I first heard about this book some years back from a girl’s profile online, as the most recent book read. An entire book about salt intrigued me, so I put it on my list of books to read. I was looking for something to read, so it seemed like now was the time. Come to find out, the book was quite popular, as it is an interesting historical narrative about something that seems so commonplace yet had a large effect on history.
Every person and animal needs to eat salt, otherwise they will get sick and eventually die. Wild animals find naturally occurring salt, so if your diet consists primarily of wild animals, you can get your salt from them. Otherwise, you (and your domesticated animals) will need to find another source of salt. Additionally, until refrigeration was invented, salt was the main preservative, especially for meat. If you wanted to eat through the winter, you needed salt. If you wanted to send your army or navy somewhere, they needed salt for disinfectant, salted meat for food, and the horses needed salt to live. So salt supply was quite important.
China got most of its salt from Sichuan, where it was piped out from brine wells, through a complicated network of bamboo pipes, then boiled to get salt. The Chinese emperors often monopolized salt, selling it for high prices and using the profit for state revenues. Confucius argued that it was wrong to monopolize something that everyone needs. Furthermore, if the state profits, then it creates a moral hazard, as officials will then try to profit. But salt remained largely a state monopoly until modern China.
They Egpytians discovered that it was more profitable to trade salted goods than salt, as the salted goods are lighter as well as more directly useful. Egypt did a brisk trade around the Mediterranean in salted domesticated fowl, as well as salted fish. They also discovered that soaking olives in salt softens them and removes the natural bitterness, making them actually edible. They also used a chemical salt, natron (mostly sodium bicarbonate and sodium carbonate), as “heavenly salt,” which was used to mummify dead bodies. Poor people were mummified using normal salt.
The Romans mostly got their salt by evaporated sea water, and tended to locate their cities near a place suitable for making salt. Salt was used for salads (hence, "salad”), and since they had no corks, for preserving wine as well. It was used in fish sauce, similar to Vietnamese fish sauce, although by about 500 AD this potent, strong-smelling sauce had fallen out of fashion. In order to placate the plebeians, salt was always provided at low prices.
Later cities, Venice and Genoa built empires out of trading salt on the Mediterranean. Venice built its power on a salt monopoly. It subsidized salt imports, creating an economic incentive to ship to Venice, and then sold the salt all around. It’s merchant ships were also fighting ships, which helped the empire building as well. Genoa tried to monopolize salt as well, but was defeated by Venice. Instead, they shipped Prosciutto, salted ham from pigs that have only eaten the whey from Parmasian cheese making. There was good source of bring nearby Parma, so the salt could be used for ham, as well as cheese (which also requires salt as the curing agent).
By about 600 AD, the church had declared about half the days of the year as fast days, most notably Fridays. On these days, you could not have sex or eat red meat, due to associations with sex from the red, or “hot” nature. Fish, however, were from the blue (cold) sea, so they were okay for fast days. The Basques did a good trade in whale for fast days, and then as they developed better ships, sailed farther and discovered cod. Cod replaced whale meat since it was less oily, and thus less likely to go rancid before it was salted.Germany had salt mines as far back as the Celts, and some Celtic miners have been found perfectly preserved in the mines. The mines were destroyed along with Rome, but monasteries later re-opened them as a source of income. The mines were so productive that Saltzburg remained independent for centuries. Germany also invented sauerkraut, a version of which made it to France in the form of choucroute.
The nordic regions had a good supply of cod, and herring, but limited
salt. So the cities in the Baltic formed the Hanseatic League, which
married the salt production in Germany and northern France with the fish
in the north. In its early days, the Hanseatic League was known for
its high quality, which was rigorously enforced. As they became
successful, they also began using their ships militarily, which ultimately
lead to their downfall as nation-states became more powerful and wanted to
control their own shipping.
France had a lot of salt, owning to its long coast and good weather for evaporating salt. It also had a extremely hated tax on salt. The tax varied by region, with regions around Paris paying a huge price and other areas paying nothing. Smuggling carried a harsh punishment, but smugglers generally had the favor of the people. The tax was one of the first things to go during the French Revolution.
