Mark Kurlansky on the Cultural Importance of Salt

Salt, it may be useful to know, cures a zombie

Salt Image courtesy of Flickr user SoraZG

Yesterday, I posted the first part of an interview with author Mark Kurlansky, who, in addition to writing about Clarence Birdseye, the father of our modern frozen food industry, penned a sweeping biography of salt. For many of us, it’s a mundane compound that we casually use to brighten up the flavors in our cooking, but salt has a rich and tumultuous history and considerable cultural importance the world over. Here is part two of our conversation:

Why write about salt?

I always wanted to write a book about a common food that becomes a commercial commodity and therefore becomes economically important and therefore becomes politically important and culturally important. That whole process is very interesting to me. And salt seemed to me the best example of that, partly because it’s universal. Only hunter-gatherer societies aren’t concerned with salt. So almost every society and culture has a story of salt, either the producing or selling of it or how to get it.

How do you go about researching and writing about something that predates written history?

There’s a lot about the early history of salt that isn’t known, including who first used it and when or how it was discovered that it preserved food. We were sort of handed, in history, this world where everyone knew about salt. And it’s not clear exactly how that developed. The one thing that is clear is that it’s when a society goes from hunter-gatherer to agriculture that it becomes interested in salt. In agriculture, livestock, just like human beings, need salt, so you have to provide salt for livestock and also sometimes to maintain the pH of the soil. Also, a major source of salt is red meat, which hunter-gatherers eat almost exclusively, so they have no need for salt. But once your diet becomes cereals and vegetables, you’re not getting the sodium chloride you need so you need additional salt.

Is there a defining moment in history that signifies salt’s importance in human culture?

How to choose? The importance that it played in the French Revolution is one example. The salt tax is one of the great grievances that led to the French Revolution, and one of the first things that the revolutionary Assemblée Nationale did was repeal the salt tax. Showing the same thing is the Ghandi salt march, where he used salt to bring together the masses for a movement—also protesting a salt tax. I think that the great lesson of salt history is that salt lost its value. This thing that people were willing to fight and die over and form economies with became much less valuable and much less important than it had been over a fairly short period of time.

Why fight over salt?

You have to remember that before the industrial revolution, a very large part of international trade was food products, and the only way a food product could be salable internationally was if it was preserved in salt. There was no refrigeration or freezing. It became central to international trade.

What turned salt from a commodity worth fighting over to a commonplace, inexpensive condiment on our grocery store shelves?

Two things. One of them was that the relationship—in geological terms—between salt domes and oil deposits was discovered and then there was this frantic search for salt domes to find oil deposits in the great oil boom in the early 20th century. It was discovered that the earth was full of salt much more than anyone realized—just huge swaths of salt beds running over all the continents. And almost at the same time was Clarence Birdseye—salt was no longer the leading way of preserving food.

You also touch on how salt is integrated into religion and mythology. Why was salt important to our spiritual lives?

Things that become important to economies become ritualized and become deified. Because I’m Jewish I always thought it was interesting that in Judaism, salt seals a bargain, particularly the covenant with God. Some people when they bless bread, they dip it in salt. Same thing exists in Islam. But I spent a lot of time in Haiti and I always found it interesting—maybe useful to know—that salt cures a zombie. Good to know if you’re ever in danger of zombification.

Update: For those of you looking to explore salt beyond the run of the mill iodized variety, you might try one of the following:

Bolivian Rose: Salt from Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni flats unfortunately isn’t readily available—Mimi Sheraton had to order her supply from La Paz, and unless you can handle the shipping charges, this is going to be cost-prohibitive for most home chefs. Still looking for a taste of this region? Try salt from the Andes Mountains as an alternative.

Fleur de Sel: Harvested from the waters of the Atlantic in the summer, this French salt isn’t meant to cook with, but rather, to finish dishes with its delicate, salty flavor. David Lebovitz recommends Fleur de Sel de Geurande, which is hand-harvested and termed by some as “the caviar of salt.”

Red Alea Salt: Who says that salt always has to be white? This crimson Hawaiian salt is harvested from tidal pools and owes its color to the high iron content of the volcanic clay content of those pools. Mild in flavor, it can be used in soups or stews.

Salt Made from Human Tears: The site claims that its line of salts are derived from tears harvested from humans during various emotional states: laughing, crying while chopping onions, sneezing. Don’t believe everything you read online, but at the very least, if you’re hunting for a novelty gift for the gourmand in your life, these might fit the bill.

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