Saturday, July 31, 2010

Book 74: Salt

Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky

While I realize the idea of reading about the history of salt sounds a bit odd, I loved the idea behind the book: take a familiar substance and research its importance within world history, and how its uses have evolved over time. I also really like the way he approached it and quite enjoyed the book (I was a little curious to see what problems people had with the book when I was on Amazon and read a few of the negative reviews: I was slightly amused by all the people who were angry that he doesn't discuss the chemical properties in more detail - since I saw this as a history book, I was more concerned with what salt has meant in the world than what it's composed of).

I would say, however, that the title is a bit of a misnomer. Given the arrangement, it tends to have a bit more of a Western perspective. He begins with a chapter about China, then discusses the Ancient World, and from there, discusses several different salt making processes and incidents throughout Europe, focusing on several different areas, such as Italy and Venice, and France. Eventually he addresses America but not until the conquistadors appear on the scene, though he devotes a few pages to explaining the process and the regions in Central and South America at the beginning of this chapter. He finally addresses India in a later chapter, and while he again begins with the earlier history, the chapter is very much within the context of India as a British colony, and explains rather well why Ghandi chose to focus on salt during one of his protests (I also really enjoyed this chapter given the comparison to How the Scots Invented the Modern World - while Herman argued that the British Empire improved life for the average Indian, Kurlansky shows how from the perspective of the poor salt makers, their poverty only increased since Britain didn't want Indian salt competing in the market with British salt and therefore drastically reduced production in India while implementing very severe laws regarding salt).

Except for that minor quibble about the title, I definitely liked the book a lot. I admit there were a few things I only scanned through (mostly the ancient recipes because I don't cook and I don't know how people preserve things now so when they said things like leave sit for forty days it mostly just sounded disgusting, and I wasn't sure how it compared to today). I like salt, and I realize it's a necessity for the body along with other electrolytes but since I'm so used to hearing about how people consume too much salt, I never really thought of it as incredibly vital and saw it as more of a luxury item. Kurlansky demonstrates just how important it once was, especially before refrigeration when it was used to preserve foods. As a result, it makes sense why saltworks would be so important targets during times of war: it is needed for livestock, to make rations for the soldiers, for survival. He discusses this in relation to the United States with both the Revolution and the Civil War.

He also talks quite a bit about fish in this book, since they were one of the foods that were frequently salted. I actually thought it was interesting when looking at other books that Kurlansky has written, but I definitely got the idea that he tends to stumble upon topics he wants to further explore while researching his other books. For example, he has a book about cod, and one about nonviolence and civil disobedience, both things that came up in this book.

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