England, in contrast, had little salt available. Despite a long coastline, English weather was not favorable for evaporating salt. Chester had a lot of brine, so they started a saltworks there by boiling the brine. By the 1600s, all the available trees had been used up, so they started using coal. About this time the North American cod stocks were discovered, simply chock full of cod, which was big money. Even by proudly burning so much coal that the skies were gray, they could not provide enough salt for the cod.
English ships, as well as Spanish and French ships would go to islands on the Caribbean and scrape salt off the beaches, load it in the ships, and sail for the cod regions. Some islands were so popular that sailors were prohibited from going ashore with guns lest they meet sailors from a warring nation and get into a fight.
On the American continents, salt maintained the Aztec and Incan empires. It also caused the randomness of American roads: animals made a trail to the salt, and then people settled near the salt and built a road on the trail. In the North American colonies, salt was in short supply, and generally purchased from the British. The colonists then started producing goods with the salt and sold them around the Atlantic. The colonialism is supposed to work is that the colonies are the market for the goods produced by the mother nation. So buying salt from England was right and proper, but selling goods was not. So they enacted laws to curb this, which resulted in the American Revolution.
Salt was in short supply throughout the Revolutionary War. Despite subsidies by the Continental Congress, production did not improve, although Boston did invent rolling roofs that could be closed over the evaporation ponds when it rained. The Erie Canal was built to facilitate salt transport, which was so successful that a north-south canal was built, resulting in the creation of the city of Syracuse at the intersection. The South was short of salt production, so it imported salt used as ballast on ships coming in to New Orleans. During the Revolutionary War, the Union blockade prevented this, causing a severe salt shortage. When Edmund McIhenny married into the family owning Avery Island, he discovered that the island was sitting on a deep reserve of nearly pure salt. He made a fortune mining this during the war, but, unfortunately for him, it was in Confederate dollars, which became worthless at the end of the war. So he started experimenting with hot sauce, and began producing Tabasco Sauce.
Salt was increasingly in demand in the American West for silver mining operations, but decreasing in importance for food. Canning was invented, which resulted in vegetables that tasted better than salted vegetables. Ice began to be used for refrigeration, and railroads could transport fresh fish inland fast enough that it would not spoil. Around 1900, flash freezing was invented. At the same time, people began to realize that rock salt is not scarce, as it was being found in many locations, resulting in salt being much less important than before. (This also resulted in the discovery of oil: the salt domes often were contaminated with black sludge, which got trapped underneath them)
The last major role that salt has played in history was in the liberation of India. India had been making salt for hundred of years prior to the East India Company seizing control of the country. Since Indian salt could be made much more cheaply, the British outlawed the making of salt, so that India could be a proper colony and purchase its salt from Chester. This left people in some of the regions, which were essentially salt plains, without a means of livelihood. In other regions, it meant that simply picking up chunks of salt off the beaches was illegal. The salt laws were widely hated, and Gandhi chose them as his first non-violent protest. He marched to the sea, accumulating thousands of supporters along the way, and broke the law by picking up a piece of salt. His actions captured worldwide sympathy and led to the founding of an independent India.
With the invention of vacuum boiling in the early 1900s, salt can now be boiled using less energy and at a consistently uniform size. Ironically, although pure white, small-grained salt was prized throughout history, the success of identical salt everywhere in the world has lead to a demand for “artisinal salt,” made by hand the traditional way, and so salt has come full circle to the beginning.
Salt, A World History is a fun ambling through the effects of salt on history. It offers a different perspective on why events happened from the perspective generally taught in primary school. Kurlansky has clearly done a lot of research in many areas of the world, and he weaves an interesting narrative. I discovered that salt was used in a wide variety of foods—from ham, to cheese, and hot sauce. I also gained an appreciation for how salt influenced history. I would have never guessed that countries would have talked about “salt independence” in the way we now talk about “oil independence,” for instance.
Kurlansky has made a point of covering all the regions of the world in his history. After about halfway through the book, it begins to get a little repetitive. Many narratives are variations on the theme of a certain region had no good places to evaporate salt, so they tried boiling brine, which took a lot of energy and they explored other options. For instance, while the variety of salt-making techniques on the French coast have some interest, they did not seem to make a huge impact on history. Including the French saltworks, German saltworks, English saltworks, American saltworks, most of which use the same techniques is a maybe a bit more detailed than necessary.
