I just finished reading “Salt: A World History” by Mark Kurlansky. Having started but never quite finished a few of his books including “Cod” and “A Basque History of the World,” it felt good to finally make it to the last page of this one.For me, reading this book was like a continuation of “Wild Fermentation” by Sandor Katz, another book that mixes history and ideas with recipes, and talks a lot about salt. I read “Wild Fermentation” about 4 years ago and began a fermentation kick that hasn’t really stopped since. I followed Sandor’s advice in that book to make my first batch of sauerkraut, measuring the cabbage, water, and salt very carefully. I was nervous that somehow, something would go wrong, and I remember setting aside a ridiculously large amount of time.
Today, having pickled many a cucumber, cabbage, pepper, garlic, and what have you, I realize how simple the process really is. Take vegetable, add salt and water. Cover. Wait. Eat.
The first thing that struck me when reading “Salt” was how incredibly old and widespread is the use of salt to preserve food. People have been pickling food and preserving meat for millennia. What’s amazing is how arcane and mysterious these techniques have become in such a short period of time. I’ve had my share of smoked salmon and other fish, but I’ve never even seen salt cod, which was a huge part of people’s diets and until recently. The use of salt to preserve food quickly became unnecessary for many people after the invention of the tin can and then refrigeration, two inventions which significantly changed the way people eat.
I probably won’t think about this every time I make sauerkraut (we’ve been ordering way too much cabbage at the place where I’m working now, I’m not a total kraut-fiend) but last time I thought how what I was doing was the exact same process that people have been using for thousands of years.
Another interesting part of the “Salt” story was how, there used to be hundreds of different kinds of salt, identified by where the salt was made and known by their different characteristics and impurities. Some were better for cooking, some for curing or preserving, etc. Different saltworks made salts of different qualities, and they had different values to a consumer. Now, there are basically two kinds of salt, kosher and iodized. Of course there are high-end salts like fleur de sel and whatnot also (produced by the same companies that make the cheap salt). A few months ago I was at a restaurant in Portland where they had a salt bar, where you could sample different kinds of salt. At the time I thought it was pretentious and didn’t pay much attention to it (the food was delicious and interesting though) but having read “Salt” I think I might give it a chance, since I think maybe what they were trying to do was recreate some of the diversity of salts that existed until only about 100 years ago or so (although I still think it’s a little pretentious).