Book Review: Salt: A World History, by Mark Kurlansky
Back when I was in university, I read a lot of academic papers about food security, food systems, and cultural norms surrounding food. Margaret Visser’s Much Depends on Dinner is one of my favourite non-fiction works, and it has an entire chapter devoted to the sociological and mythological history of salt. I figured that Salt: A World History would be a similarly savoury read.
About the book: The title pretty much says it all. It’s a non-fiction account of the ways in which our quest for salt – to mine it, refine it, trade it, tax it, and more – has shaped economics, politics, and culture throughout the world.
What I liked: There’s just so much to talk about when it comes to salt. Forget well-worn stuff like the gabelle, France’s much-loathed salt tax. Instead, think about the saltworks in China that invented a percussive drill to reach deep aquifers of brine, and in the process became the first place in the world to use natural gas as a heat source. Think instead of a giant mountain composed of nothing but salt in Cordona, Spain. Stuff like that is the stuff of marvels. In particular I was fascinated by the segment of the book where Kurlansky discussed the intersections between Basque fishermen, the newly-discovered North Atlantic cod fishing grounds, and salt trading. I think this passage is the heart of the book, as Kurlansky has written books of a similar nature about both the Basque peoples and cod – it combines and distills the ideas and events that interest him the most.
What I disliked: For a book that claims to deal with “world” history, there are a lot of geographical regions that Kurlansky doesn’t discuss. There are several chapters devoted to salt production and trade in the context of Europe, North America, and China, and at least one good-sized chapter on Ghandi’s salt march, but not much attention devoted to salt in the context of Africa. Hell, I bet the sections on northern European cod fishing alone outweighed all of what the author wrote about Africa. I can’t even remember at this point if South America and Australia were mentioned, but considering what else I remember from this book, I doubt it. As such, I think the “world history” part of the title is a misnomer.
The verdict: This was a very dry book (puns definitely intended). I could tell that Kurlansky knew a lot about salt, as the connections he drew between different peoples, places, and events were often fascinating. However, I didn’t feel the joy or passion in his writing that I’ve felt when reading other books about food, like Margaret Visser’s Much Depends on Dinner (mentioned above – seriously, you should check it out). In the end, I began to treat Salt like homework the same way I did when reading The Terror: I set myself a quota of reading 50 pages during each commute to and from work. In general, this is not a sign that a book is going well. However, as I hate to leave things half-read, I persevered and finished it.
Up next: Fun Home by Alison Bechdel