- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 13, 2002

In Manhattan's trendy SoHo neighborhood, the venerable Dean and Deluca market beckons bon vivants from down the street and around the world. At this posh food bazaar on the corner of Prince Street and Broadway, picture windows frame flawless fruits and vegetables, fresh flowers, and a bustling coffee bar. As shoppers scurry down narrow passageways in search of a triple cream brie, a roasted Cornish hen, or a precious white truffle, they whisper "Excuse me" to fellow food hounds who have paused to survey the shelves of boutique oils, vinegars, mustards, and more.
At the back of the store, on the bottom of an aluminum rack, sits a lonely display of salt. The 14 varieties, all appealing in their simple wrappings, range in price from $2.50 for three pounds of Morton's Kosher Salt to $25 for 17 ounces of France's Fleur de sel. For this immodest investment in Brittany's "flower of salt," the maker guarantees a delicate, violet flavor from the sparkling grains. Once "reserved to royal tables," as the label claims, it is now gathered by hand on days "when the east wind is blowing" and available to anyone with the cash to spare.
Indeed, Mark Kurlansky reveals in "Salt: A World History" that France's rock was once prized by kings and traders. As demand for salted foods grew during the Middle Ages, the Bay of Bourgneuf "became a leading salt center" and its cities and islands "major sea salt-producing areas." To boot, they were "only a short distance" from the northern ports of Brittany, which the French convinced to join their kingdom in exchange for an exemption from the "hated gabelle," or salt tax.
But Mr. Kurlansky's story does not begin and end on the Atlantic coast. It reaches back to ancient China, where historians discovered "the first known instance in history of a state-controlled monopoly of a vital commodity," and extends forward to modern America, now "both the largest salt producer and the largest salt consumer" on the globe.
Loyal readers can confirm that Mr. Kurlansky usually sets out to tackle the world and succeeds. He published the award winning "Cod: The Fish That Changed the World" in 1997 and followed it up two years later with "The Basque History of the World." In his latest nonfiction endeavor, the author has taken up the history of salt, the yin (acid) and yang (base) of chemical compounds.
Mr. Kurlansky tells readers how something "so common, so easy to obtain, and so inexpensive" as salt was "until the twentieth century … desperately searched for, traded for, and fought over." It was, put simply, "one of the most sought-after commodities in human history." Navies once relied on salted fish and meat during long expeditions. Nations and kings once imposed salt taxes to fill their dwindling coffers and to finance wars, and occasionally the taxpayers' response was quiet, or not so quiet, civil disobedience. Men even secured personal fortunes on the stuff's sale, but all that would change, says Mr. Kurlansky, with the Industrial Revolution.
Discerning readers might shudder when, in the introduction, the author launches into a passage about the Jungian psychologist Ernest Jones and his theories on salt and sexuality, or, more precisely, on "the human obsession with salt a fixation that [Jones] found irrational and subconsciously sexual." Titillating as this notion might be, it corrupts salt's straightforward symbolism for purity and preservation with psychoanalytical interpretations of human activity that Jones and his better known friend Sigmund Freud hawked in Europe and the United States.
To be fair, Mr. Kurlansky shows proper deference for salt's religious interpretations. For Jews, salt represents God's covenant with Israel. As the Old Testament book of Leviticus explains, God told Moses that, "You shall season all your cereal offerings with salt; you shall not let the salt of the covenant with your God be lacking." For Christians, the New Testament also touts salt as a sign of wisdom, and in Roman Catholic Rites it has symbolized cleansing and purification.
Other groups have relied on salt to ward off evil. The Japanese, for example, throw salt onto the stage before a performance of traditional theater. Sumo wrestlers, though not mentioned in the book, do the same before entering the ring. But for a moment, Mr. Kurlansky risks debasing these and other reverential notions by tossing them into a discourse on man's deep seeded Freudian complexes.
The author rescues himself by posing a different explanation for our obsession with salt: the pursuit of wealth. "Trade routes … were established, alliances built, empires secured, and revolutions provoked all for something that fills the ocean, bubbles up from springs, forms crusts in lake beds, and thickly veins a large part of the earth's rock."
It is this theme that Mr. Kurlansky pursues with success for the duration of the book. His history of salt begins in ancient China, where in 81 B.C. the 14-year-old emperor Zhaodi called his advisers together to discuss his iron and salt monopoly. Their conversation, we are told, soon evolved into a debate about the "responsibility of good government," the balance of "state profit versus private initiative," and "the rights and limits of government to interfere in the economy."
Governments have come and gone since then, but these topics of public policy debate have proved as perennial as the grass.
And for millennia, some of the most important arguments had something to do with salt. Chinese emperors introduced salt taxes according to their need to raise armies and build defensive structures like the Great Wall. Although France's salt tax was "not the singular cause of revolution," it "became a symbol of all the injustices of government." The same would prove true in India, where Mahatma Gandhi used opposition to Britain's ban on local salt, a policy that had long propped up the Crown's own industry, to rally support for a peaceful, 240-mile march in 1930.
Salt has inspired public policy in America as well. After the American Revolution, an English block on trade with the enemy led to salt shortages in the United States. In response, when the U.S. government encouraged domestic production by offering a bounty of 33 cents for every bushel, the Atlantic coast soon became dotted with private saltworks. Years later, the building of the Erie Canal would be financed with a tax on salt of 12.5 cents per bushel. Salt even became the subject of congressional debate, when in 1840 Sen. Thomas Hart Benton delivered a speech in which he opposed America's tax on foreign salt. "[T]his tax," the senator argued, "was the parent and handmaiden of a monopoly of salt." Within a few years, the tariff was repealed.
Today, two American companies, Cargill and Morton, dominate the salt market. Over time, they have purchased independent companies around the world and enlisted them in meeting both individual and industrial needs. Although small entrepreneurs have revived independent saltworks in recent years to meet the demands of cooks and gourmands for specialty salts, these two companies are still clearly in control.
In man's unending pursuit of riches, however, salt has largely given way to other natural resources and to modern technologies. As Mr. Kurlansky writes, "[T]he story of a quest for wealth, given enough time, will always seem like the vain pursuit of a mirage." If such has been the destiny of salt, will the same fate someday befall oil and the Internet?

Amanda Watson Schnetzer is a writer in New York.


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