Another problem is that the book does not give a very coherent history. It meanders from story to story like pop-history does nowadays, but it does not give much historical analysis. After reading 500 pages of Salt, A World History, I am left to piece together the principles of how salt affected history myself. I realize that it is cool and post-modern to eschew meta-narratives, but I think this is nonsense. History is about the causes, the whys, the economics and politics of events. History is meta-narrative. Kurlansky has all the causes, whys, and economics in the narratives, yet does not actually take the next step of making a cohesive history out of them. The book would benefit from tracing how salt affected history, illustrated with many of the great narratives in the book, rather than a tapestry of stories like it is now. For oral history a la Studs Terkel, that simply aims to paint a picture of people’s lives, okay, maybe. For a book that claims to be a history of salt, I hoped for a little more insightful analysis on how salt affected the larger picture.
Salt, A World History has many very interesting narratives about how salt contributed to history. As moderns, we take salt for granted, and Kurlansky does a great job of giving entertaining perspective. I hesitate to recommend the book, though, because after about halfway through I really started dragging. In addition there is little to inform the reader of how salt shaped history. Still, if you want insight on the importance of salt, the book has more than enough for you, in a well-told package.
- Everyone needs to eat salt or they will become sick and eventually die (except people who eat primarily wild animals, because the animals eat the salt for them). Hence, salt has always been important.
- Salt has been considered an aphrodisiac across many cultures.
Ch. 1: A Mandate of Salt
- Chinese collected salt from Lake Yuncheng in Shanxi providence since 6000 BC, and numerous wars have been fought for control over the lake.
- Chinese started making jiang by fermenting salt fish (the salt prevents rotting until the fermentation sets in). Later they added soybeans to get jiangyou (soy sauce). Even later, they stopped bothering with the fish.
- Li Bing, in 252 BC discovered that salt in his kingdom in Sichuan came from within the rocks, and ordered brine wells dug. Over time, a bamboo piping network piped the brine long distances. (The salt prevents the bamboo from rotting)
- Chinese kings and emperors often created state monopolies of salt, which they sold for excessive prices to fund the state. Confucian philosophers argued that it was morally wrong to monopolize what everyone needs (and also a moral hazard for the state to try to profit: if the state profits, then officials will try to profit, and individuals will try to profit)
Ch. 2: Fish, Fowl, and Pharaohs
- The Egyptians domesticated many fowl which they dried in salt. They also salted fish, which they traded all over the Mediterranean via the Phoenicians.
- Natural olives are hard and bitter, but they discovered that soaking in water removes the bitterness, and salt softens them.
- They viewed natron (sodium bicarbonate + sodium carbonate) as heavenly salt. They mummified rich people by putting lots of spices in them and placing the corpse in natron for seventy days. Poor people were simply placed in regular salt for seventy days.
- When camels started being used to travel in the desert, Arabic traders carried salt across the Sahara. The trade routes made Timbuktu very rich.
Ch. 3: Saltmen as Hard as Codfish
- The Celts traded salt widely. They did not write about themselves, so most of what we know comes from Romans. Because their area in Germany and Austria has many salt mines, some of the miners who died have been discovered, perfectly preserved by the salt.
- The Celts loved ham, which they created by salting leg of venison and pigs. The Romans took a liking of it from the Celts.
- Celts were skilled at making many things, but were not skilled at building a state and were essentially wiped out by Julius Caesar.
Ch. 4: Salt’s Salad Days
- Romans used salt for many things. They salted salads with it (hence the name, salad). They preserved their wine by salting it (owing to having no corks).
- Many of the recipes for European sausages come from the Celts (and involve salt).
- The Roman government was run by the patricians for the patricians, who would try to placate the plebeians by offering them substandard rights. One of the rights was for every one to be able to have salt. Sometimes the government subsidized it.
- The Romans also traded salted fish around the Mediterranean; bluefin tuna was especially prized.
- The Romans were fond of fish sauce, but by 500 AD it was out of fashion.
- Salt was used in the creation of purple dye, which the Romans took over from the Phoenicians: you take a special kind of live mollusc, squeeze the contents of a specific vein, and then boil the contents with salt. The vein contains bromine.
