The history and understanding of the uses and properties of the many salts
of this world is a subject with tentacles reaching out in every direction. This is not
a book to take to the beach. Rather, it is an utterly absorbing, in-depth look at a
common, everyday substance.

Salt is necessary to human life and, therefore, to every culture on earth.
Towns and cities have been named for it: Salzburg and Salt Lake City; dozens
more are named for their saltworks. Mark Kurlansky writes, “Any place in
England where the name ends in a wich at one time produced salt.”

Salt was once thought to be involved with sex, but different cultures came to
different conclusions. Egyptian priests abstained from it (salt) because it was
thought to excite physical desire; a medieval wood block print shows wives
salting their husbands to ensure their virility.

Salt has been used to preserve everything from the human body (Egyptian
mummies) to food. It was, therefore, enormously important to trade. Areas
lacking it had to import it and fortunes were made on it going back to ancient
times. In the Bronze Age the Celts invented ham by preserving pork in salt.
Later, when Rome overtook Britain, Celtic salt became part of Rome’s wealth. Of
course, centuries before the West caught on, the Chinese had discovered the
uses of various salts and methods of extracting them from land and sea.

Here’s just one example of its importance to trade: In the 1200s the Genoese
bought salt on the Black Sea, in Africa, Cyprus, Crete and Ibiza. With that salt,
they made salami which they sold in the south of Italy for raw silk — which they
sold in Lucca for fabrics, which they sold in Lyon, the French silk center. There,
they picked up a fresh load of salt to carry home. “Wherever they went for trade,”
the author says, “they made a point of getting control of a saltworks at which to
load up for the return trip.”

The Spanish went a step further and took over the saltworks of each country
they conquered.

Because salt was necessary to the preservation of fish and beef, it was
enormously important to the British Navy and to American forces in the
Revolutionary War, the War of 1812 and the Civil War, not to mention a minor
revolt called the Whiskey Rebellion. The simple barter of Scotch whiskey for salt
(made by western Pennsylvania farmers) drew the attention of the government,
which started taxing the whiskey. When the outraged farmers rebelled, in 1791,
Kurlansky writes, President Washington “shocked the public by calling out a
militia” to put down the uprising.

Back to the salt mines, we say when we have to go back to work. That
saying grew out of working in the salt mines around Liverpool, England. Liverpool
salt was world famous, but the government’s insistence on its use in its colonies
where it was more expensive and taxable brought on revolution.

For 5,000 years, India had produced fine, white salt and traded it world-wide.
Nevertheless, in 1804 the British annexed the saltworks, forbade Indians to
gather, mine, or make salt, and forced them to buy their more expensive product.
This led to various uprisings, culminating in 1930 when Ghandi staged his first
effort at resisting British rule. He and seven others started walking 12 miles a
day, 240 miles to the sea. By the trip’s completion, thousands had joined him.
When he reached the shore, he bent down and picked up a chunk of evaporated
salt, thus breaking the Indian salt laws, which landed him in prison. By 1947, he
had set his country free.

Salt is at the core of many recipes: the French could not make their 265
kinds of cheese without it, nor the Germans sauerkraut. Think of carbonated
drinks, baked goods, and the various ways of cooking meat, fish and fowl.

The book is studded with recipes both useable and bizarre, as well as prints
and photographs.

America’s first and most important saltworks was on Cape Cod, where in
1793 a carpenter named Reuben Sears invented a roof on rollers for sea salt
vats that slid open so the salt could evaporate under the sun, then slide shut at
night and when it rained. When rain was imminent, whole towns: men, women
and schoolchildren raced to roll the roofs shut. By 1837 there were 658
companies on Cape Cod producing 26,000 tons of salt a year.

The Erie Canal was built primarily to ship salt from Salina, Ohio, to New York
by connecting the Great Lakes to the Hudson River.

Understanding the chemical nature of various salts led to the discovery of
artificially made salt, which led to the end of those rolling roofs and salt mines.
Chemists also found a way to make uniformly-sized crystals.

“Chemistry changed forever the way we see salt,” Kurlansky writes, “but it
was inventions in other fields that radically changed the role of salt in the world.”
First came canning (1803) invented by a Frenchman, then freezing as a means
of preservation. An American, Clarence Birdseye, while in Labrador trapping
furs, noticed that in wintertime, because fish froze immediately from the wind and
cold it stayed fresh until thawed. In 1925, he moved to Gloucester and started a
seafood-freezing company.

“Transportation was always the key to the salt business,” writes Kurlansky. In
1880, Joy Morton bought a fleet of lake boats and began shipping salt from New
York State to the Midwest via the Great Lakes. By 1910, he was buying up
saltworks all over the country. In 1911, he added magnesium silicate to salt,
which kept the crystals from sticking together. In 1925 he offered iodized salt.

Kurlansky’s book is thoroughly researched, remarkably detailed, and
engagingly written.