Salt: A World History
© 2003 Mark Kurlansky
Last Autumn, my doctor advised me to start watching the amount of salt in my diet, and so I did. That this was a concern surprised me: I was never one to add salt to my meals. When I began examining nutritional value labels, however, I realized I didn’t need to: salt positively abounded. It was in seemingly everything, and my entire diet changed. What my doctor did for my diet, Mark Kurlansky has done for my appreciation of world history: opened my eyes to the absolute ubiquity of salt.
Although I knew salt was and remains important as a preservative — that’s the reason it appears in so much supermarket food — Kurlansky’s account impressed me. Were it not for salt’s ability to keep food from spoiling, civilization might not even exist, for salt-preserved food allows civilizations to weather periods of drought and famine, and frees some populations from having to be in the immediate vicinity of agricultural areas. This is especially true of the civilizations which have depended on fish stocks as meat; salt allowed fleets of fishing ships to journey far from their native lands, staying on the open seas for months at a time before returning with their bounty. Such is salt’s importance and ubiquity — not only preventing foodstuffs from spoiling, but being used in processed foods like garum, butter, and cheese — that taxes on it have provided the financial basis of some empires, like the Chinese, and badly-considered salt taxes have led to the failure of governments. The trade in salt and salted goods has been the engine of commerce throughout history, notably in the Renaissance period. Its long history and consistent vitality have allowed salt to make its mark on the landscape (towns were often sited in places where a saltworks might be founded, and place names still reflect old names for salt) and our tongues; ‘salary’ comes from the Roman use of salt as payment. Judging from Kurkansky’s narrative, salt was as important to Elizabethan England as oil is to the modern world.
Though similar in spirit to Coal: A Human History, Salt isn’t quite as cohesive. If Coal was a novel, Salt is a collection of short stories about a central character, arranged chronologically. Kurlansky’s individial chapters spotlight salt’s importance in a given point in history — to the Egyptians, in embalming; to the Baltic seafaring nations, as the basis of their fishing industry — but can be read perfectly well on their own, not being tied together with a tight theme. This doesn’t matter in the least to start with, but after industrialism the text is more scattered. Salt becomes less importance as other preserving methods (refrigeration and canning) rise to prominence, although this happens at the same time that the advance of science is allowing humans to understand what salt truly is. Considering that salt was once rare and immensely valuable, and is now so common that we must be conscience about avoiding too much of it and our diets, I am left with the question of why. One assumes better processing technology allowed for efficient salt production, or that the new science allowed us to find salt with greater ease, but Salt doesn’t cover this. The ending chapters rather trail off, but this is one weak point in an otherwise fascinating book. Kurlansky has written other novels in this theme, including one on cod (not surprising given the amount of fish-related information here), and I may give them a go in the future. This is a solid read about salt’s preeminence in the preindustrial world, even if it is a bit weak thereafter.