Monday, 6 December 2010

Salty tales to pique the appetite

Salt: A world history by Mark Kurlansky

Mark Kurlanksy’s Salt: a world history promises to do something that seems rather obvious on the surface – to illustrate the importance of salt in the history of the world.

After all, we can all acknowledge the importance of salt in a general sense, can't we? But if ever there was an illustration of history being news, then this is it.

There will be many for whom this book is still a revelation in terms of just how many uses – culinary and non-culinary – the world has found and developed for the whole range of salts that have been known of and used since the dawn of time.

Ham and salted fish and gunpowder are one thing (well, several things, actually), but I confess that it’s to my shame that I personally didn’t realise quite the role of salt in cheesemaking, for instance.

This extraordinary book covers as wide a geographic terrain as the author found possible, from China to Cheshire.

It touches on politics, on economics and on religion, as well as science, engineering – and, of course, food, with a host of salt-related recipes.

There are times when Kurlansky’s tale is a whirlwind that leaves the reader dizzied.

As when he writes: “In the Caribbean, the leading cargo carried to North America – more tonnage than even sugar, molasses, or rum – was salt. The leading return cargo from North America to the Caribbean was salt cod, used to feed slaves on sugar plantations.”

There’s something so circular, but so crazy, about this scenario, that it is difficult to get the mind around it.

And personally, I knew nothing about the role of salt in the struggle for Indian independence, with British imperial bans on the people of Orissa making or gathering their own salt – in order to create a market for Cheshire salt – helping cause famine and much hardship.

It's rather amusing – in a wry sort of way – to realise that current economic orthodoxy both rails against any form of the protectionism that enabled the British (and US) economy to build in the first place, and claims that for growth, developing world economies must open themselves totally to foreign investment. In other words, they must 'choose' to do (because they're told there's no alternative) what they previously had to be forced to do.

And then came the 240-mile march by Gandhi and some of his followers to Dandi to gather salt illegally – and integral part of the struggle for independence.

Nor did I know of the role of salt in the American Civil War, where one unexpected legacy from that period is Tabasco Sauce: another circle, with the seeds for the peppers having been originally taken from Mexico to grown in the US – and recently having been returned to be grown there for the same sauce, while salt continues to be mined at great depths on Avery Island.

Circles are no more evident than at the conclusion, when Kurlansky describes how most salt became uniform, and then most salt producers were bought out and absorbed into a few massive companies. And yet … some people persist in wanting variety; in searching for something more authentique, if you will. So small producers start making salt again in the old ways.

I could be pernickety and point out that Kurlansky is a tad inaccurate or misleading when he describes Port Vendres in the South of France as: “a contemporary hillside monument to industrial efficiency”. It was first discovered by the Greeks as a safe port in around 600BC, and while parts may be new and industrialised, and while Port Vendres is certainly no Collioure, it is not all modern and it is not without its charms.

But that feels a tad churlish, for in general, Kurlansky’s book is an entertaining, informative, fascinating read.

And all this from someone who makes no claims to be a professional, trained historian (so in the same boat as Stewart Lee Allen).

On the other hand, a preliminary browse through the second edition of Cuisine and Culture: a history of food and people, by Linda Civitello, who has an MA in history, was more than enough to annoy me out of starting to read it properly.

For instance, in the introduction, one discovered that there have been nine world wars. Yes, you really did read that correctly.

I thumbed rapidly to the appendix that apparently detailed this, together with all other important wars and battles since ancient times, starting with the fall of the Roman Empire in 476.

The War of the League of Augsburg is listed as one of her ‘world wars’. As are the Wars of Spanish and Austrian succession, the Seven Years War, the American and French revolutions, the Napoleonic Wars …

This, after some Googling, seems to be the ‘theory’ of a US historian called Thomas A Bailey, who produced the original version of a textbook for US schools, The American Pageant. I couldn't find any other historian, reputable or otherwise, supporting the same idea. I can't imagine many people are about to start describing the events of 1914-18 and 1939-45 as WWVIII and WWIX.

Returning to Civitello’s own tome, however, let’s set aside the typo (presumably) that omits the US from the “who fought” list of WWI (well, they did wait until rather late in the day to get involved), but then there’s the classic error that surely a real, live historian with an MA should know or check before making, of describing something as the “Civil War” in England (there were three English civil wars).

And then there’s the matter of referring to “England” as a combatant in many wars (including the two real world wars), as opposed to Great Britain.

But this appendix, set out as a chart on a gray background, in the fashion of the charts that pepper the rest of the book, is part of the problem: it’s enormously simplistic. To describe, for instance, the Thirty Years War as simply “religious”, 'fought by' Catholic v Protestant, is to almost sinfully misrepresent the extremely complex nature of that conflict.

So is this book intellectually rigorous and authoritative or not?

On page XIX of the introduction, she also repeats as fact the story of the Romans feeding “Christians to the lions for entertainment”. The Romans did persecute Christians, but there is no supporting evidence for the idea of mass throwing of Christians to lions in arenas. It is a myth. And 21st-century historians should not be citing it as a fact.

And on p221, on another of these charts (which make the entire book seem less like something aimed at intelligent grown-ups and more like a school textbook) laying out the gender division of work on a Midwestern farm in the 19th century, she includes the somewhat unscientific phrase: “Make everything look nice”.

On p361, of a Fox Network programme called Glutton Bowl, she comments that it “presented chow hounds as athletes”. “Chow hounds”? Oh pur-lease. It’s the same sort of sloppy language and approach that has no place in a book that sets out to be serious and intellectually sound.

And that was after a glance inspired by reading the introduction and finding the nonsense of ‘nine world wars’.

I’d trust Kurlansky infinitely more, and it returns to the shelf fully read and as an important part of my growing culinary library.

The Civitello – unread, apart from the gems cited above – has only been allowed back on the shelf for when I need a sort of Daily Mail moment to make me shake me head in irritation and horror.


  1. Hmmm . . . She sounds a candidate for the 'dog shaking hands' quote; to paraphrase she may not do history very well but, being American, I surprised she can do it at all! Who said that btw, was it GBS?

  2. ~~LOL~~ I don't know, Ian. I've looked it up quickly, but to no avail. It's particularly noticeable with Linda Civitello though, since both Mark Kurlansky and Stewart Lee Allen are Americans too, and I didn't have any sort of feeling of a cultural divide with reading either of their books.

    One think struck me over that 'nine world wars' nonsense: let's say it's a legitimate idea. Certainly it's not a widely known idea or, therefore, a widely accepted idea. So you don't just stick something like that into your introduction when most of your readers (certainly those outside the country who have not been exposed to the school textbook in question) have no idea of this 'theory' (let's call it). And indeed, gioven that she also has a dig in her introduction against other histories of food, calling them 'Eurocentric', she's actually fallen into precisely the same trap here, by being US-centric in including (quite unneccessarily) a term that no European at the very least will remotely recognise. Indeed, her list of 'wars and battles' is actually incredibly Euro and US-centric: she struggles for much beyond those realms, beyond highly generalised 'African anti-colonial struggles' and 'communism v nationalism' elsewhere.

    Wjat is perhaps most frightening is this is apparently the product of someone with a MA in history from an institution that even I've heard of, UCLA.

  3. Hmmm . . . I shan't mention the 'World Series'!

    Thanks for your comments and link on my blog btw; thought you might like this: and and, of course :)

  4. ~~LOL~~

    My pleasure on the comments. And thank you for the links! Ah, nostalgia beckons.