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251 of 271 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Definitely worth his salt . . .
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...
Published on April 6, 2004 by Stephen A. Haines

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133 of 150 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Taking a love of Salt to its logical extreme
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...
Published on December 6, 2003 by Keith Smith


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251 of 271 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Definitely worth his salt . . ., April 6, 2004
This review is from: Salt: A World History (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. The reputation of tax evasion borne by the French relates to the resentment expressed over the salt tax. A British regulation on salt resulted in similar reaction leading to the breakup up their own Empire. It was a "march to the sea" led by Mahatma Ghandi to collect salt that galvanised resistance to British rule. Over a century after the French Revolution, the British were displaced from India for similar reasons - greed.
While acknowledging the importance of salt in our lives, Kurlansky notes that determining how much is "too little" or "too much" is elusive. Many people today claim to have "salt-free" diets while remaining ignorant of how much salt is contained in our foods, both naturally and through processing. Yet, as Kurlansky records, salt has appeal beyond just the body's needs. He records numerous commentators from ancient Egypt, China and Rome who express their admiration for salt's flavour-adding qualities. Sauces based on various ingredients mixed with salt permeate the book. He notes that the salt dispenser is a modern innovation, supplementing the use of salt in cooking processes.
Salt's decline in conserving food, which changed the amount of salt we consume directly, came about due to increased world trade, displacement of rural populations into cities, and, of course, war. "The first blow" displacing salt as a preservative came from a Parisian cook; a man so obscure that his given name remains disputed. Nicolas [Francois?] Appert worked out how to preserve meat by "canning". Adopted by Napoleon's armies, the technique spread rapidly. The technology of the Industrial Revolution led to effective refrigeration. Kurlansky gives an account of Clarence Birdseye's efforts to found what became a major industry.
Although the topic seems overspecialised, the universal application and long historical view of this book establishes its importance. Kurlansky has successfully met an immense challenge in presenting a wealth of information. That he graces what might have been a dry pedantic exercise with recipes, anecdotes, photographs and maps grants this book wide appeal. He's to be congratulated for his worldly view and comprehensive presentation. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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134 of 151 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A book to read with a grain of salt, April 23, 2003
By 
Randyll McDermott (Minneapolis, MN, USA) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Salt: A World History (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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133 of 150 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Taking a love of Salt to its logical extreme, December 6, 2003
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This review is from: Salt: A World History (Paperback)
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. He generally starts early in history, and his discussion moves along roughly as history does as well; however, he has a tendency to wander a bit both forward and backward without effectively tying all of this together. I'd have preferred to either walk straight through history while skipping around the world (effectively comparing the use and influence of salt around the world) or to have taken more time to discuss why we were rewinding (effectively following one thread to its conclusion and then picking up another parallel one). To me it made the presentation a little too choppy.
There have been other criticisms as well; for example, the chemistry is incorrect in a number of places, but if you're using this as a chemical reference, then you've got serious issues with your ability to library research. Of course, that begs the question of what errors are in there that we didn't catch. And it does tend to be a bit repetitive in parts; although, this could have been used to good effect if historical threads had been followed a bit more completely.
While I had a few dings on the book, overall I liked it. The fact that I read it end-to-end and enjoyed the last chapter as much as the first is a testament to my general enjoyment of it. It wasn't the best book I read last year, but I'll certainly keep it on my bookshelf. So, back to my original question: does salt merit its own book? Yes, it does, but perhaps in a somewhat shorter form.
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71 of 78 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Worth his Salt, February 1, 2002
This review is from: Salt: A World History (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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26 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars forget the pepper, January 23, 2002
By 
marzipan "panchild" (Greenwich, CT United States) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Salt: A World History (Hardcover)
This was a Christmas gift, and no sooner had I started to read it when I couldn't stop. I discovered, to my entertainment and education, that salt definitely isn't just something you sprinkle on your salad, along with the pepper. (Did you know the word "salad" comes from the Latin for salt?)
Mark Kurlansky's telling of the story of salt, its huge role in world history, is spellbinding. He manages to get the awesome early history of China, with its advanced, non-western technology, told in the context of the search for salt. From China, to Egypt, to Roman conquests, to the Carribbean salt pans, to Ghandi's mission in India, to early industry in upstate New York, salt was a leader. And now I know why gourmet sea salt from Brittany is gray.
Salt is one of those products, along with hunting weapons, and the earliest grains, that has guided human destiny. That's not hyperbole. Read this wonderful book and find out why!
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The history of civilization taken with a grain of salt, March 14, 2003
By 
This review is from: Salt: A World History (Paperback)
Mark Kurlansky has written a witty and erudite history of mankind's love affair with salt. From Lake Yuncheng 8,000 years ago in what is now modern-day China to the fine granular perfection of a box of Morton's, Kurlansky uses salt as a lens through which to view the development of technology and nations. He ends the book with the not un-ironic recognition of what took eighty centuries to achieve -- abundant, perfect white salt -- is now common, cheap and disdained.
This is an informal and amusing book, filled with what seems solid research and clear thinking. Half history and half food writing, Kurlansky visits Portugese cod-fishing fleets and Roman salt mines, ancient Asian saltworks and Edmund McIlhenny's salt island in New Iberia Parish, Louisiana. He uses the repeated cycles of history to visit certain recurring themes: a human's need for salt making them vulnerable to taxation, and thence rebellion, as well as the growth of technologies, particularly drilling technologies, spurred by the need for, and want of, salt.
Today, with blast freezers, refrigerated truck lines and jets that can move fresh seafood around the world, we have forgotten just how critical salt once was. Nowadays we can tinker with our salt intake and question its affect on health, but for men and women laboring under the sun in salt-poor regions, it was life itself. Kurlansky remninds us of these things, and how the humble white crystal has been part of our development as a civilization.
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79 of 96 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Factual errors and wild speculation?, September 21, 2005
This review is from: Salt: A World History (Paperback)
Do yourself a favor and read all the reviews here. Pay particular attention to the reviews about factual errors. Watch out for reviewers who obviously didn't read the book. I can see how the book is entertaining for some and fascinating for others, but the factual errors about the chemistry and geology of salt are really troubling to me. If there are several untrue and misleading statements that I caught because I am familiar with one subject, then how many more can be expected? It's like television in a book and reminds me that popular historical accounts can't be trusted.