- Italian cities were generally founded near salt-works.
Ch. 5: Salting It Away in the Adriatic
- Venice originally started out producing salt, but discovered it was more profitable to trade in it.
- The government subsidized the price of salt, leading to everyone shipping their salt to Venice. They used this corner on the salt market to make salt supplying agreements with cities. Then they started eliminating other salt producers.
- Because of the salt trade, merchants started taking other goods with them on the ships, which led to Venice being a trade hub.
- When Marco Polo visited China, he commented a lot on how the salt trade benefited the emperor (perhaps because he figured that would sell well)
Ch. 6: Two Ports and the Prosciutto in Between
- The city of Parma in northern Italy is between Venice and Genoa. It had a relatively nearby salt mine, in which prisoners turned a wheel that brought up brine, which was then boiled. The saltworks required control of a large forest for fuel.
- Parma used the salt to create Ricotta cheese (fresh cheese), Parmasian cheese (cheese is made by curds absorbing salt), and Prosciutto ham (from pigs fed with whey from the cheese-making process).
- Like Venice on the east coast of Italy, Genoa on the west coast built a trading empire built on salt. It used salt to create salami, which it would trade around the Mediterranean. On the return trip, the ships would gain control of a saltworks and fill up the hold with salt. It become cheaper for Genoa to ship salt as far away as Spain as it was for salt producers in Spain to transport a few dozen miles from the inland.
- Venice and Genoa competed, and went to war, but since Venice had a more unified political system and could convert their merchant ships to warships, they won.
- Two Genoese men ultimately brought the downfall of Venice. Christopher Columbus sailed with Spain and discovered America. Giovanni Cabato, known in England which he sailed for as John Cabot, found North America and a wealth of cod. When Vasco de Gama sailed to India around Africa, the Mediterranean became less important than the Atlantic. Venice clung to its independence, while Genoa diversified and remains an important port today.
Ch. 7: Friday’s Salt
- The Basques are the remnants of the original inhabitants of Europe; everywhere else speaks Indo-European.
- In the 600s, about half the year (Fridays, religious days, and Lent) were “lean” days: no sex, no red meat (red meat was “hot” and thus associated with sex). However, meat from the water was ok, because it was “cool.”
- The Basques were expert whale hunters, which they salted and sold throughout Europe, since it could be eaten on lean days.
- Interaction with the Vikings taught them how to improve their shipbuilding and their saltworks.
- The bigger ships allowed further sailing, and they discovered cod. Cod was better than whales, because it is not oily, so exposure to the air while salting was not a problem. Eventually they found the North American cod populations and the profitable cod market boomed.
- Various places in France were tidal marshes and were excellent places for making salt, so France ended up being a major salt producer of Northern Europe.
- Salt cod and salted (corned) beef was used by armies for provisions. Britain stocked all of its ports with these goods for its navy.
Ch. 8: A Nordic Dream
- Scandinavia had lots of herring, but no salt to preserve it with. Herring has oil, which turns rancid in air so it must be salted within 24 hours of leaving the water.
- In 1350 Wilhelm Beuckelzon of Holland supposedly invented the practice of putting the herring in brine, which eliminated the contact with air in the drying stage.
- Salted fish was for poor people; rich people either had theirs delivered fresh or had fish ponds.
- Smoked salt fish was also produced in the region.
- The Hanseatic League was formed to organize the trade in herring and salt. As it grew more powerful, it stopped piracy in the Baltic Sea, maintained quality control of the brine-cured herring, and even procured salt production. Initially they were respected as high quality merchants (“sterling,” meaning “of assured value” comes from “Easterling,” the name in England for the Hanseatic traders), but as their power grew they became more aggressive.
- Baltic herring became in short supply and Atlantic herring began to get more important, giving room for the English and Dutch to break the power of the League.
Ch. 9: A Well-Salted Hexagon
- In France, the king had a fancy salt-cellar on his table.
- Alsace, land of salt, brought Germanic-influenced food to France, notable choucroute, a form of sauerkraut.
- The abundance of salt in France led to an abundance of different types of cheese (265), from farmers wanting to preserve their milk.
