the kitchen reader: salt

by Stacy

The May selection for The Kitchen Reader book club was Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky, chosen by me.

Salt: A World History is exactly that — a history of salt, its significance, its impact, and its uses around the world. The book is like reading an encyclopedia with only the paragraphs related to salt highlighted. By page 150 I was still waiting for it to “get good,” and I still had almost 350 pages to go. It was a library book that I renewed and still returned late — and I’m a fast reader.

Salt‘s scope is its undoing. Too much information, too many countries, too much skipping around, and too many pages made it a challenging read. I’m even having trouble writing this post because there’s so much to write about. Taking notes helped; maybe I should have started that before the last third of the book. Perhaps I could have kept all the repetitive information straight and then could share with you the differences in salt evaporation methods of various Chinese and European coastal towns.

On the death-march to the end I did learn a few things. The Latin root of the word salt is “sal,” and though I did know that salt’s value made it the root of “salary,” I did not know about its affiliation with sexual desire that gave us the word “salacious.” (Bonus points if you can fit that word into a conversation today.)

Salt was valued in earlier times as a necessary food preservative which linked it inextricably (at least in the book) to fish. I learned more about salted fish (and the liquid of partially-fermented salted fish) than I ever wanted to know. The parallels between garum (the aforementioned liquid) and soy sauce was the only nugget I got from more pages than I care to remember illuminating the topic.

Other tidbits which amused me:

  • Frenchman Nicolas Appert once wrote a book called The Art of Preserving All Kinds of Animal and Vegetable Substances for Several Years about fermenting and canning
  • Another French book was published in 1911 called Protect Your Stomach Against Food Fraud
  • In the 19th century, caviar was served as a free bar snack — the peanuts of the time.
  • Today, only 8% of salt in the United States is used for food, 51% is used for deicing roads.

While rich in information, the book lacks a driving element or insight that made me care and want to keep reading. I found myself wishing that there was more personality, like Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation, to liven up the book. Long books don’t have to seem long, and this one did.

Not a bad first date, but don’t call me until you’ve lost 200 pages, OK, Salt? And leave the fermented fish sauce at home.

Have you read Salt: A World History? What did you think? Check out the Kitchen Reader blogroll for more opinions.

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