marathon over the holidays (as in Christmas, not April Fool’s Day), I have been in a bit, not a lot, of a reading slump. I tend to be a serial reader; I’ll take an author, series, genre, self-assigned thread, to the end of some imagined line and then I’ll hit a wall and need some time to recover. My brain shuts down for awhile, and nothing else can get in. I found myself engrossed with all things Tudor this past December, and since then? Reading…pfff. What is that even? Subtitle of this post: How Henry VIII Destroyed My Reading Life. Curse the patriarchy!

Okay, maybe it wasn’t just Henry and his bleeding boil. I’ve been in a bit of a transition since the start of the new year. I started a new job with a new organization, and man. I forgot how hard it is to start over someplace new. My position was also new, so it’s taken awhile to get in the groove and figure out my daily goings-on. But, I’m happy to report that things are not officially going on. I’m also happy to report that now that my mind seems to be more at ease, I have also been able to get back on my reading game. After four months of false starts and ignored holds at the library, Sarah has got her groove back on with (drumroll) Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky.

I have no idea why a book about the history of salt was THE book that finally roped me in. Perhaps it was the appeal of really understanding the backstory and production of this essential thing I use daily and have given absolutely no thought. It wasn’t someone else’s fantastical world I was trying to be enticed by, it wasn’t a biography of someone I sort of knew, it was knowledge about something I seek out every day.

As the title of my post suggests, at the time I am writing this I am only 65% of my way through the book (thanks, Kindle), but I wanted to pause to share some thoughts about it before I finish. The book is divided into three parts: an introduction to salt’s complicated production dating back to ancient China; a fairly extensive tour through the world’s history of salt production, politics, and control; and finally a scientific history of understanding salt as a chemical element, or elements. I’m currently in this final section. On its face the book may sound fairly dry, and it’s possible that in another phase of life I might have found it to be less than stellar, but right now it is beyond fascinating. I will also confess that it’s impossible to read the book and not want to go into my kitchen and, I don’t know, lick salt out of my hand, but,  maybe that’s just me. (For the record I have not actually done this, I just want to.)

The history of salt as a government controlled commodity was a little repetitive, not because Mark Kurlansky is a dull writer, but because what “they” say is true: history does have a tendency to repeat itself. Whoever had all the salt, or could produce all the salt, or maybe just buy all the salt, had all the power because salt was the only way people had to preserve food. Salted fish is credited with preventing many a famine in Europe, for example, and how else would you have preserved meat to eat later without refrigeration? Duh, salt. Salted goods were actually the more valuable commodity, which is to say that the most profitable export wasn’t salt itself, but the salted foods. The history of what, and how, various cultures salted was interesting, and I have picked up an obnoxious number of factoids along the way. History of ketchup, anyone? I’m saving all my favorite fun facts for  their own post because there are that many. Get ready.

The thing is, considering our economic history in relation to vital, controlled commodities isn’t just a narrow slice of history focused on that one commodity, and it’s been really interesting to ponder the fact that most of our “modern” struggles aren’t so modern after all. In the first century, the Chinese were debating the moral role of government in terms of controlling trade, and the idea of a state-regulated market for the profit of the state itself was already being debated. Aside from this, it’s interesting to ponder the domino effect of the salt industry. The search for salt brings the discovery of salt mines, which leads to the accidental discovery of natural gas, as salt miners mysteriously fall ill until someone realizes that there’s an invisible substance causing this reaction. Then someone else lights it (not sure why, but it seems oddly human to just set something unknown on fire), and poof. Gas for cooking. Bamboo shoots are lined with mud and the gas is redirected into boiling huts. (Note: I’m obviously paraphrasing here, so for the all the nitty gritty, and exact details, I’ll let Mark Kurlansky do the talking.)

Edited subtitle: How Henry VIII Destroyed My Reading Life, but Salt Saved the Day

So, stay tuned for more posts about salt, including, but probably not limited to: a rapidly expanding list of fun facts, the history of women and fermentation (the crazy historical views about women and menstruation), and everything in our modern life that has come to be because of the salt industry. Exciting stuff, I know.

*Photo credit: Leonid Mamchenkov

 

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