Northeast LibraryBook Clubs


You Can't Live Without It

Salt worksWhile we live in a world of low-salt diets and monitoring our sodium intake, for much of recent human history, people have been desperate to include more salt in their diet.

In the book Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky, he covers the very central role that salt has played in human development. Humans require salt to live. Our cells won't work without it. The average human eating red meat on a regular basis gets enough salt in their diet.

But as human beings began to grow their own food and plants, and grains took a more central part in their diet, they began to need to get salt from nature in new ways. This was the beginning of humanity's quest for salt.

Salt: A World HistoryWhile Salt explains the centrality of the mineral in a variety of ways, I found particularly interesting the importance of salt reflected in language. For example, Roman soldiers were sometimes paid in salt. This has given us the word "salary" and the phrases "worth his salt" and "earning his salt."

Even more than that, the Latin word sal  became the French word solde (meaning pay), which became the English word soldier.

Place names, too, illuminate the centrality of salt and salt producing. The first great Roman road was the Via Salaria, Salt Road, built from the salt works on the Tiber to the city of Rome. The modern German and Austrian cities of Halle, Hallstatt, Hallein, Swabisch Hall and Hallstatt all come from the Greek word for salt, "hal." This word morphed in Latin and named an entire people- the Galli or Gauls.

And so we have spread across Europe the places of Galicia in northern Spain and Galicia in southern Poland with the town of Halych.

Kurlansky draws connection after connection like these, following salt across continents and eras. It is amazing that something we so rarely think of caused wars and built civilizations.

If you are interested in learning more, the Northeast Neighborhood Library's History Book Club will be discussing Salt: A World History  on Wednesday, April 2 at 7 p.m. All are welcome to come, even if you haven't read the book.