After reading a few chapters I wondered about several stories that jumped around. A lot of statements and a few whole paragraphs seemed more specualtive than anything else. So I decided to move onto something I knew more about and hoped to learn something useful in the process. The chapter on the geology of salt barely covers the geology of salt. It talked more about preserving food and petroleum geology. Either the author applied too much artistic license or he really has a beef with geologists. In the closing statements of the chapter he says in so many words that geologist never know what they are talking about. I should have known from the title of the chapter, "The Mythology of Geology." This might be true about some geologists, but at least try to do a little better with readily available information. Scholars have a responsibility to the general public to be as accurate and precise as possible about the information we present.

Aside from the terribly incorrect statements about chemistry noted by another reviewer, there are some problems with the geological accounts. Contrary to what the author tells you, we do know why the oceans are salty, we know how large salt deposits form, and salt domes trap oil that formed somewhere else.
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39 of 46 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A Terrible Disappointment, February 28, 2005
By 
Richard A. Mitchell "Rick Mitchell" (candia, new hampshire United States) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)    (REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Salt: A World History (Paperback)
Having read and loved "Cod" by Mr. Kurlansky, I was looking forward to "Salt". Cod was interesting, readable and entertaining as well as being a comprehensive history of an interesting and little known topic. I thought Salt would be the same. Perhaps the best way to sum up the difference between the successful Cod and the tedious Salt is to note that Cod was 294 pages and Salt, 449.

Salt is tedious and redundant. There is no central theme. The author takes us all around the world, salt lick by brine spring to relate how every salt producer produced the salt and then distributed used or distributed it. There were plenty of trees, but Mr. Kurlansky never found the forest. Every chapter was merely a new stop on the tour. The tour was so disorganized that it did not proceed geographically nor by time.