- Roquefort is produced by letting rye bread get moldy, then grinding it up and mixing into the curds, and putting it in cool, moist caves to cure.
- In Catalan, people grew wine and salted sardines. The sardines were reputed to have excellent flavor.
Ch. 10: The Hapsburg Pickle
- Germany had many salt mines for centuries, but they were destroyed in the turmoil that ended Rome.
- Monasteries re-opened the mines to get a steady income.
- The originally Celtic mine at Saltzburg produced such great income that Saltzburg was able to be independent for centuries.
- Lüneberg produced salt, distributed by the Hanseatic League, that was considered the best German salt. They added blood, to make impurities rise, scraped it off, and when the brine was thicker, added beer for the same effect.
- In Poland, the Wieliczka mine near Cracow was quite productive. In 1689 the mine started holding Catholic services in the mine, and the miners made a chapel carved out of the salt, with statues and bas-relief on the walls and ceilings, along with chandeliers of salt, and religious figures carved from salt.
- Sauerkraut and cucumber pickles were eating from Alsace to the Urals. The Lithuanians even have a guardian spirit of pickling (Roguszys).
- It was not a good idea to make pickles and sauerkraut by boiling in copper pans, as the copper leaching into the vegetables made really bright green pickles, but the copper did not sit well in the digestion.
Ch. 11: The Leaving of Liverpool
- Britain did not have enough grass to feed animals through the winter, so they slaughtered them on Martinmas (Nov 10) and salted the meat.
- Butter was also salted, in an attempt to preserve it. Sweet butter was salted less, but tended to go rancid more. Butter was also set out in the sun, which bleached it white (and made it rancid). To cover the rancidness, yellow flowers were sometimes added.
- England had lots of places producing salt (the Romans even made a saltworks near London), but it was not nearly enough for the salt cod production, or for military supplies of salted meat. The Anglo-Saxon word for “saltworks” was “wich” so any name ending in “wich” was a saltworks.
- Cheshire had brine, which was boiled using trees of the area. It was also had two rivers, the Dee (which silted up) and the Mersey, which had the deepwater port of Liverpool. So Chestershire was the premier English salt maker. It also produced the first English cheese (because of the availability of salt).
- In the late 1600s, Chestershire was running out of trees, and people began looking for nearby coal, since hauling coal from nearby places was expensive. They repeatedly found no coal, but they did find rock salt. However, instead of embracing it, they feared that rock salt would make the middle class salt business unprofitable and tried to get Parliament to ban rock salt. They even managed to get salt stipulations in the treaty of unification of Scotland and England, which may have been the first source of animosity between the two regions.
- Salt production in Chestershire was so great that the ground began caving in and making salty lakes. [Presumably because the brine was removed?]
- British salt production was still not enough, and definitely a severely limiting factor in exploiting the North American cod.
Ch. 12: American Salt Wars
- Towns and roads in North America have little organization, because they were animal trails to salt locations. People settled at the end of the trail because there was salt there.
- North American Indian tribes would send men (usually) out to get salt for the tribe in various ceremonies.
- The Aztecs and Mayans controlled their empires through the salt trade.
- The Tlatoque tribe maintained independence from the Aztecs because they refused to eat salt and become dependent (they had no salt of their own).
- The Spanish conquered the Aztecs and Mayans in part by taking control of the salt production.
- The Spanish greatly increased salt production because it was needed for purifying silver which they were mining.
- Many of the Caribbean islands could produce salt, so British and Dutch ships would sail to the Caribbean and the sailors would make salt from November through July (at which point the rains would ruin the brine). Salt was so profitable that it was worth six months of a crews time to make salt.
- The British had an arrangement with Portugal whereby they provided naval protection for Portugal in exchange for exclusive use of the salt marshes at Maio, and Boa Vista. They also made salt illegally at the Spanish islands of Tortuga and Anguilla,
- The Dutch surreptitiously scraped salt off the sands of the remote Spanish lagoon of Araya.
- Large fleets from all nationalities produced salt at Le Croisic. Sailors were forbidden to be armed while ashore, to prevent fights between the nationalities if multiple nationalities happened to arrive at the same time.
- Ships would sail in large fleets guarded by naval ships to guard against pirates.
