Salt : a world history

by Mark Kurlansky

Paper Book, 2003




New York : Penguin Books, 2003.


This book takes a look at an ordinary substance--salt, the only rock humans eat--and how it has shaped civilization from the very beginning.

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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 nog
More than you'll ever need to know on the subject. Really bogs down after a few chapters.
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 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 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 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 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 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 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 lalagee
this book is best used as a sleep aid
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 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 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 Awfki
Very interesting book. I had no idea that salt had played such a large role in history.
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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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 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 euang
Trade in salt and salted foods shaped economies for centurie: "Salt; A World History," by Mark Kurlansky is a meticulously researched account of how trade in salt...and salted foods shaped global economies for centuries. The production of salt powered empires. Moreover, the salting of fish, fowl and hams fed soldiers and sailors for extended periods...allowing for the expansion of trade and empires. The Roman Empire required salt for its soldiers and at times soldiers were paid in salt...which was the origin of the word "salary"...and the expression "worth his salt" or "earning his salt," according to Kurlansky. After the fall of Rome, Venice became the dominant commerical force in Europe. To this end, salt trade maintained Venice's palatial public building and the complex hydralic system that prevented the metropolis from washing away.
Soon France farmers discovered that curdled mild drained and preserved in salt made many different types of cheese. In Parma, Italy the production of salted "Prosciutto" ham and "Parmesan" cheese made the city famous. The same thing happened with the production of salted "Salami" in Felino and Genoa, Italy. However, a major factor in the prodcution of salted fish was the Medieval Roman Catholic Church's decision to forbide the eating of meat on religious days and the Lenten fast (40 days) and all Fridays. This was serious business...under English law at the time the penalty for eating meat on Friday was hanging. Consequently, trade in dried fish boomed...especially for Northern Cod, which had a white flesh with little fat (fat resists salt) and dried easily.
Page after page of this book is filled with significant historical information on how salt impacted economies especially with sea vessels and river steamboats. The author also includes little tid-bits of information about the develpment of our language...particularly the origin of expressions. For instance, when early American settlers hunted they would leave red herring along the trail because the strong smell would confuse wolves which is the origin of the expression "red herring," meaning..."false trail." Finally, Kurlansky explains that "Generals from George Washington to Napoleon discovered without salt...war is a desperate situation...salt was needed to treat wounds, preserve food for soldiers and for the diet of the calvary's horses." Recommended.
Bert Ruiz
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LibraryThing member jphilbrick
maybe i'm not in a good "place" for reading nonfiction right now, i don't know, but this was the longest feeling read i've had in a while. the only reason i finally made it is that i want to get back to fiction's not that it was too much info about salt, but as with most commodity histories i've read, it just made me depressed about industrialization and environmental degredation. this also struck me as a book by a guy writing about salt but really wanting to be writing about fishing. or maybe that's just because i read cod.… (more)



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