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Salt: A World History [Hardcover]

by Mark Kurlansky
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (348 customer reviews)


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Book Description

January 1, 2002 0802713734 978-0802713735 1
Homer called salt a divine substance. Plato described it as especially dear to the gods. Today we take salt for granted, a common, inexpensive substance that seasons food or clears ice from roads, a word used casually in expressions ("salt of the earth," take it with a grain of salt") without appreciating their deeper meaning. However, as Mark Kurlansky so brilliantly relates in his world- encompassing new book, salt—the only rock we eat—has shaped civilization from the very beginning. Its story is a glittering, often surprising part of the history of mankind.

Until about 100 years ago, when modern chemistry and geology revealed how prevalent it is, salt was one of the most sought-after commodities, and no wonder, for without it humans and animals could not live. Salt has often been considered so valuable that it served as currency, and it is still exchanged as such in places today. Demand for salt established the earliest trade routes, across unknown oceans and the remotest of deserts: the city of Jericho was founded almost 10,000 years ago as a salt trading center. Because of its worth, salt has provoked and financed some wars, and been a strategic element in others, such as the American Revolution and the Civil War. Salt taxes secured empires across Europe and Asia and have also inspired revolution (Gandhi's salt march in 1930 began the overthrow of British rule in India); indeed, salt has been central to the age-old debate about the rights of government to tax and control economies.

The story of salt encompasses fields as disparate as engineering, religion, and food, all of which Kurlansky richly explores. Few endeavors have inspired more ingenuity than salt making, from the natural gas furnaces of ancient China to the drilling techniques that led to the age of petroleum, and salt revenues have funded some of the greatest public works in history, including the Erie Canal, and even cities (Syracuse, New York). Salt's ability to preserve and to sustain life has made it a metaphorical symbol in all religions. Just as significantly, salt has shaped the history of foods like cheese, sauerkraut, olives, and more, and Kurlansky, an award-winning food writer, conveys how they have in turn molded civilization and eating habits the world over.

Salt is veined with colorful characters, from Li Bing, the Chinese bureaucrat who built the world's first dam in 250 BC, to Pattillo Higgins and Anthony Lucas who, ignoring the advice of geologists, drilled an east Texas salt dome in 1901 and discovered an oil reserve so large it gave birth to the age of petroleum. From the sinking salt towns of Cheshire in England to the celebrated salt mine on Avery Island in Louisiana; from the remotest islands in the Caribbean where roads are made of salt to rural Sichaun province, where the last home-made soya sauce is made, Mark Kurlansky has produced a kaleidoscope of history, a multi-layered masterpiece that blends economic, scientific, political, religious, and culinary records into a rich and memorable tale.


Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Only Kurlansky, winner of the James Beard Award for Excellence in Food Writing for Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, could woo readers toward such an off-beat topic. Yet salt, Kurlansky asserts, has "shaped civilization." Although now taken for granted, these square crystals are not only of practical use, but over the ages have symbolized fertility (it is, after all, the root of the word "salacious") and lasting covenants, and have been used in magical charms. Called a "divine substance" by Homer, salt is an essential part of the human body, was one of the first international commodities and was often used as currency throughout the developing world. Kurlansky traces the history of salt's influences from prehistoric China and ancient Africa (in Egypt they made mummies using salt) to Europe (in 12th-century Provence, France, salt merchants built "a system of solar evaporation ponds") and the Americas, through chapters with intriguing titles like "A Discourse on Salt, Cadavers and Pungent Sauces." The book is populated with characters as diverse as frozen-food giant Clarence Birdseye; Gandhi, who broke the British salt law that forbade salt production in India because it outdid the British salt trade; and New York City's sturgeon king, Barney Greengrass. Throughout his engaging, well-researched history, Kurlansky sprinkles witty asides and amusing anecdotes. A piquant blend of the historic, political, commercial, scientific and culinary, the book is sure to entertain as well as educate. Pierre Laszlo's Salt: Grain of Life (Forecasts, Aug. 6) got to the finish line first but doesn't compare to this artful narrative. 15 recipes, 4o illus., 7 maps.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