- The British tried to make salt at Bermuda, but it turned out to only be good for making small, fast ships (sloops) with the cedar there.
Ch. 13: Salt and Independence
- The American colonies produced some salt, but mostly imported it from England (which was the way colonialism was supposed to work).
- Since they were short on salt, they tended to prefer red herring (low salt and smoked). When they went hunting, they would leave it on their trail, since it confused wolves (hence the phrase “red herring” to mean false trail).
- The colonies started producing goods with their English salt and selling them all over the Atlantic (which was not how colonialism was supposed to work). England tried to restrict the colonies ability to trade, causing the colonies to rebel.
- Throughout the war, salt was in short supply. The Continental Congress gave a 1/3 dollar per bushel subsidy of salt, which help drive many rather inefficient saltworks, but even so, there was not enough.
Ch. 14: Liberté, Egalité, Tax Breaks
- In the late 1200s, the French Crown established a small sales tax of 1.66 percent. It was slowly extended over the course of a century. It grew piecemeal, so different areas had substantially different taxes and some areas had no tax. By 1660, the gabelle, the salt tax, was the contributor to the state revenue.
- The gabelle was roundly hated, and the common people celebrated salt smugglers. So the state made helping salt smugglers a heinous crime.
- When the Revolution happened, the gabelle was eliminated (without concern for the loss of revenue), as it symbolized all the things wrong with the French Monarchy.
Ch. 15: Preserving Independence
- The Onondaga Indians had a very salty brine springs, and New York gave them 10,000 acres of land for the spring in 1788, and then renegotiated in 1795 to give 150 bushels of salt every year in exchange for the land. In 1795, 150 bushels of salt cost $900; now it generally costs about $1000 - $2000.
- The Erie Canal was proposed in order to move salt. Nobody thought this was feasible until the War of 1812, when the U.S. was short on salt again, and the canal was dug.
- Part of the Kanawha River, in Virginia, made salt, which could be shipped down the river to the Ohio River. Kanawha salt was cheap because they had re-invented the Sichuan system of pumping brine from the ground and into pipes to be evaporated with nearby coal. They also could use slave labor.
- Kanawha salt led to settlers near the Ohio River raising a lot of pigs and cattle, and to Cincinnati becoming a large meat-processing hub.
- Additional canals were built, and two intersected at what is now Syracuse, which ended up being the largest salt shipping port in the U.S.
- In the 1840s, the salt tariffs were repealed, so the salt used as ballast by British ships to New Orleans could be shipped up the Mississippi, which hurt Kanawha salt producers.
- Settlers going west tended to take and ship salt from the east, rather than trying to make their own locally.
Ch. 16: The War Between the Salts
- Militarily, salt was used to preserve meat, for the soldiers’ diet, for the horses and livestock, and for disinfectant. “In Napolean’s retreat from Russia, thousands died from minor wounds because the army lacked salt for disinfectants.” (258)
- Salt was scarce in the South. The Southern states generally imported English salt brought over as ballast for the cotton trade; there were few major producers, so the Union blockade was painful. The Union army also made a point of capturing and destroying saltworks.
- Salt production was so important that eventually salt-makers were exempted from military service.
- Successful banker Edmund McIlhenny and his family-by-marriage, the Averys, moved to Petite Anse, an island in the New Orleans bayous. A slave digging a well discovered very pure rock salt. They earned a fortune in Confederate money, but also were harassed by Union forces.
Ch. 17: Red Salt
- McIlhenny could not find banking work after the war, so he returned to Petite Anse (now Avery Island) and experimented with a hot pepper sauce, that he fermented the same way the Chinese fermented their bean sauce, except that he added vinegar like Cajun cooking expects. He met with some modest success.
- Brigham Young chose the salt lake in Utah for his Mormon colony because the lake had a lot of good quality salt, which meant that the colony would be self-sufficient.
- Silver mining in the West required lots of salt. This was mostly supplied through the south San Francisco Bay area, through evaporation. (The Indians had been harvesting salt there for centuries)
- They discovered that the evaporation ponds would turn green, and then red. When it turned red the salt would begin to crystallize. The color comes from an algae which starts off green, but then turns red at a certain salinity, and the red color also increases heat absorption, thus speeding evaporation. There are also small brine shrimp that live here, that flamingos eat, which turns them pink.
