A Rarefied Pedigree Exposed in Salt by Mark Kurlansky

Review by Chadwick Allen Raines


The only mineral we eat is so ubiquitous as to be invisible in the context of the modern home. It is relegated to a shaker in most houses, a grinder in rare other occasions, but in general, salt is given no place of high praise. Lambasted for its effects on the heart, added to recipes in pinches and tastes, salt is too mundane for most authors to contemplate beyond the mise en scène.

Not so for Mark Kurlansky, who takes a look at one of history's most pivotal resources. By peeling away the assumed and the overlooked, Kurlansky takes the reader on a voyage through history, across the sea, and into the fires of war.

The history of the world hinging on a single resource sounds like the stuff of fiction, but Kurlansky makes a convincing case throughout Salt: A World History that this vital mineral acted as the fulcrum for human expansion. Not to give too much away, but the word salary is derived from salt--as in the phrase, "worth his salt." France once had an extortionate salt tax along with mandatory salt purchasing levels for its populace. And indeed, were it not for salt, ocean travel may have never been viable. It's strength as a preservative helped guide the way for intercontinental oceanic travel.

All of this and more is explored in stunningly concise prose. Kurlansky paints a beautiful picture of the world through the lens of salt, and the reader leaves with both a practical knowledge of the outline of our culinary mineral as well as an appreciation for the difficulty salt posed throughout early modernity. Salt: A World History follows in the wake of Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, itself a gripping exploration. Taking the mundane and revealing how trial and tribulation was responsible for its mundanity is a strength of Mr. Kurlansky, and one which is on fullest display in Salt.

On a more personal note, Salt gave me the opportunity and encouragement to examine many conveniences throughout modernity that I've taken for granted. If salt has such a grand history, what else is hiding a rarefied pedigree? There is an entire genre of historicals devoted to answering that very question, and Salt proved an effective and memorable entry into learning about the influence of tin on history, the influence of germs on the pathway society took, the influence of cod and the development of contour mapping thanks to trying to weigh the earth--all manner of fascinating side effects and efforts of history. For those endeavoring to chase the rabbit hole of historical tracing, I can think of no better beginning than Salt.

Salt gave me the opportunity and encouragement to examine many conveniences throughout modernity that I've taken for granted.

If you have even a passing interest in history, I encourage you to pick up a copy of Salt: A World History. If nothing else, the wealth of trivia contained within is sure to delight.