Mark Kurlansky’s Salt: A World History is something of a must-read for culinary buffs, whether your interest in food is in cooking it or merely in the eating thereof. Kurlansky does a solid job of explaining how the history of civilization, both in the West and several countries in Asia, has been directed and altered by the search for and use of salt.
The word “salt” actually refers to more than just sodium chloride, although that is the salt that plays the largest role in the book. A salt is one of two products of the reaction between an acid and a base – the other being water – and several other salts make appearances in Salt. Ancient Egyptians recognized that there were real differences between various salts, even if they didn’t understand the chemical compositions; natron, a naturally-occurring compound containing sodium carbonate, sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), and sodium chloride, was used in mummification as well as in curing foods. Different types of culinary salts often served as measures of status, and the drive for whiter and whiter salt up until the last twenty years serves as a stark contrast to today’s marketing of pricier gourmet salts like French grey salt, black salt, and alaea red salt.
Salt also drove a number of scientific and technological advances. The curing and preserving process is obviously a major part of the book, since it determined the economic prowess of several European nations and is a major reason the Basques were able to survive as an independent people despite the fact that they have always been ruled by others. But some of the discoveries and advances are more surprising: Natural gas was discovered by the Chinese, who noticed that some salt miners would mysteriously lay down and die in certain spots underground, and that the same substance causing the deaths also appeared to be causing the sudden, massive explosions that plagued those mines. They eventually identified it as a fuel and figured out how to harness it, something which every home and professional cook should appreciate.
Kurlansky largely lets the tale of salt tell itself, although it might be a stretch to call it a tale, since there isn’t a single narrative thread as you might see in a biography. The book is more a collection of anecdotes and mini-histories in chronological order, with the bulk of the book spent on ancient uses of salt and on Europe’s mercantilist period. For a quick read, it’s packed with information, although I thought he gave somewhat short shrift to the aforementioned rise of artisan salts, instead focusing on the rise of Big Salt and the consolidation of the world salt industry. One note to fellow sticklers: Kurlansky’s grasp of grammar and vocabulary leaves a little something to be desired, and even his editors didn’t catch every stray comma or word error (e.g., using “parley” for “parlay”), but the mistakes weren’t frequent enough to get under my skin. Okay, maybe a little bit.