Book Review: Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky

I read a book about salt. It’s pretty dry.

salt cover

I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night if I didn’t make that joke.

Cheap gags aside, Mark Kurlansky’s Salt: A World History is exactly what it says on the cover. It’s a book about the history of salt, along the lines of Kurlansky’s other books such as Paper or Cod. At a glance, this might seem like a pretty dull subject for a book, until one realizes that humanity has used salt for food preservation for literal millennia, across the entire globe. So, y’know, there’s a lot of salt history to cover here.

Kurlansky uses salt as a lens to view world history, with surprising success. Given how essential salt is to food preservation (especially for the vast majority of history in which people didn’t have access to, say, canning or refrigeration), taxation and control of salt often became one of the foundational aspects of world powers, ranging from the Romans to the Han dynasty all the way up to the British empire. Salt: A World History flits from one era and locale to the next, detailing many of the unique ways salt was produced, controlled, and used throughout history. The book is chock full of interesting facts, such as how the Chinese first harnessed natural gas as a fuel for their saltworks thousands of years ago, or the origins of Tabasco sauce. Of course, Kurlansky doesn’t shy away from the uglier side of history, either, as he covers how slavery was essential to salt production in the Americas, or how the British used salt taxes as a way to control colonial India.

And, while Salt: A World History is supposed to be about the world at large, it often comes off as a bit Eurocentric. Then again, given how a lot of other history books have the same problem, perhaps this sort of thing should be expected. There are chapters where Kurlansky gets bogged down with “and here’s how this tiny European village produced salt, and here’s their quaint regional salted food– and now let’s look at another tiny European village …” and so on, and so on. The book’s also littered with various recipes from cookbooks from around the world, which I kinda skimmed over, mostly ‘cause I don’t have much desire to try my hand at making garum or salted herring or whatever.

While Kurlansky occasionally dabbles into the science behind saltmaking, and technological advancements in its production, most of the book’s focus is on historical saltmaking. Which is fine, I guess? Though at the same time there’s plenty of more modern stuff to cover as well. The book gives brief mention to the development of iodized salt, and even briefer mention to the health effects of too much or too little sodium– but Kurlansky doesn’t even touch on the industrialization of food production, and how there’s a ridiculous amount of salt in any processed food. Though apparently Kurlansky also wrote a book about the guy who invented modern frozen food, so maybe he was saving all the good bits for that one?

All and all, Salt: A World History isn’t quite as engrossing or cohesive as Paper: Paging Through History, but it’s also covering an even larger swath of history. And while I may quibble, I still learned quite a lot from the book, so I’ll happily recommend it to anybody with an interest in food history– or just history in general.

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