Ketchup was once a fish sauce that was made with anchovies. It was an American who first came up with tomato ketchup.
This is one of many interesting bits of trivia that stood out in Salt: A World History. Others include:
- the Chinese were using natural gas to cook (to heat brine to obtain salt) almost 2,000 years ago.
- the term “red herring” came from the early New England settlers leaving red herring along their trail when they hunted in order to confuse wolves.
- the camel was native to North America, though it became extinct here.
Mark Kurlansky has, obviously, learned a lot about salt and related topics. One gets the sense from reading that he is trying to find a way to impart all of this knowledge. It results in some jumping around, but the book is divided into three sections that are each more or less centered around a theme. The first section focuses on ancient civilizations and methods of obtaining salt. In this section we learn a lot about innovations the Chinese and other peoples made, the way that salt affected governing decisions, and some of the uses for salt (primarily as a preservative).
The second section focuses on medieval and Renaissance history and how nations grew and changed and how salt was part of that. For example, discovering cod in the Atlantic, and salting it to preserve it, allowed the British to feed their Navy. New developments in obtaining salt are also included. In the last section, readers get a brief chemistry lesson on salts in general and their uses (e.g., warfare), and the focus is on more modern history – the about 200 years ago up to the present. Each section includes occasional excepts of recipes, many of which we wouldn’t want to make today, like the Roman sauce garum, which could easily cross the boundary from fermented to rotten.
Kurlansky’s attention to detail is exceptional. He has really done his research, but he’s not showing off. There are bits of dry humor that show up here and there. There were occasions when I felt the writing could be a little more clear, like when he would note that a certain people or nation “claimed” some fact or other (e.g., to have invented one thing or another), but he wouldn’t necessarily confirm or contest that claim, and then I didn’t know how much credibility the claim had.
This is an interesting book but not a hugely engaging one. I don’t read nonfiction all that often, so it’s hard to know how much this is due to the topic and how much to the writer. Or maybe it was just me because I do tend to prefer fiction. I still think it’s worth reading, and I highlighted a lot of interesting pieces of information from the book on my Kindle. It just wasn’t a book that I found hard to put down, and I found myself anxious to finish it so I could start another book, but I was also getting too much from it to stop reading.
cbr15bingo Edibles (I think this counts)