Thursday, April 29, 2010
Salt: A World History (Mark Kurlansky) (9.0/10.0)
It’s hard to imagine a world where salt is more than just a food complement, but for most of human history no element on earth has played a more critical role in society’s evolution than sodium chloride. In the aptly named, Salt: A World History, author Mark Kurlansky paints a rich and fascinating portrait of salt’s pivotal role in shaping the world as we know it.
Gold? Diamonds? Oil? All are mere historical footnotes compared with the role salt has occupied over the past five millennia of the human journey. In fact, until quite recently, salt was the most valuable commodity on the planet. Wars were waged, civilizations collapsed, and empires rose and fell as people throughout the ages sought to acquire this once scarce mineral. Salt has since shed its glamour with only the poorest and most backward countries still in the salt mining business and damning medical evidence curtailing its consumption. But Kurlansky transports us to a time when salt was the cornerstone of life and the epitome of opulence.
Transcending both time and space this running historical narrative takes us from China in 5,000 BC to England in the 19th century as this swift-paced tale unfolds. From the key ingredient in early animal domestication and antiseptic in Egyptian times, to soldier pay in Roman times, to a food preservative during the European Age of Exploration, salt has been humanity’s companion and catalyst through the ages. It’s done more than just spice up our food, harden our arteries, and provided us with witty sayings (ever wonder where the expression “salt of the earth” came from?) and that long forgotten and intriguing past is compellingly revealed in this 449-page ode to NaCl.
Kurlansky has a rare talent for making the mundane fascinating (he’s also written mesmerizing biographical accounts of both the cod fish and the oyster) and his powers are at their greatest in this enthralling read. You’ll never look at a salt shaker the same way again.