Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky

10 Jul

Salt: A World HistoryReading this book cemented two things in my mind:

1) The public school system failed me when it comes to geography,


2) The French steal.

Wait. Hold on. It’s not fair to make blanket statements like that. I guess I failed myself with respect to geography. There, I feel better.

I expected to learn interesting facts about the history of salt from this book and that is exactly what I got. But it was a little heavy-handed. I mean, I was with Kurlansky when he talked about how salt has historically been an important commodity because of how much revenue it could produce when taxed. Think about it: is there really any meal that you eat that doesn’t contain salt? Do you have a salt shaker sitting on some surface in your home in relative proximity to eatables? You betcha! So when ancient Chinese emperors decided to tax salt as a way to finance their army, they were on to something. And when various rebellions and coups caused emperors to come to power who didn’t tax salt, it took them very few years to realize that taxing salt = force needed to stay in power. So salt = power. Follow Kurlansky? I did!

That is, until he begins referencing the importance of salt in more recent conflicts. And by importance Kurlansky means IMPORTANCE. And by conflicts, he means the following:

  • The War for American Independence
  • The U.S. Civil War
  • Gandhi’s resistance movement against British Imperialism
  • the establishment of the state of Israel

I’m not going to argue that salt didn’t play a role (and in some cases, a pivotal one) in each of these conflicts. Kurlansky makes compelling and convincing arguments on this point. But it feels like the point of his argument is not how salt contributed to each of these conflicts but how it was THE REASON for them. His language implies that there is a direct, almost cause/effect relationship going on. Really? Am I to believe that Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus for salt? Or Gandhi’s reasons for civil disobedience stemmed from his inability to purchase salt at a reasonable price? Me thinks not. The British usurped the rights of the Indians and operated the colony according to principles of Mercantilism. A single manifestation of this relationship was the salt trade/tax and Gandhi’s protests against it were really a metaphor for his resistance to British rule. Mmmkay? So when you come across this portion of the book, take everything with a grain of salt (…..see what I did there?).

The above now out of my system, I can focus on things that made this book fun to read. Like finding out the history of expressions like “worth his salt” or “a red herring.” Or learning about the history of Morton Salt. Or that finding salt beds is often linked to finding crude oil/natural gas. H-wah?! Geologist! Get on this! What’s that? You’ve known that for decades? Oh, my mistake. Carry on.

Other cool things you learn include how the practice of salting food to preserve it led to an excess of fish in the market which made fish less expensive which in turn meant that the less wealthy could have better diets. Yay to going to sleep with a full stomach! You also learn that because there was such a surplus of fish in the market, to support the fishing industry the British Government (in supposed collusion with the Roman Church) tried to extend lean days (days where no poultry, beef or pork is eaten). But they failed. Finally, you learn that much like with sugar and tobacco, the extraction of salt involved slave labor. Yup. Nothing’s free from the touch of slavery. Remember that the next time you eat a popsicle.

Now to the real issue: the French and their kleptomania. Way early in the book, Kurlansky mentions a story that he attributes to a French folktale. The gist is that a father asks his three daughters how much they love him and two of them quantify their affection in terms he’ll understand (“Father, I liken my love for thee to a mountainous mountain range. Perchance may I borrow your steed on the morrow? Sir Trent has been given me the smoldering eye for some time now and I must convey how agreeable I find his body and complete disregard for my rights as a woman!” etc.) while the third one says that she loves him as much as salt. He goes ballistic, being compared to something so common, and banishes her. She marries, holds a huge dinner party, invites good old father-of-the-year and serves him with food made sans-salt. He sputters with indignation, she enters the room and explains the ruse, he understands the importance of salt, they hug and everything’s golden. EXCEPT!!!! this is an Indian folktale, people! From India! As in, not from France!

Hrumph! But I guess that’s what happened in those olden times. Stories were traded along with salt and other goods. And the real owner lost true ownership. Then God invented copyrights.

Anyhoodle, I give this book 3 coffees out of five. Meandering histories and some unsubstantiated arguments do not a good book make.

1 Comment

Posted by on July 10, 2011 in Book Reviews, History / Politics


Tags: , , , , , ,

One response to “Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky

  1. Amanda McDonald

    July 19, 2011 at 1:46 pm

    LOVE the blanket statements. Most presumably because I agree with them on some level.


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