I first heard about this book some years back from a girl’s profile online, as the most recent book read. An entire book about salt intrigued me, so I put it on my list of books to read. I was looking for something to read, so it seemed like now was the time. Come to find out, the book was quite popular, as it is an interesting historical narrative about something that seems so commonplace yet had a large effect on history.

Every person and animal needs to eat salt, otherwise they will get sick and eventually die. Wild animals find naturally occurring salt, so if your diet consists primarily of wild animals, you can get your salt from them. Otherwise, you (and your domesticated animals) will need to find another source of salt. Additionally, until refrigeration was invented, salt was the main preservative, especially for meat. If you wanted to eat through the winter, you needed salt. If you wanted to send your army or navy somewhere, they needed salt for disinfectant, salted meat for food, and the horses needed salt to live. So salt supply was quite important.

China got most of its salt from Sichuan, where it was piped out from brine wells, through a complicated network of bamboo pipes, then boiled to get salt. The Chinese emperors often monopolized salt, selling it for high prices and using the profit for state revenues. Confucius argued that it was wrong to monopolize something that everyone needs. Furthermore, if the state profits, then it creates a moral hazard, as officials will then try to profit. But salt remained largely a state monopoly until modern China.

They Egpytians discovered that it was more profitable to trade salted goods than salt, as the salted goods are lighter as well as more directly useful. Egypt did a brisk trade around the Mediterranean in salted domesticated fowl, as well as salted fish. They also discovered that soaking olives in salt softens them and removes the natural bitterness, making them actually edible. They also used a chemical salt, natron (mostly sodium bicarbonate and sodium carbonate), as “heavenly salt,” which was used to mummify dead bodies. Poor people were mummified using normal salt.

The Romans mostly got their salt by evaporated sea water, and tended to locate their cities near a place suitable for making salt. Salt was used for salads (hence, "salad”), and since they had no corks, for preserving wine as well. It was used in fish sauce, similar to Vietnamese fish sauce, although by about 500 AD this potent, strong-smelling sauce had fallen out of fashion. In order to placate the plebeians, salt was always provided at low prices.

Later cities, Venice and Genoa built empires out of trading salt on the Mediterranean. Venice built its power on a salt monopoly. It subsidized salt imports, creating an economic incentive to ship to Venice, and then sold the salt all around. It’s merchant ships were also fighting ships, which helped the empire building as well. Genoa tried to monopolize salt as well, but was defeated by Venice. Instead, they shipped Prosciutto, salted ham from pigs that have only eaten the whey from Parmasian cheese making. There was good source of bring nearby Parma, so the salt could be used for ham, as well as cheese (which also requires salt as the curing agent).

By about 600 AD, the church had declared about half the days of the year as fast days, most notably Fridays. On these days, you could not have sex or eat red meat, due to associations with sex from the red, or “hot” nature. Fish, however, were from the blue (cold) sea, so they were okay for fast days. The Basques did a good trade in whale for fast days, and then as they developed better ships, sailed farther and discovered cod. Cod replaced whale meat since it was less oily, and thus less likely to go rancid before it was salted.

Germany had salt mines as far back as the Celts, and some Celtic miners have been found perfectly preserved in the mines. The mines were destroyed along with Rome, but monasteries later re-opened them as a source of income. The mines were so productive that Saltzburg remained independent for centuries. Germany also invented sauerkraut, a version of which made it to France in the form of choucroute.

The nordic regions had a good supply of cod, and herring, but limited salt. So the cities in the Baltic formed the Hanseatic League, which married the salt production in Germany and northern France with the fish in the north. In its early days, the Hanseatic League was known for its high quality, which was rigorously enforced. As they became successful, they also began using their ships militarily, which ultimately lead to their downfall as nation-states became more powerful and wanted to control their own shipping.

France had a lot of salt, owning to its long coast and good weather for evaporating salt. It also had a extremely hated tax on salt. The tax varied by region, with regions around Paris paying a huge price and other areas paying nothing. Smuggling carried a harsh punishment, but smugglers generally had the favor of the people. The tax was one of the first things to go during the French Revolution.

England, in contrast, had little salt available. Despite a long coastline, English weather was not favorable for evaporating salt. Chester had a lot of brine, so they started a saltworks there by boiling the brine. By the 1600s, all the available trees had been used up, so they started using coal. About this time the North American cod stocks were discovered, simply chock full of cod, which was big money. Even by proudly burning so much coal that the skies were gray, they could not provide enough salt for the cod.

English ships, as well as Spanish and French ships would go to islands on the Caribbean and scrape salt off the beaches, load it in the ships, and sail for the cod regions. Some islands were so popular that sailors were prohibited from going ashore with guns lest they meet sailors from a warring nation and get into a fight.

On the American continents, salt maintained the Aztec and Incan empires. It also caused the randomness of American roads: animals made a trail to the salt, and then people settled near the salt and built a road on the trail. In the North American colonies, salt was in short supply, and generally purchased from the British. The colonists then started producing goods with the salt and sold them around the Atlantic. The colonialism is supposed to work is that the colonies are the market for the goods produced by the mother nation. So buying salt from England was right and proper, but selling goods was not. So they enacted laws to curb this, which resulted in the American Revolution.

