Mark Kurlansky, 2002
Salt is a dietary mineral essential for animal life, composed
primarily of sodium chloride.
Several people have been credited with saying that "history
is one damn thing after another." But this makes it sound like
an orderly queue of events, when history is actually a chaos of
innumerable damn things after and before and concurrent with
innumerable other damn things. A big part of the job of any
sort of historian is to find any sort of structure within this
Last January I heard a fantastic lecture by Margaret Anderson
on the subject of the depiction of Jesus in Renaissance painting.
Her argument went as follows. In Renaissance Europe, an aggrieved
aristocrat could only get satisfaction from an equal; noblemen
didn't duel with peasants. Also, in Renaissance Europe, one's
entire family shared credit for one's accomplishments and blame
for one's misdeeds — but no one outside one's household did.
So if I owed you money, you might demand repayment from my
cousin, and he wouldn't be able to say that it had nothing to
do with him; on the flip side, if my unrelated friend offered
to pay you back on my behalf, you would not accept.
In Renaissance Europe, Christians were raised to believe that
mankind had sinned against God, and that God demanded restitution.
This was a problem. Because one could only get satisfaction from
an equal, only another god could deliver the required restitution.
But because only a member of one's household could pay for one's
debts, that god had to also be a member of the human family. These
two premises shaped the Renaissance conception of Jesus. At the
time, virtually no one doubted that Jesus was God — but people
were very anxious about the question of whether he was human.
And Renaissance art reflected this. This is when simple crosses
began to be replaced by crucifixes, with the broken human body of
Jesus visible to all. This is when suddenly paintings became full
of all of Jesus's relatives: his first cousin once removed,
Elizabeth, became a favorite subject. And then there was Jesus's
dick. Surely the fact that he had a dick meant that we could rest
easy in the knowledge that Jesus's payment for our sins would be
accepted! And at this point Prof. Anderson turned on the Powerpoint
and paged through painting after painting after painting after
painting of the Three Wise Men carefully inspecting the Baby Jesus's
That, to me, is history at its best. Here is a historical
phenomenon — hundreds of Renaissance paintings of ancient
patriarchs eyeing an infant's genitals — and here is a
framework within which that phenomenon makes perfect sense.
It isn't just some free-floating bit of data.
Salt is a book which purports to use salt as a framework
by which to understand great swaths of the history of the world.
But there is no framework, really. I read the first few chapters,
and while I learned some fun pieces of trivia, I didn't feel like
the book was helping me understand anything. And I was very
disappointed, because I love history — to the point that I
take history classes for fun — and I love salt! Discovering
the transformative effect of salt on the taste of a dish turned
cooking from a chore into one of the great joys in my life. So I
was really looking forward to reading this book, and then I started,
and it was one damn thing after another.
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