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on 23 July 2005
"Salt; A World History," by Mark Kurlansky is a meticulously researched account of how trade in salt...and salted foods shaped global economies for centuries. The production of salt powered empires. Moreover, the salting of fish, fowl and hams fed soldiers and sailors for extended periods...allowing for the expansion of trade and empires.
The Roman Empire required salt for its soldiers and at times soldiers were paid in salt...which was the origin of the word "salary"...and the expression "worth his salt" or "earning his salt," according to Kurlansky. After the fall of Rome, Venice became the dominant commerical force in Europe. To this end, salt trade maintained Venice's palatial public building and the complex hydralic system that prevented the metropolis from washing away.
Soon France farmers discovered that curdled mild drained and preserved in salt made many different types of cheese. In Parma, Italy the production of salted "Prosciutto" ham and "Parmesan" cheese made the city famous. The same thing happened with the production of salted "Salami" in Felino and Genoa, Italy. However, a major factor in the prodcution of salted fish was the Medieval Roman Catholic Church's decision to forbide the eating of meat on religious days and the Lenten fast (40 days) and all Fridays. This was serious business...under English law at the time the penalty for eating meat on Friday was hanging. Consequently, trade in dried fish boomed...especially for Northern Cod, which had a white flesh with little fat (fat resists salt) and dried easily.
Page after page of this book is filled with significant historical information on how salt impacted economies especially with sea vessels and river steamboats. The author also includes little tid-bits of information about the develpment of our language...particularly the origin of expressions. For instance, when early American settlers hunted they would leave red herring along the trail because the strong smell would confuse wolves which is the origin of the expression "red herring," meaning..."false trail." Finally, Kurlansky explains that "Generals from George Washington to Napoleon discovered without salt...war is a desperate situation...salt was needed to treat wounds, preserve food for soldiers and for the diet of the calvary's horses." Recommended.
Bert Ruiz
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As I started reading this book, I thought to myself that Mark Kurlansky had performed a miracle, and actually made the subject of the history of salt quite interesting.
However, as you delve deeper into the book, you appreciate two things. First, just how important salt was in history - Kurlansky isn't exaggerating when he says wars have been fought, lost and won over salt. Second, how the author does actually have a very good writing style about him - the numerous fascinating facts he brings out may not have been quite so fascinating if told by a different author.
For me, two things put the book into perspective. These two things are explained about two-thirds of the way through the book, and suddenly make you realise why salt has been so important to society, governments, armies, etc.etc.etc throughout history - and why we can take it for granted now.
More than an epic history of salt (and it does actually work on that level too - such is Kurlansky's depth of research), this is packed so full of great little facts that it's also just a great read. Recommended for anyone who wants to understand more about a substance that's so common, it's very easy to take for granted these days. You just won't look at food in the same way again...
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Pasta and potatoes are not much joy without salt and after reading this it is clear that world history benefits too...
Kurlansky, one of the finest food writers of today, has outdone himself with this excellent and entertaining look at world history. Salt, now a commodity of little consequence in world affairs thanks to refrigeration and other methods of food preservation, has quite clearly played its role in the shaping of civilisations across the continents.
If you have read or later read Kurlansky's other books then you'll find that he cleverly weaves them all together to one body of work - In salt we once again meet the Basque (The Basque History of the World) and of course the Cod (Cod) and as well as many other players that make the book incredibly informative and a real joy to read.
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on 26 July 2005
"Salt; A World History," by Mark Kurlansky is a meticulously researched account of how trade in salt...and salted foods shaped global economies for centuries. The production of salt powered empires. Moreover, the salting of fish, fowl and hams fed soldiers and sailors for extended periods...allowing for the expansion of trade and military empires.
The Roman Empire required salt for its soldiers and at times soldiers were paid in salt...which was the origin of the word "salary"...and the expression "worth his salt" or "earning his salt," according to Kurlansky. After the fall of Rome, Venice became the dominant commerical force in Europe. To this end, salt trade maintained Venice's palatial public building and the complex hydralic system that prevented the metropolis from washing away.
Soon farmers in France discovered that curdled milk drained and preserved in salt made many different types of cheese. In Parma, Italy the production of salted "Prosciutto" ham and "Parmesan" cheese made the city famous. The same thing happened with the production of salted "Salami" in Felino and Genoa, Italy. However, a major factor in the prodcution of salted fish was the Medieval Roman Catholic Church's decision to forbide the eating of meat on religious days and the Lenten fast (40 days) and all Fridays. This was serious business...under English law at the time the penalty for eating meat on Friday was hanging. Consequently, trade in dried fish boomed...especially for Northern Cod, which had a white flesh with little fat (fat resists salt) and dried easily.
Page after page of this book is filled with significant historical information on how salt impacted economies especially with sea vessels and river steamboats. The author also includes little tid-bits of information about the develpment of our language...particularly the origin of expressions. For instance, when early American settlers hunted they would leave red herring along the trail because the strong smell would confuse wolves which is the origin of the expression "red herring," meaning..."false trail." Finally, Kurlansky explains that "Generals from George Washington to Napoleon discovered without salt...war is a desperate situation...salt was needed to treat wounds, preserve food for soldiers and for the diet of the calvary's horses." Recommended.
Bert Ruiz
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on 4 May 2003
I've read Cod and made me look at fish and chips in a different perspective. But Kurlansky's meticulously researched 'Salt' is a greater achievement in historical writing. Nowadays, with the wider reach of most commerce and trade, we loose sight of how 'lowly' day to day commodities like table salt have actually been compelling forces that drove our history. To Mark Kurlansky, thanks for the pleasurable and most educational readings.
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on 7 May 2003
Who would have believed at the turn of the century that there would be sufficient material to write an entire book on the subject of one of the planets most abundant minerals.
Yet Mark Kurlansky turns this oft taken for granted subject into a riveting read. I must admit that the first few chapters take some effort to get through since they are written in a very dry factual style, but once you are past these the author seems to relax his style. Mark Kurlansky has produced a well written book full of the historical decisions and anecdotes around salt that both rocked…and rolled the world.
The chapters on Salt in the British Empire was particularly fascinating, bringing some much needed detail to historical events in the days of the Raj and Gandhi. Who would of thought salt had such a part to play? I won’t give away any more, get it now!.
On the basis of the quality of writing here, I will be picking up Mr Kurlansky’s previous book on COD, and look forward to his writings to finish the set .. those on chips and vinegar.
Damage.
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on 24 May 2004
In this monumental work, author Mark Kurlansky traces the history of salt. Beginning with ancient China, he then goes through pharonic Egypt, Rome, Europe, the United States, India, and back to modern China. Along the way, he discusses salt, how it's made, and what's made with it. If you want to know about salt through the ages, then this is the book for you.
That said, though, this thick book just seems to ramble along without any true theme. It covers everything about salt, but does it in a long-winded manner, which often allowed my attention to meander off, in search of more meaningful topics. If you are interested in salt, then I cannot imagine a more perfect resource for you. Overall, I give this book a somewhat guarded recommendation.
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on 26 October 2007
I bought this as it seemed an interesting read. I'm glad I did!