Salt was in short supply throughout the Revolutionary War. Despite subsidies by the Continental Congress, production did not improve, although Boston did invent rolling roofs that could be closed over the evaporation ponds when it rained. The Erie Canal was built to facilitate salt transport, which was so successful that a north-south canal was built, resulting in the creation of the city of Syracuse at the intersection. The South was short of salt production, so it imported salt used as ballast on ships coming in to New Orleans. During the Revolutionary War, the Union blockade prevented this, causing a severe salt shortage. When Edmund McIhenny married into the family owning Avery Island, he discovered that the island was sitting on a deep reserve of nearly pure salt. He made a fortune mining this during the war, but, unfortunately for him, it was in Confederate dollars, which became worthless at the end of the war. So he started experimenting with hot sauce, and began producing Tabasco Sauce.

Salt was increasingly in demand in the American West for silver mining operations, but decreasing in importance for food. Canning was invented, which resulted in vegetables that tasted better than salted vegetables. Ice began to be used for refrigeration, and railroads could transport fresh fish inland fast enough that it would not spoil. Around 1900, flash freezing was invented. At the same time, people began to realize that rock salt is not scarce, as it was being found in many locations, resulting in salt being much less important than before. (This also resulted in the discovery of oil: the salt domes often were contaminated with black sludge, which got trapped underneath them)

The last major role that salt has played in history was in the liberation of India. India had been making salt for hundred of years prior to the East India Company seizing control of the country. Since Indian salt could be made much more cheaply, the British outlawed the making of salt, so that India could be a proper colony and purchase its salt from Chester. This left people in some of the regions, which were essentially salt plains, without a means of livelihood. In other regions, it meant that simply picking up chunks of salt off the beaches was illegal. The salt laws were widely hated, and Gandhi chose them as his first non-violent protest. He marched to the sea, accumulating thousands of supporters along the way, and broke the law by picking up a piece of salt. His actions captured worldwide sympathy and led to the founding of an independent India.

With the invention of vacuum boiling in the early 1900s, salt can now be boiled using less energy and at a consistently uniform size. Ironically, although pure white, small-grained salt was prized throughout history, the success of identical salt everywhere in the world has lead to a demand for “artisinal salt,” made by hand the traditional way, and so salt has come full circle to the beginning.

Salt, A World History is a fun ambling through the effects of salt on history. It offers a different perspective on why events happened from the perspective generally taught in primary school. Kurlansky has clearly done a lot of research in many areas of the world, and he weaves an interesting narrative. I discovered that salt was used in a wide variety of foods—from ham, to cheese, and hot sauce. I also gained an appreciation for how salt influenced history. I would have never guessed that countries would have talked about “salt independence” in the way we now talk about “oil independence,” for instance.

Kurlansky has made a point of covering all the regions of the world in his history. After about halfway through the book, it begins to get a little repetitive. Many narratives are variations on the theme of a certain region had no good places to evaporate salt, so they tried boiling brine, which took a lot of energy and they explored other options. For instance, while the variety of salt-making techniques on the French coast have some interest, they did not seem to make a huge impact on history. Including the French saltworks, German saltworks, English saltworks, American saltworks, most of which use the same techniques is a maybe a bit more detailed than necessary.

Another problem is that the book does not give a very coherent history. It meanders from story to story like pop-history does nowadays, but it does not give much historical analysis. After reading 500 pages of Salt, A World History, I am left to piece together the principles of how salt affected history myself. I realize that it is cool and post-modern to eschew meta-narratives, but I think this is nonsense. History is about the causes, the whys, the economics and politics of events. History is meta-narrative. Kurlansky has all the causes, whys, and economics in the narratives, yet does not actually take the next step of making a cohesive history out of them. The book would benefit from tracing how salt affected history, illustrated with many of the great narratives in the book, rather than a tapestry of stories like it is now. For oral history a la Studs Terkel, that simply aims to paint a picture of people’s lives, okay, maybe. For a book that claims to be a history of salt, I hoped for a little more insightful analysis on how salt affected the larger picture.

Salt, A World History has many very interesting narratives about how salt contributed to history. As moderns, we take salt for granted, and Kurlansky does a great job of giving entertaining perspective. I hesitate to recommend the book, though, because after about halfway through I really started dragging. In addition there is little to inform the reader of how salt shaped history. Still, if you want insight on the importance of salt, the book has more than enough for you, in a well-told package.

Review: 7
The book is well-written—the stories are well-told and move smoothly from one to another. They are definitely well-researched, as well. However, it would benefit from some of the more unimportant sections edited out. It is probably sufficient to say that the once-well-frequented islands of the Caribbean are now barren and impoverished, with the population shrinking due to old age, rather than spending a chapter on human interest stories about them, for instance. Also, it bothers me that I read 500 pages and have to come up with my own analysis in order to have any idea of the principles of how and why salt influenced world affairs.