The dry recitation of facts does little for distribution of historic wisdom. Certainly, there has been a move toward making history more palatable and more relatable for the non-historian. And I’m deeply thankful. As a child, a combination of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and Michael Wood’s “In Search of the Trojan War” gave me a taste for history that the dry numbers and names of classroom history texts could not. Mark Kurlansky continues this tradition with Salt, an odyssey through history with “the only rock we eat.”
Beginning in ancient China, Kurlansky takes us across centuries, through times when salt was worth more than gold. He shows how hunting for salt shaped lives, empires, and trade routs. And how salt became a part of everything, from cooking to medicine to the names of cities and more.
And what is a book about salt without discussing food? All along the history of humans digging for, evaporating for, hunting for, and dying for salt of one variety or another, Kurlansky investigates the various ways it has been used in food, from preservation to taste.
As history tends to be, Salt is also quite timely. The parallels between the hunger for salt by the very powerful is not unlike the hunger for oil, gold, or other power granting materials. The whole section on British salt mining, and the environmental disaster it created can’t help but remind the reader of activities continuing today. Even the arguments made by corporate interests are largely the same (scientists don’t know what they’re talking about; they’re being paid by our competition, the environment does this naturally, etc.).
For history buffs and food lovers of every stripe, Salt is a must read. And once again, my old refrain. A good history book makes you want to read more, learn more, and continue the quest. On that count, this book definitely succeeds.
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