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 chaos.

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 nads.

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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