Ch. 18: The Odium of Sodium
- In the early 1800s, people began figuring out the chemistry of salts.
- Sir Humphrey Davy isolated many elements by passing an electric current through a salt, causing the metal to move to negative terminal of the battery.
- Johann Glauber created Glauber’s salt by adding sulphuric acid to sodium chloride. This produced hydrochloric acid (well-known), and the salt byproduct, which previously had been discarded.
- Nehemiah Grew isolated Epsom salt (magnesium sulphate) by studying the health spring water at the town of Epsom, England.
- Many salts were discovered by adding acids to the mother liquor, the sludge leftover after sodium chloride precipitated out. Demand for these salts led saltworks to add chemical products (and resulted in increased pollution, owing to the hydrochloric acid fumes produced).
Ch. 19: The Mythology of Geology
- Starting in the 1800s, salt started to become less important for preserving food.
- Nicolas Appert invented canning in glass jars, and the French Navy liked his much tastier food.
- Bryan Donkin founded tin canning, and by 1830 canned food was a staple of the British Navy.
- Since canned food tasted so much better than salted food, and because railroads could bring fresh fish to interior areas, the salt fish trade plummeted.
- In the early 1900s Clarence Birdseye invented fast-freezing, which preserved food’s texture and flavor better because crystals formed quickly are smaller and do less damage to cells than the larger crystals that result from slow growth.
- For a long time, people were not sure why the ocean was salty, and there were a number of theories. Similarly, people were unsure exactly where brine came from.
- By the 1800s, people became aware that rock salt is not rare, although often the salt domes were contaminated with black muck that made them unusable.
- In 1859 Edwin Drake understood that salt domes trap oil underneath them, and successfully drilled for oil by drilling through such a dome in Pennsylvania. Oil was not common in Pennsylvania, though, and it was not until people drilled at the Spindletop salt dome in Texas that the oil boom got underway.
Ch. 20: The Soil Never Sets On...
- The British salt brine producing area of Cheshire began to see increasing sinkholes, leading to large amounts of damage to houses and stores in the area. Cities had large expenses in maintaining pipes, etc. that broke due to the subsidence. The problem was caused by large-scale brine pumping, which caused fresh water to flow in to the salt deposits underneath the ground and dissolve the salt pillars holding up the earth, causing the layers above to collapse. Since the brine pumping was being done by man mom and pop operations, there was not really anyone for property owners to sue, and the salt makers argued that the property owners were already compensated due to increased industry and commerce in the area.
- The Salt Union company began to buy out all the small operations, hoping to monopolize salt (since Cheshire produced most of England’s salt). They succeeded in obtaining a large amount of the salt production, but presented a clear target for lawsuits, which spoiled the profits.
- Fuel for boiling the salt was a perennial problem for salt producers, and by the early 1900s, salt was boiled in vacuum evaporators. The first pan was heated in a normal atmosphere and produced steam, which heated a second pan in a vacuum (resulting in a lower boiling point), which created steam that heated a third pan, etc. Currently about eight pans can be heated from the fuel for the first pan.
Ch. 21: Salt and the Great Soul
- India traditionally made salt in Gujarat and Orissa. The Orissan salt was produced by flooding the land with seawater, then boiling it, and resulted in excellent salt that was traded widely.
- A small tax on Orissan salt provided substantial revenues for Orissa.
- When the East India Company took over India, they found that Orissan salt was cheaper and higher quality than Liverpool salt. Since the goal was for the colonies to provide a market for Britain, this was a problem. So they banned it. Not only did this lead to smuggling and harsh smuggling laws, but the peasants in the salt-making area literally had no other way of making a living.
- The salt policies were so universally hated and typified the problems of colonial rule that Gandhi made defying the salt laws his first civil disobedience.
- Starting with a few people, he slowly marched to the coast of Gujarat, where it grew to thousands. On the same day that Gandhi broke the laws by picking up a bit of salt from the ground, Orissa also started salt-making.
- Everyone in India started making salt, and the world supported Gandhi over the British. Eventually, the British allowed salt-making for personal use. Not too long after that, India became independent.
