Gretchen Claypool: ‘Salt’ delivers an informational history

January 31, 2019
Courtesy of Amazon.com "Salt: A World History" by Mark Kurlansky is available in e-book, e-audio, and paper format from the Cabell County Public Library.

Books have many uses they record information, entertain readers, and teach the curious. Mark Kurlansky, author of Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, has written another volume that manages to do all three of these function at once in fast-paced and delightful way. Salt: A World History (2003-Penguin books) is a scrupulously detailed nearly 500 page account of the effect of salt procurement and production on world economies and cultures throughout history.

One might suspect that the text of a book devoted wholly to the history of a class of natural elements concerned with the preservative properties of a drying agent to be rather a rather dry and perfunctory read. Kurlansky’s history is nothing of the sort. For every reader who has ever wondered where the turn of phrase “worth his salt” originated, the volume invites readers into a portrait of history which lays out the absolute necessity of salt in a world before refrigeration. Salt traces the path of a world constantly engaged in warfare and defense, and the necessity of moving edible supplies to soldiers and sailors on duty in these conflicts with efficient and lively prose. Kurlansky’s scope is admirable as he discusses ancient roman techniques for creating garam, the Asiatic birth of soy sauce, the importance of salt to the outcome of the American Civil War, and its effect on everything from treaties to flamingos.

Salt is also peppered throughout with various recipes both ancient and modern to which salt is essential, the rise and fall of family owned and operated salt business, and facts about how standard sized modern day salt is created and shipped all over the world for a variety of personal and industrial uses well beyond the simple preservation or flavoring of food. Of special interest to local readers is a section of the volume which discusses the Buffalo saltlick and resulting salt works in Kanawha County West Virginia and its importance to the western migration. Rarely does a book’s global scope devote a specific portion of its content to exploring the issue in West Virginia, but Kurlansky’s book does just that in a concise and entertaining way.

Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky is available in e-book, e-audio, and paper format from the Cabell County Public Library.

Gretchen Claypool is Coordinator of Technical Services at the Cabell County Public Library.

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