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Salt, A World History

A lively history of a now-common commodity

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Imagine a hundred years from now walking into a bank where they hand out free small packets of gold. Most of us would be stunned at how such a valuable commodity could become so invaluable. Yet this is precisely how our ancestors would view the salt packages at fast-food places. Salt was once one of humanity's most valued commodities.

In Salt, A World History (Walker and Company, 484 pages, $28), author and historian Mark Kurlansky takes us through the fascinating, intricate past of common salt. Wars have been fought over salt. Cities and cultures have been shaped by salt. Egyptians used salt to mummify. The Great Wall of China was funded by salt revenue. Salt was used as money in some cultures; it was the impetus for trade routes in others.

The production of salt is thought to have been developed by the Celts who conquered much of Europe, including Rome in 390 B.C., France, northern Spain and the British Isles, from their base territories in lands which are now Hungary, Austria and Germany. Later, Roman Emperor Julius Caesar conquered most of the Celtic lands, including France, which was known as Gaul, from a Greek word hal, meaning salt. The Gauls were the salt people.

At the height of their civilization, Romans salted their greens to counteract the bitterness, a practice that became the origin of the word salad or salted. Olives, preserved in salt, were a staple of the Roman diet. And salted bluefin tuna was a specialty of Sicily by 241 B.C.

By the Middle Ages in Europe, actually placing salt on the table was a rich man's luxury but salted foods were commonplace. Kurlansky writes in the book, "In 1268, the Livre des Metiers, the Book of Trades, which listed the rules of the cooking profession, said that cooked meat could only be kept for three days unless it had been salted." During the Age of Discovery, Europeans found salt production was well established in the Americas: the Incas had salt wells outside Cuzco, and the Mayans employed solar evaporation to produce salt.

Even recently, salt has had its hand in history. Kurlansky recounts last century's nonviolent struggle in India of Mohandas Gandhi against the restrictive British salt laws. Kurlansky also reveals why women in some cultures were not allowed to preserve meats, and how corned beef got its name. At the end, he discusses the current popularity of unusual and expensive sea salt among professional chefs.

Salt doesn't dash through history nor is it a strictly dry food history, but it offers an exhaustive study of a familiar commodity. Kurlansky does a masterful job of sprinkling facts with entertaining trivia to produce a riveting story, which would prove diverting to any diligent reader.

After reading Salt, you may want to experiment with the different varieties of the now-common commodity. The following can be found at gourmet shops or online (try shop.store.yahoo.com/ chefshop/seasalt.html). Prices may vary. Sea salt is best served in a traditional bowl since, without preservatives, it can become slightly damp or clog salt mills. To grind natural sea salt, use a grinder with a porcelain grinding mechanism.

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