Ch. 22: Not Looking Back
- The Dead Sea is so salty that not only can eggs float in it, but people pretty much float out of the water. It is so salty that sodium chloride precipitates out.
- Mount Sodom is pretty much pure rock salt. As columns break away, they are identified for tourists as Lot’s wife, although their lifespan is measured in a handful of years.
- Mount Sodom was mined for salt until recently, and the Dead Sea has produced salt for even longer.
- Theodor Herzl imagined a Jewish state in Israel in the early 1900s, funded off of salt, bromine, and potash from the Dead Sea. There are saltworks on both the Israeli and Jordanian side.
- The Dead Sea waters are thought to be healthful, so there are spa resorts located near two springs next to the Dead Sea: Ein Gedi and Ein Bokek. These cater to German and Israeli visitors.
- The Dead Sea evaporates three feet every year, due to most of the Jordan River being siphoned off for fresh water before it gets there.
Ch. 23: The Last Salt Days of Zigong
- The salt tax in China was based on travel, because China was too big to control salt production. So it authorized groups of merchants to transport salt (Yuen Shang) and then taxed the transportation. The Yuen Shang companies were usually families, and became very wealthy. “In Chinese folk literature, the salt smuggler is always the hero fighting the evil and corrupt salt administration. The villain of the story is often not the government but the Yuen Shang.”
- The Yuen Shang are responsible for a mansions in the north and the gardens in the south.
- In 1912, the new Chinese government got a loan from Britain, secured with salt revenues, and to ensure that those revenues actually came in, the British sent Sir Richard Dane to enforce the salt tax. Smuggling and bribing were widespread, with half the salt coming from the black market.
- Zigong, in Sichuan, was a large salt producing town. It had large, fancy guild halls for its merchants, and pioneered drilling techniques to drill to concentrated brine 4000 feet deep.
- In the 1960s Zigong started using vacuum evaporators, and the large grained salt slowly became unavailable. Instead, uniformly small grained with iodine was made. The makers of traditional salted food did not like the new salt because of the taste of the iodine.
- Although the wells in Zigong are still there, and farmers made more money from the salt than the crops, they were cemented up by the State because the farmers did not have the resources to add iodine to the salt.
- Mao and Deng Xiaoping were from the Sichuan area, so Sichuan food overtook southern cooking in popularity after they came to power.
- Sichuan cooking has six flavors: ma, la, tian, suan, xian, ku (numbing-spice, spicy, sweet, sour, salty, and bitter). Salty is frequently used. Sweet and salty are also often used together.
- Soy sauce is traditionally made with a complicated method, and the factories make a similar product much cheaper. However, artisinal peasant soy sauce is made in the town of Lezhi, and is rather thicker than the factory sauce.
Ch. 25: More Salt than Fish
- Sweden has a traditionally salty diet. They also still preserve a taste for salty-sweet.
- Herring in the Baltic was variable, more off than on, historically, leading Sweden to be one of the poorest countries in Europe until the timber industry became in demand.
- Salmon is frequently salted and then smoked to cure it (mostly for flavor rather than preservation, these days).
- Caviar is made from salted sturgeon eggs, although sturgeon is rare due to an intolerance to pollution.
- Sicily used salt for tuna, but now the tuna catch is promptly sold fresh to Japan. The tuna swim east to spawn, and are caught in a maze of nets in Sicily.
- Tuna are getting smaller, because of overfishing.
Ch. 26: Big Salt, Little Salt
- The Morton Salt Company is one of the largest salt companies in the world, with mines all over the world. It became popular by adding magnesium carbonate, later, calcium silicate, to its salt to make the grains not stick together. It invested in technology early, so it has long had a uniform grain size salt, despite being produced from very different methods.
- The old salt islands in the Caribbean are largely desolate now.
- Only 8% of US salt production is for table salt; 51% is for deicing roads.
- Cargill operates the salt mine on Avery Island, which is thought to be 40,000 feet of nearly pure sodium chloride (although it is not used for table salt, since the natural gas is produced by another company, so heating costs are too high for table salt).
- Modern salt is all about producing in quantity. However, the salt companies have been so successful at getting a uniform product that customers are looking for artisinal production.