Salt : a world history

by Mark Kurlansky

Paper Book, 2003




New York : Penguin Books, 2003.


History. Nonfiction. HTML: Mark Kurlansky, the bestselling author of Cod and The Basque History of the World, here turns his attention to a common household item with a long and intriguing history: salt. The only rock we eat, salt has shaped civilization from the very beginning, and its story is a glittering, often surprising part of the history of humankind. A substance so valuable it served as currency, salt has influenced the establishment of trade routes and cities, provoked and financed wars, secured empires, and inspired revolutions. Populated by colorful characters and filled with an unending series of fascinating details, Kurlansky's kaleidoscopic history is a supremely entertaining, multi-layered masterpiece..

Media reviews

Who would have thought that musings on an edible rock could run to 450 breathless pages? Let me hasten to add that Salt turns out to be far from boring. With infectious enthusiasm, Kurlansky leads the reader on a 5,000-year sodium chloride odyssey through China, India, Egypt, Japan, Morocco,
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Israel, Africa, Italy, Spain, Germany, Austria, England, Scandinavia, France and the US, highlighting the multifarious ways in which this unassuming chemical compound has profoundly influenced people's lives.
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User reviews

LibraryThing member mjgrogan
Kurlansky guides the reader through the whole known history of Salt: its production, permutations, uses, and effects as an important commodity. One might question my statement “the whole known history” but I assure you I can’t think of anything he might have left out. And when I say, “he
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guides [one] through” I mean that, after finally finishing this book, I feel like I literally walked through 6000 or whatever years of this in uncomfortable sandals.

Obviously I expected some comprehensiveness – it’s subtitled a “World History” after all, though one never knows – and this is an interesting historical account generally. There are certainly many fascinating tidbits about how this rock played a key role in city-state/nation building, taxes, wars, and all the other great stuff of mankind. I learned, for instance, that my tendency to use salt in lieu of dressing on salads – a tendency that occasions much crap from others – correlates exactly with what the word “salad” etymologically means (salted veggies). So there. “Salary” predictably comes from the ancient sal as does, less predictably, “solider” (I always assumed the sun/”sol”). I’d place this story within the classic Forrest Gump genre; this sodium stuff just happens to be bumbling around everywhere the action is and somehow, someway, influences the outcomes.

Salt is the stuff of life and the author provides all kinds of interesting factoids supplemented by the most pointless dozen or so thumbnail images – mostly illegible, apparently thrice-photocopied lithographs. These half-assed inclusions seem to represent a concerted effort to avoid any potential copyright infringements. Either they should have dumped them completely in the hope that more enthusiastic readers might conduct parallel Google Image searches (not me, BTW), or really try to provide illustrations that do justice to those crazy Polish subterranean salt mines and those Six Flags over China-like bamboo pipe constructs. In my opinion the author might lose some of the innumerable recipes to free up some room. I’d call it a win-win. Perhaps readers who actually cook and like to eat fish might enjoy these totally convoluted assemblies of things I’ve never heard of. If you think the Food Network peeps are adventurous, wait until you read what better-heeled Romans expected from an entrée. These, and the other examples of how to utilize salt to preserve foods – one set of instructions required a “youth of around fifteen years” to stomp on something or other – are important obviously, but there were way too many of these crammed together at certain stretches…like those annoying multi-page “infomercial” inserts one finds in most magazines.

Well here I am going on and on like one of those circa-1672 French salted herring recipes. This is a reasonably engaging book overall.
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LibraryThing member Gwendydd
I was really disappointed by this.

First of all, it's not a world history. Asia and Egypt are discussed briefly at the beginning, there are a few paragraphs about salt production in the Americas once the Europeans get there, but otherwise, this is a very Euro-centric history of salt.

Secondly, it is
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almost entirely an economic history. I was hoping for more of a cultural history, with references to art and literature and analysis of what role salt played in culture, but that is entirely absent. Instead, there is a lot of discussion of salt taxes. That's interesting in its way, but not what I was hoping to learn. There is some discussion of the technology of making salt, but the technology is never explained in any detail and is often somewhat confusing.

On top of that, it's just not a good work of history. Kurlansky jumps from one topic to another with no transitions, and often jumps centuries in confusing ways (like quoting a recipe book from the 1960s when discussing Irish salt making in the 1600s). Kurlansky never discusses or analyses his sources. He quotes a lot of recipes, but never talks about how reliable recipe books are or who wrote them and why. Other than that, there are no footnotes or references, and absolutely no discussion of where any of this information comes from.

