Salt : a world history

by Mark Kurlansky

Paper Book, 2003




New York : Penguin Books, 2003.


Explores the role of salt in shaping history, discussing how one of the world's most sought-after commodities has influenced economics, science, politics, religion, and eating customs.

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, 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.

User reviews

LibraryThing member nog
More than you'll ever need to know on the subject. Really bogs down after a few chapters.
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 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.… (more)
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 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 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 from it. Seasoning soup will never seem the same.… (more)
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 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.… (more)
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 history book. Must Read!
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 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 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.… (more)
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 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 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. So much fish. So it's worth reading, for the most part, but you might want to skim the recipes.… (more)
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 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 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).… (more)
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 drilling for oil was an accidental byproduct of looking for salt? Hopefully, that is enough to whet your "appetite" for this book.… (more)
LibraryThing member lalagee
this book is best used as a sleep aid
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 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 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 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 ablueidol
World history of the extraction and use of salt and its consequences for human life. Interesting insight into how it shaped political and economic forces from the strategic weakness of the south in the USA civil war to the raise and decline of Venice etc. And promoted and sustained the power of the state-interesting potential for a Marxist case study here.… (more)
LibraryThing member mana_tominaga
An amazing overview of world history which explores the centrality of salt.
LibraryThing member tyroeternal
I saw this book while wandering the shelves of a local library. I thought, "Hey, that is the book about salt by the guy who wrote a book about cod." Salt is a book about salt by someone who also took the time to write a book about Cod; I think that is a fair and full summary. I have not read Cod, but after reading Salt I felt as if the subject of cod and fishing in general had been discussed quite enough to not have to bother with reading his previous work. Salt is well written, and exceedingly full of interesting and useless facts to cherish for a lifetime or forget instantly. If you pick this book up you know what you are getting into, so just decide now if you feel like reading 450 pages on salt.… (more)
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 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 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 isabelx
This was one of books chosen for the Motley Fool book club and I borrowed it from the library, The introduction started with the author's description of a piece of rock salt that he bought in Spain:

I took it home and kept it on a windowsill. One day it got rained on, and white salt crystals started appearing on the pink. My rock was starting to look like salt, which would ruin its mystique. So I rinsed off the crystals with water. Then I spent fifteen minutes carefully patting the rock dry. By the next day it was sitting in a puddle of brine that had leached out of the rock. The sun hit the puddle of clear water. After a few hours, square white crystals began to appear in the puddle. Solar evaporation was turning brine into salt crystals.
For a while it seemed I had a magical stone that would perpetually produce brine puddles. Yet the rock never seemed to get smaller. Sometimes in dry weather it would appear to completely dry out, but on a humid day, a puddle would again appear under it. I decided I could dry out the rock by baking it in a small toaster oven. Within a half hour white stalactites were drooping from the toaster grill. I left the rock on a steel radiator cover, but the brine threatened to corrode the metal. So I transferred it to a small copper tray. A green crust formed on the bottom, and when I rubbed off the discoloration, I found the copper had been polished.
My rock lived by its own rules. When friends stopped by, I told them the rock was salt, and they would delicately lick a corner and verify that it tasted just like salt.
Those who think a fascination with salt is a bizarre obsession have simply never owned a rock like this.

Carnivorous animals and humans who live by hunting do not need to add salt to their diet as there is plenty in red meat. But once people developed agriculture, they had to add salt to their food. They also needed to feed it to their animals once they were penned in and no longer free to find their own sources of salt. In the past, roads often developed from animal tracks leading to salt licks, with towns often growing up by these easily exploited source of salt. Buffalo, New York was founded by a salt lick used by buffaloes. But we don't just need salt for food; it has 14,000 recognised uses!
Sodium chloride is not the only type of edible salt. The Ancient Egyptians used a salt called natron that is a mixture of sodium bicarbonate and sodium carbonate with a small amount of sodium chloride, and Africans continued to use different edible salts for different dishes.
Over the past few thousand years similar processes for extracting salt from seawater, brine and rock were developed in all parts of the world, although the Chinese were usually ahead of everyone else. By 200 A.D. they were burning natural gas to evaporate salt from brine, having realised that the murderous invisible demons who often killed salt workers were actually a flammable gas. When making salt by boiling brine in pans, blood or egg whites would be added in order draw out impurities, forming a scum that could be scooped off the surface.
Throughout history and across the world, salt has been a fantastic source of revenue for governments, who have imposed punitive taxes, nationalised salt production, banned salt production in some places to support the salt industry in other place, and based colonial policy on it. This has led to rebellions and revolution and wartime blockading of salt imports and destruction of the enemy's salt works.
It's all fascinating stuff, and although the book does include black and white illustrations, I was also able to find lots of interesting pictures of salt production online.… (more)
LibraryThing member kfschmid
I enjoyed the book but wish it was a little more scholarly. Not that his work was not scholarly, just I really never felt like any chapter went much deeper than a rather long Wikipedia page.
LibraryThing member atiara
Interesting topic but not always factually exact and could have used better editing and organization. There were also too many recipes for my taste.
LibraryThing member cmbohn
Themes: food and eating, exploration, trade, labor, technology, science, government
Setting: China, Europe, North and South America

This was an interesting look at a substance so common, most of us have never given it a second thought. But salt has played an important part in world history and development. Governments have failed or succeeded based on their salt policy, believe it or not, and Gandhi's protest against British rule revolved around salt. It may have even caused his assassination.

For a mineral as common as salt is, it sure took humans a long time to figure out exactly what it is and how to reliably find it and process it. The Chinese were way out front when it came to salt mining. Americans are in the front when it comes to the amount of salt used, but most of it is used on roads, not on food. Anyway, the book was full of little tidbits like that. It wasn't necessarily tied together well, and the end of the book was rather weak, but it was still a really cool read.
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