Salt : a world history

by Mark Kurlansky

Paper Book, 2003

Status

Available

Publication

New York : Penguin Books, 2003.

Description

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 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 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 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 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 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 nog
More than you'll ever need to know on the subject. Really bogs down after a few chapters.
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 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 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 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 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 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.… (more)
LibraryThing member grizzly.anderson
Salt disabused me of a few things I thought I knew about the history of salt that were wrong (or at least I assume they were, since I can't imagine how they'd have been left out if they were true) and taught me a lot more.

If you start with the assumption that by telling world history through the lens of salt, as it were, the history will be a little skewed, it is an excellent book. Was salt really a major driving force in the US Civil War? Probably not to the degree you might think if this was your only source. Was it still at least tactically important? Almost certainly.

The history is engaging and easy to read covering with fact or reasonable conjecture the involvement of salt across a few thousand years of human history. Along the way it touches on some other interesting technologies, developments, and events (drilling techniques, canal building, India and British colonial policy to name a few). And for someone who just enjoys collecting random bits of information to annoy their friends at parties it is a great source of information. For instance, did you know that ketchup was originally a salt-preserved fish sauce?

I can easily see how Kurlansky would arrive at a book on salt after writing a book on Cod, since salt is so heavily involved in food preservation, especially fish. Much as like this one, I'm not sure I'm ready to run out and read another one of his food-centered histories.
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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 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.… (more)
LibraryThing member spyderella
Read the first few chapters. It was fun, and filled me full of useless factoids that made me sound geekier than Alton Brown. But it didn't pull me back to it, so when other responsibilities demanded my attention, I returned the book without regret.
LibraryThing member Awfki
Very interesting book. I had no idea that salt had played such a large role in history.
LibraryThing member Ravenclaw79
Wow, this book was dull. Educational, yes, but dry and dense -- I felt like I should get college credit for reading it.
LibraryThing member dreamreader
A fascinating history of salt, from its origins as a form of currency in ancient Rome (thus the word 'salary') to the many techniques of harvesting and varieties of salt on our planet. Kurlansky turns this basic chemical element into a saga of both historical and culinary delight.
LibraryThing member mana_tominaga
An amazing overview of world history which explores the centrality of salt.
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 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, 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.)… (more)
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 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.… (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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