In his latest work, Kurlansky (Cod, The Basque History of the World) is in command of every facet of his topic, and he conveys his knowledge in a readable, easy style. Deftly leading readers around the world and across cultures and centuries, he takes an inexpensive, mundane item and shows how it has influenced and affected wars, cultures, governments, religions, societies, economies, cooking (there are a few recipes), and foods. In addition, he provides information on the chemistry, geology, mining, refining, and production of salt, again across cultures, continents, and time periods. The 26 chapters flow in chronological order, and the cast of characters includes fishermen, kings, Native Americans, and even Gandhi. An entertaining, informative read, this is highly recommended for all collections. [For another book on the topic, see Pierre Laszlo's more esoteric Salt: Grain of Life, LJ 7/01; other recent micro-histories include Joseph Amato's Dust, Mort Rosenblum's Olive, and Tom Vanderbilt's The Sneaker Book. Ed.] Michael D. Cramer, Raleigh, N.
- Michael D. Cramer, Raleigh, NC
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 484 pages
  • Publisher: Walker & Company; 1 edition (January 1, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0802713734
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802713735
  • Product Dimensions: 8.3 x 6 x 1.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (348 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #52,647 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Mark Kurlansky is a New York Times bestselling and James A. Beard Award-winning author. He is the recipient of a Bon Appétit American Food and Entertaining Award for Food Writer of the Year, and the Glenfiddich Food and Drink Award for Food Book of the year.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
249 of 268 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Definitely worth his salt . . . April 6, 2004
Format:Paperback
It's become a party cliche to comment on our need for the results of combining a poisonous gas [chlorine] and a volatile metal [sodium]. Kurlansky passes quickly over such levity to seriously relate the role of sodium chloride in human society. While at first glance his account may seem overdone, a bit of reflection reveals that something so common in our lives is easily overlooked. Salt is essential to our existence. Our need is so strong and enduring that we tend to take its availability for granted. As a global history, this book is an ambitious attempt to re-introduce us to something we think common and uninteresting. It's immensely successful through Kurlansky's multi-faceted approach. He combines economics, politics, culinary practices, tradition and myth in making his presentation. About the only aspect ignored is the detailed biological one explaining why this compound is so necessary to our existence.
Because our need for salt is so fundamental, its history encompasses that of humanity. Salt was basic to many economies, Kurlansky notes. It's acted as the basis of exchange between traders, was the target of empire builders and even paid out to soldiers as a form of "salary" - hence the term. Venice, a coastal city tucked away from the main tracks of Mediterranean trade, bloomed into prominence when it discovered it could garner more profit by trading in salt than by manufacturing it. The Venetian empire and later renaissance was founded on the salt trade.
Empires may be built on salt, but can be felled by misguided policies on its trade and consumption. One element leading to the downfall of the French monarchy was the hated "gabelle", or salt tax, which imposed a heavier burden on farming peasants than it did on the aristocracy.
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133 of 149 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A book to read with a grain of salt April 23, 2003
Format:Paperback
I was browsing the new releases section of my local library when I happened to see this book. It had an interesting premise, and looked to be unlike any book I'd read before. I've read histories of people and places, but never of ingredients. I checked it out skeptically, and was pleasantly surprised.
Kurlansky is a very talented writer, he manages to make salt suspenseful. The book's purpose is to examine how salt affected the history of the world. He succeeds in this. However, the history is not really coherent, it doesn't really flow. Salt is essentially a collection of vignettes. These vignettes are grouped in chronological order. The first part of the book deals with salt in China and Rome. Part 2 concerns salt's effect in the Middle Ages and the wars of independence. Part 3 concludes the history by examining salt in modern times.
The main failing of this extensively researched account is Kurlansky attempts to link salt to every major world event. According to him, dissatisfaction with the salt tax led to the American and French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution came to be because of salt, and salted foods allowed the world to be explored. Nonetheless, the history is accessible and a fun to read, even if some of the author's conclusions are a bit off base.
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130 of 147 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Taking a love of Salt to its logical extreme December 6, 2003
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Salt is one of those things that turned up all over the place in my high school studies. It turned up in chemisty (sodium chloride), in biology (the amount of salt in our bodies and what we do with it), in history and English (check out the root of the word: "salary"). So sure, salt's important. But does it merit its own entire book about its history? Turns out the answer is both yes and no...
