Book Review ‘Salt: A World History’

Mimi Pysno

In his book “Salt: A World History” Mark Kurlansky explores the rich past of a common object. The book traces the history of one of our planet’s most abundant resources and does it such a way that makes you care.

Kurlansky jumps head-first into the history of salt, beginning before the common era and taking the reader on an international journey through time to the present day. The book presents salt as a unifying culinary force, transcending national boundaries. Kurlansky offers original recipes from around the world, including an ancient Greek recipe for preserving tuna, an Englishman’s instructions for salt cod from the 17th century, and a 20th century Irishwoman’s advice for making spiced beef.

Although the recipes can become a bit tedious for the non-foodies among us, Kurlansky redeems himself with description of what may be the most interesting part of salt’s past: its effect on language.   The word salary literally means “worth his salt,” hearkening back to a time when Roman soldiers were paid with salt. The Latin sal lead to the French solde, meaning to pay, and thus came the word soldier.

This book presents salt as intricately tied into historical events, such as the epidemic of the bubonic plague of the 14th century. Killing 75 million people, approximately one half of the population of Europe, the fishing town of Collioure was spared due to huge stockpiles of salt to preserve anchovies in this fishing village.

During the American Civil War, the salt supply in the North greatly outnumbered the South’s supply. This led to a mass effort on the part of the South to produce more salt which was actively needed for food for troops and also to continue warfare. Slaves were employed in saltworks, often dying horrible deaths to fund a war that was fundamentally against them.

This book is fascinating for anyone who has ever come in contact with salt, forever changing the way you look at a saltshaker. It is immensely entertaining and applicable, leaving even the history and non-fiction hater interested. Well written and explained, “Salt: a World History” is a must-read.