In other words, this book is just a dry, unflavored list of statements about how salt has been used. There is no central argument to the book and no analysis of any kind. There were parts of the book that had the potential to be really interesting, but Kurlansky managed to make it all boring.
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LibraryThing member nog
More than you'll ever need to know on the subject. Really bogs down after a few chapters.
LibraryThing member varielle
I took this book along on an airplane flight thinking it would put me to sleep, but I couldn't put it down. I had not realized how critical salt has been in the history of the world. From the development of communities based on its proximity to military decisions made on its availability to the
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cause of Indian independence from Britain to everyone's kitchen table, salt is ubiquitous. Although perhaps not to everyone's taste (pun intended), those who are curious about the oddities of history and how the world is tied together will find it a good read.
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LibraryThing member DanStratton
I have read many different histories, but this one really had me fascinated. This is a history of the world from the perspective of salt. Kurlansky is obviously very interested in the mineral and how it has effected the development of civilizations. He traces how man's need for salt has effected
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the development of inventions, sparked the rise and fall of nations, inspired wars, prospered trade, spurred on pirates and finally falling in status to a commodity that belies its heritage. It is at times hard to believe the effect those tiny white crystals we know today have had on the world.

Kurlansky spices up the text with ancient recipes, drawn from some of the earliest cookbooks. They are a hoot to read. I doubt I would try a single one, but it is interesting to see how recipes developed over the centuries. I highly recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in world history. It covers all the same events the typical history book does, but from a perspective no one has tried before.
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LibraryThing member boeflak
A whole book about salt? Who woulda thunk that a simple molecule made up of two elements - one of them explosive, the other toxic - could have a story large enough for a book? Kurlansky's tale is worthy of every page. Fascinating enough that you will bore your housemates to tears reading excerpts
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from it. Seasoning soup will never seem the same.
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LibraryThing member librisissimo
Substance: Lots of details about how the salt trade (production distribution, and taxation) impacted cultures and countries around the world in every historical era.
The main lesson is that if governments don't have some effective opposition, they will tax any necessity, monopolize its production
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distribution, and generally cause havoc among their people, including penury and death.
(If it's not salt, it will be something else, although the author doesn't go there.)
Full of fascinating facts and anecdotes.
Style: Not overly-scholarly, although well-sourced. Casual narrative but not trendy.
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LibraryThing member bianca.sayan
Holy crap. Mark Kurlansky should just rewrite the history curriculum for pretty much every school system out there; he would fix everything. This book is amazing: filled with the most interesting stories and facts and yet terribly fun to read. I don't think I've ever been so excited reading a
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history book. Must Read!
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LibraryThing member bookishbunny
Who would have thought that such a cheap, everyday substance (in my hometown, at least) would be a doorway to a great history lesson.
LibraryThing member nancenwv
I found it very interesting to read about salt being so interwoven with human history and culture. However this is less of a narrative than a huge amount of facts poured together. I seldom do not finish a book but this is going to be one of them.
LibraryThing member melydia
A (really, really long) history of the world's most ubiquitous seasoning. A lot of it was really interesting, particularly the varied methods of salt production and the politics involved. However, there is also a whole lot about salting fish, making cheese, and pickling vegetables. Especially fish.
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So much fish. So it's worth reading, for the most part, but you might want to skim the recipes.
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LibraryThing member dele2451
As unlikely as it sounds, this book about common salt is truly fascinating. Kurlansky tracks the progress (and transgressions) of humans and civilizations as they discover the amazing powers of salt. Empires rise and fall, inventions abound, daily diets and world economies are all dramatically
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transformed and it's all because of an inexpensive substance most of us take for granted. I found "Salt" to be a very tasty educational epic consisting of a little basic chemistry, some fundamental geology, a hint of art, a good dose of engineering, some light humor, a smidgeon of cooking and a generous portion of world history. I doubt anyone who reads this book will ever look at their salt shaker the same way again. Definitely worth the read.
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LibraryThing member kshroyer
I imagine Kurlansky did an insane amount of research for this book but unfortunately, I found it very dry and very boring. My strategy as I got deeper into the book was to stop reading the recipes because they were pretty much all the same. The latter 1/4 of the book was more interesting but not
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enough to make the book a worthwhile read. If you want to read about every single saltwork that has ever existed, this is the book for you. But I wouldn't so much call this a history of salt as I would a history of every time someone used salt to cure fish (which is a lot of times).
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LibraryThing member lukespapa
Who knew that a history of salt could be so interesting? Tons of facts weaved in a narrative style that is easy to "digest". Along the way, the reader picks up plenty of interesting "general" historical details. Want to know why some caviar is so much more expensive than others? Did you know that
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drilling for oil was an accidental byproduct of looking for salt? Hopefully, that is enough to whet your "appetite" for this book.
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LibraryThing member wealhtheowwylfing
A fascinating study of salt throughout human history. I really appreciate that Kurlansky did not forget about the non-Western world in writing about this book (although there is rather more about American salt practices than most other countries--unsurprising, given Kurlansky's language, previous
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books, and nationality). My only criticism of this book is that it has a tendency toward anecdotes rather than data, especially toward the end. There are no sum-ups or final conclusions drawn in the last few chapters, just a tossed salad of all the random tidbits the author hadn't managed to fit in elsewhere.