I like these small, focused histories (as you've probably guessed if you've read any of the other reviews I've written). I've read many of them, including another one by Mark Kurlansky, Cod (which I rather enjoyed). So when I ran across Salt, I was certain I wanted to read it. I liked Kurlansky's style, and I already knew that the subject matter would be interesting.
And it was. In Salt, Kurlansky walks through both the history of salt and the influence of salt on history, presenting a wide and varied picture of one of the [now] most common elements in our modern world. And he does this in the same engaging fashion that he used in Cod; although, with fewer recipes. So why not give it five stars? Well, it has a couple of noticable flaws that tended to detract a bit from the overall presentation.
The first flaw was in the sheer number of historical snippets that were included. While I'm certain that salt has been important in the broad span of human history, there are a number of these historical anecdotes where he was clearly reaching to demonstrate the influence of salt. Salt may have been involved in these incidents, but it was peripheral at best, and the overall tone sounds too much like cheerleading. Cutting a few of these out would have shortened the book without detracting from the presentation at all.
The second flaw was the meandering path that he takes through the history of salt.
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69 of 76 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Worth his Salt February 1, 2002
Format:Hardcover
Yes, Kurlansky is worth his salt as a writer, researcher and uncoverer of unknown facts about odd subjects. As he did with his previous non fiction books he has woven strands of information into an interesting tapestry, equal parts - enthralling history lesson and cultural voyage. The only problem is - at 450 pages and 26 chapters, with numerous visits to different cultures, countries, eras and rulers in an attempt to cover as many of the 14,000 uses that salt is known for - finishing SALT: A WORLD HISTORY leaves you in a brine of facts, but also very thirsty for a unifying theme or story and a more memorable read.
Certainly my knowledge of historical trivia is now seasoned with tidbits such as: the Anglo-Saxon word for saltworks being 'wich' means that places such as Norwich, Greenwich, etc, in England were once ancient salt mines; Ghandi's independence movement in India began with his defying the British salt laws, and the French levied taxes on salt until as recently as 1946.
A common theme in Kurlansky's books is that food is seen as a topic of historical interest. Here we learn about the role salt played in preserving cod, whale, ham, herring, caviar, pastrami, salami and sausage, and as it was with COD and THE BASQUE HISTORY OF THE WORLD this book is sprinkled throughout with recipes.
Salt is certainly an interesting subject; cultural history buffs will love this book and Kurlansky still has a humorous, easy, and very readable writing style; it's just that he probably could have salted away some of the facts without us missing much and he should have developed a flowing theme rather than one that was so saltatory.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating!
Having read "The Big Oyster" and ordered it TWICE, I had to read some of this authors other writing. You will learn history in an entertaining manner.
Published 6 days ago by J. Barsumian
5.0 out of 5 stars Bravo
Kurlansky is able to demonstrate how in a pre-refrigeration human world, salt allowed for food preservation and thus population growth and the rise of cities and everything else we... Read more
Published 9 days ago by Melina Watts
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent and readable book !
Well written and researched, I came away with fresh perspectives on history and culture, politics and society. Never would've guessed.
Published 14 days ago by Jorge
5.0 out of 5 stars Worth it's salt.
We have really enjoyed this book. A fascinating part of history of which we only knew a small portion. Read more
Published 29 days ago by Dale Thames
5.0 out of 5 stars Salt
Good read. It flows and gives us so much detail into the history we usually know at a glance. Amazing he can find so much to say and the ups and downs of nations all because of... Read more
Published 1 month ago by Karen A. Thomasson
3.0 out of 5 stars Good read; too many recipes...
An interesting book but way too many recipes (that I generally just skipped over). Fascinating relationship between the development of civilizations and salt. Read more
Published 1 month ago by Chris and Sharon
4.0 out of 5 stars How salt affected history
This is a well written presentation of a subject that is ubiquitous but never really thought about. Besides the history and culture of salt, it has some interesting recipes.
Published 1 month ago by Mary T. Gitnick
5.0 out of 5 stars excellent
Who owuld had known the impact of salt on World history? excellent reading. I urge to get it and read it!
Published 1 month ago by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars Salt, we never knew
Ok, you think salt, whatever, right? Just that stuff we put on food. And usually too much. Well stop right there because mark Kurlansky will show you the historic and very human... Read more
Published 2 months ago by Brady
5.0 out of 5 stars extraordinary research a well writen, easy to read and incredible...
Reading this book you come to understan and realize many situation in history that other books dont explain so well
and with reality and truth. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Gary Martin
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