Literacy 2008: Book 7: Salt

Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky

The history of “the only rock we eat,” and how finding, producing, and transporting it has shaped economies and governments from pre-history to the modern day.

Extremely well-organized, with short chapters presented in chronological order describing how a particular region and a particular group of people were affected by salt during that time. Keeps the subject interesting by using personal stories wherever possible. Exhaustively researched, throwing together travelogues, personal accounts, recipes, and descriptions of scientific breakthroughs and production techniques, along with the geography and descriptions of economics, governments and trade routes you’d expect from a history book.

Satisfied my trivia requirement in the first few chapters — e.g. the words “soldier,” “salary,” and calling the Celts “Gauls” all derived from words for salt. Answered a question I’ve been wondering for years, but was always too lazy to look up: what are those weird geometric pink and brown pools in the south San Francisco Bay? (They’re salt ponds). Manages to follow tangents like the development of tabasco and the creation of Israeli resorts on the Dead Sea, without straying too far from the main story.

It’s still a book about salt. The book spends so much time talking about salted cod and Basque salt producers, that you can’t help but feel like the author cribbed a lot of the material from his earlier books. Reading the book kept making me crave weird food and games of Civilization. The subject inspires a ton of terrible cliches and puns in book reviews.

The highest compliment I can give to any documentary or history work is that it reminds me of James Burke’s Connections series. Despite the quote from Anthony Bourdain on its cover, Salt is more than just a food history book; it really does feel like an extended episode of Connections with a fixation on one particular topic. You get a real sense of the epic history of salt, and you can understand how something that is now so common could have once been scarce enough to influence the outcome of wars and the success of entire civilizations.