Summary and book reviews of Salt by Mark Kurlansky

Salt

A World History

By Mark Kurlansky

Salt
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  • Hardcover: Jan 2002,
    352 pages.
    Paperback: Feb 2003,
    496 pages.

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Book Summary

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.

Chapter One
A Mandate of Salt

Once I stood on the bank of a rice paddy in rural Sichuan Province, and a lean and aging Chinese peasant, wearing a faded forty-year-old blue jacket issued by the Mao government in the early years of the Revolution, stood knee deep in water and apropos of absolutely nothing shouted defiantly at me, "We Chinese invented many things!"

The Chinese are proud of their inventions. All Chinese leaders, including Mao Zedong, sooner or later give a speech listing the many Chinese firsts. Though rural China these days seems in need of a new round of inventions, it is irrefutably true that the Chinese originated many of the pivotal creations of history, including papermaking, printing, gunpowder, and the compass.

China is the oldest literate society still in existence, and its 4,000 years of written history begin as a history of inventions. It is no longer clear when legends were made into men and when living historic figures were turned into legends. ...

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Reviews

Media Reviews
Author Blurb Anthony Bourdain author of the best-selling Kitchen Confidential
Salt is the fascinating, indispensable history of an indispensable ingredient. Like Kurlansky's earlier work, Cod, it's a must-have book for any serious cook or foodie.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. A lively social history that does for salt what Kurlansky previously did for cod....Enlightening and delighting as he goes, Kurlansky is, as Jane Grigson before him, a peerless food historian.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Only Mark 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 of Salt A World History...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.

Library Journal

Starred Review. In his latest work, Kurlansky is in command of every facet of this 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…An entertaining, informative read, this is highly recommended…

Booklist

Starred Review. Kurlansky thinks big. First, there was Cod A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World (1997), then The Basque History of the World (1999), and now, the world history of a subject bigger than one of the most important food commodities in the West, bigger than the oldest extant European culture--that culinary sine qua non, salt.... Tasty, very tasty!

Boston Globe

In Salt A World History, Mark Kurlansky takes a substance that shaped the fortunes of cultures from ancient China to Britain to the Americas and runs with it...Although not strictly food history, Salt is at its most winning in the chapters telling of people's obsession with it for flavoring and preserving meat and vegetables...But it's really the quirks that seem to interest Kurlansky and make this book fascinating. These sorts of stories sustain the book's narrative until, by the end, when Kurlansky reports on haute cuisine's interest in unusual, large-grain salts, this book of minutely researched data and history can literally make the mouth water.

Los Angeles Times Book Review

Kurlansky continues to prove himself remarkably adept at taking a most unlikely candidate and telling its tale with epic grandeur...With Salt, Kurlansky adds his name to this list, rising splendidly to the challenge of showing us the world that can be found in a mere grain of salt.

Seattle Post Intelligencer

Salt is an endlessly fascinating topic, which is why Kurlansky chose to write about it...Even with all the intriguing stories that Kurlansky strings together, gthere were many more he couldn't share...This single volume is savory enough.

Reader Reviews
Cissana

Hidden world history
I am still reading the book, having received it as a gift. I enjoy it very much as I am involved in a fascinating study of world history from some unusual perspective (it should be a reasonable and valid view of history, of course) like perspective ...   Read More

H.G.

Salt...an Incredibly Boring Read
Salt is a very boring book and unless you are genuinely passionate about salt, its not advised to read it.

Oakton High School

Salt
This book is horrid. It does not even talk about salt half the time. He is trying to relate things back to salt, but he is doing it terrible. Never read this book ever unless forced to (Oakton High School).

Kelsey

Maybe a Bit Too Salty.
We had to read this book for AP history and it was really interesting and helped with even textbook content because of the mention of well known figures suck as Ghandi and Plato and Mao Zedong, and many more as well as discussed many major historical...   Read More

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