In brief:

It starts off in China, showing how salt was won using gas fires to heat brine, with mud insulated bamboo pipes to provide the flames. The next great event is that of the discovery of the great cod fisheries off Newfoundland and also that cod could be salted and would not turn rancid like herring.

Also contains interesting facts such as until quite recently salt was a government monopoly in Italy and could only be bought from tobacconists (cancer and high blood pressure in one place!) and that gold was not traded weight for weight with salt, although it does show the great value placed upon it. Mark Kurlansky did his reserach well for this.
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I'm occasionally scolded for using too much salt. SALT: A WORLD HISTORY simply reinforces the fact that NaCl has been in the human diet for millennia. So, get off my back already. If God hadn't wanted me to eat the stuff, he wouldn't have given me kidneys.
Besides being a narrative of how salt has been harvested through the ages, either by brine evaporation or the mining of rock salt, SALT is also a history of its link to food preservation and preparation and governments. Whether it be cod, cheese, herring, ham, beef, anchovies, butter, Tabasco sauce, sauerkraut, pickles, ketchup, or "1000-year-old" eggs, salt makes it happen. And successive bureaucracies over the centuries have harnessed the production, sale and shipment of salt for the enrichment of national coffers through monopolies and taxation schemes, some of them disastrously misguided. Perhaps most illustrative of the latter is the chapter describing Britain's curtailment of indigenous salt production in India during the Raj period. This imperial policy, designed to protect the domestic English salt industry, was of such detriment to large segments of the Indian population that it was the issue that sparked Gandhi's campaign of civil disobedience, ultimately leading to that colony's independence.
I would award five stars except for two statements made by author Mark Kurlansky in his chapter about salt and the American Civil War. These assertions have trivial impact on the book as a whole, but are so sloppy as to make me wonder about the accuracy of his interpretation of more relevant facts.
Regarding Confederate general George Pickett, who received a pouch of precious salt as a wedding gift: "... (he) later reached the most northerly point of any Confederate in combat when he ... led a ruinous charge up a sloping Pennsylvania field - the climax of the Battle of Gettysburg." The author is referring, of course, to Pickett's Charge, and perhaps he was speaking figuratively. While it is fact that one of his brigades briefly breached the Union line at Bloody Angle, it was that unit's commander, Brigadier General Louis Armistead, who was mortally wounded inside the Union position and was arguably the one who led the charge. Pickett wasn't in front on that one. Also, the site of that valiant effort was south of the town of Gettysburg, which had been occupied by the Confederates two days previous.
Further on, Kurlansky trips when describing the Battle of Shiloh in Tennessee as "a standoff". Really? While Federal forces under Ulysses Grant took a shellacking on the first day of the battle, they rallied on the second to drive the Confederates into a full-scale retreat from the battlefield. Moreover, Albert Sidney Johnston, who began Shiloh commanding the Confederate forces and was perhaps the South's most respected general at the time, was killed. Though casualties were roughly the same on both sides, my scorecard has this as a Northern win.
But, I digress.
SALT is one of those books about something we take for granted that captivates the reader with useless but fun facts. Did you know that pastrami (salted beef) is of Romanian origin, that Laplanders drink salted coffee, that a Swedish favorite is salted licorice candy, that 51% of U.S. salt use is to de-ice roads, or that there's a working salt mine 1,200 feet below Detroit?
Curiously, though, Kurlansky says not one word about that most mystical of culinary inventions, salt on chips. What was he thinking?
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on 4 December 2014
I read Mark Kurlansky’s biography of the cod and found many parallels here and can see why he wrote histories about both as there is a strong connection.

I learned so many things from this book without realising it – surely the sign of a supremely well written slice of history – that I had a real sense of satisfaction when I had finished it, having not only had a curious insight into a seemingly ordinary cruet, but also a different perspective of so many historical facts and events.

Surely all history would benefit from being taught from slightly off beat but more memorable perspectives. Read and enjoy.
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