Michael's Reviews > Salt: A World History

Salt by Mark Kurlansky
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's review
Jun 08, 2010

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Read in June, 2010

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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