Still, incredible stuff! Even reading just a few pages of this book will give you material for days' worth of small talk.
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LibraryThing member kaitanya64
This was..meh...okay. I felt like it was much more about food than I was hoping. There are brief references to how salt fits into the bigger picture but I felt like the author either avoided or didn't recognize the many places where this could have been connected to larger historical events in a
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deeper, more interesting way. I feel like this just is not what I am looking for in popular history, more like loosely connected anecdotes than analysis.
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LibraryThing member lalagee
this book is best used as a sleep aid
LibraryThing member SaraPrindiville
Very interesting! A good way to learn history- following a particular subject. Salt has really played a major role throughout the world and history. Lots of taxation, lots of different kinds of salt and lots of different uses and evolution of uses. There are huge amounts of salt on this planet!
LibraryThing member jcwlib
I didn't realize it until a few weeks ago, but I had another book by the same author already on my 'to read' list. I honestly didn't know what to expect with this book. I've read other historical food (is this a genre?) books and found that 75% of the information was useful with the other 25% not
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as much.

Kurlansky starts our journey in ancient China and works his way West with each chapter until he hits the Americas. He captures salt consumption through the Civil War days and then makes his way back East towards Asia again. Different techniques for mining salt are explored throughout the chapters as well as the need for taxation on this commodity by many different countries. Wars and independence movements were started with tracings back to salt.

The word salt is a chemical term for a substance produced by the reaction of an acid with a base. Salt was found useful in preserving food and protecting against decay as well as sustain life. Growth in animal raising for consumption caused a demand for some form of salt to help preserve this meat.

Salt helped many nations prosper in the shipping and transportation business as well. Taxation on salt was common because salt was one commodity that was used by people of every income; therefore providing equal opportunity for taxation.

Salt helped shape many cuisines and cultures around the world as well. Soy sauce and ketchup are two of the many sauces that have salt origins.

My favorite chapter was about the origins of the Morton Salt Company which is iconically famous in many households in the United States. The United States is the largest salt producer and salt consumer. Only 8% of salt production is for food though. The largest single use (51%) is for deicing roads.

I'm not a fan of Kurlansky's style of writing and often found myself skipping over multiple pages in order to move through the chapters. I felt that he often times setup the history or background in relation to the salt usage almost in a tangential way. Halfway through the book I was hoping that the next chapter was not going to be about how another country or region used salt to preserve fish or another type of meat.
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LibraryThing member Stbalbach
This by the author of "Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World" which won awards and is a classic. Salt attempts to do the same for the history of Salt, looking at world history along thematic lines. The problem is, the book is a long series of facts with no encompassing theme. With Cod
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the theme was mans hubrius over nature and the consequences. With Salt, the theme is mundane: man charges money for something that is otherwise so abundant, it can be had for free. I learned a lot about salt and its importance in history, but the book is too long and banal. There is no story to tie it together.
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LibraryThing member Meijhen
Although I always knew that salt was the basis of a lot of different world events and a primary driver in the development of civilization and economy, I never realized how all-encompassing it was. The author has also managed to make what could have been an amazingly dry and difficult subject quite
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easy to digest. The writing style is light, with a bit of humour thrown in. I was able to read this at night before going to bed without it putting me sleep immediately....and it was interesting enough that I picked it back up to read over breakfast the following morning.
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LibraryThing member xnfec
Very entertaining. Shows how important such a humble product has been in determining the development of the world through trade. Often fascinating - which ancient people attempted the domestication of the Hyena for example
LibraryThing member pbirch01
After reading Cod by Kurlansky I was pretty excited to read this book thinking that it would be a similar style of story. In fact, it was pretty much a rehash of Cod with more details added in. Chronicling the history of salt through many different cultures and ethnicities is interesting but only
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to a certain point. One can only read so many times about the effect of salt on that particular culture before it starts to get really repetitive. I really struggled to finish this book and would suggest Cod as an alternative book that has much of the same information.
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LibraryThing member ex_ottoyuhr
Never trust the historical analysis of anyone who loves talking about the Basques and Bretons, but thinks that the Thirty Years' War consisted of "fifty years of sporadic fighting." How one can reach the point of writing history books without knowing about the Peace of Westphalia escapes me. (Note,
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I do not actually _own_ this book, I recycled it to put the paper to good use, but I used to own it at one time.)
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LibraryThing member Awfki
Very interesting book. I had no idea that salt had played such a large role in history.


LA Times Book Prize (Finalist — Science & Technology — 2002)
James Beard Foundation Award (Nominee — 2003)



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