A few hundred pages shorter and this would have been so much better. A few examples of salt production types and an overview would have improived it to be readable and interesting.

There are some pearls such as the Chinese were producing salt with the aid of natural gas while Europeans were virtually still in caves. The Egyptian mummification was also interesting. Unfortunately, these were in the first chapters.

Interestingly, Mr. Kurlansky's history virtually ignores the twentieth century. Very little is included about the 20th and 21st centuries except a few excerpts of salt producing areas that went under and the noting that Morton and Cargill are now the two largest producers. Virtually nothing was included about how they got that way or how salt use and production compares today with 100-200 years ago.

This is a very tough read. I would not recommend it after the first 80-100 pages. With those read, unfortunately, you've got the book.
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21 of 24 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Salt of the Earth---Chemical Heritage magazine, March 12, 2003
By A Customer
This review is from: Salt: A World History (Paperback)
Salt is a multidisciplinary historical look at salt, a material closely tied to civilization. As its title claims, it is a history of the world from the perspective of salt. The book is hard to put down with attention grabbing chapters such as �Salt�s Salad Days,� �The Leaving of Liverpool,� �The Odium of Sodium,� �Big salt, Little Salt� and �The War Between the Salts.� Since the author has received an award for excellence in food writing, it should come as no surprise that the text contains its share of historical recipes.
In the course of the book we are introduced to an astonishing range of cultures and visit many areas where salt has been found and harvested. From Egypt to China, Rome and the Celts, India, Africa and America, the story moves back and forth, skipping between time periods and cultures. The reader is assisted in the journey by well-drawn maps. I especially enjoyed learning about the many ways salt has been harvested, from the sea, evaporating brines or mining rock salt. I also was intrigued by the influence of salt on fields diverse as economics, taxes, politics and technology. For example, we learn about how Gandhi and Indian independence got its start in rebellion against oppressive salt taxes leveled on the Indians so that British salt makers would have a market for their surplus salt.
In the book we meet salt-connected people like Li Bing, governor of what is now Sichuan in 250 B.C.E. and a hydraulic engineering genius. Besides building the world�s first large scale dam for flood control and irrigation, and opening up central China for widespread agriculture, Li Bing was the first to drill for salt brine. The author shows how this naturally led to our geologic understanding of salt domes and eventually how to drill for oil in such domes. At this time the Chinese became the first to tax salt and attempt to fix its price, something hard to do with such a cheap and readily available material.
It is in his slant towards food that the author is most comfortable, talking about the many ways salt and food intersect. We and introduced to salt and food preservation, spices and flavorings, sour kraut and salted meat, fish and fishing, even the harvesting and production of caviar. There are two chapters on Avery Island in Louisiana, the first on salt mining by the Avery family which supplied much of the Confederacy�s salt, the second on Edmund McIlhenny combining two products of the island � hot chili peppers and salt � to make Tabasco sauce.
The book appears to randomly skip around between cultures and time periods, visiting China and America several times. It also ignores any time period later than mid twentieth century and does little with modern, nonfood uses of salt. The author gives no citations or footnotes for his many quotes or facts, relying instead on a fairly extensive bibliography including books and a few articles. While he talks about the science of salt in parts of a few chapters, I would have liked to learn more. He does fairly well with the changes in technology involved with salt. While I enjoyed reading the book it left me with many historical and scientific questions unanswered. Its real strength is in describing the historical relationship between salt and food. I found it pleasant to read.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Kurlansky uses salt as a thread to link cultures and history, March 21, 2003
By 
This review is from: Salt: A World History (Paperback)
Salt" takes the reader through thousands of years of human cultural and scientific development, all-the-while making it interesting and accessible. The common character throughout is ordinary table salt, which up until 100 years ago, played a far more important role in human society and economics. Through the use of this everyday material, Kurlansky takes us on a tour that from ancient China and Rome, to Britain's rule of India, into the slave operated salt mines of Europe, down to Avery Island during the American Civil War (and the creation of Tabasco Sauce); all with a focus on the cuisines of those places and times. A long book that I was sorry to finish.
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Salt: A World History
Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky (Paperback - January 28, 2003)
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