Salt: A World History Summary

Mark Kurlansky

Salt: A World History

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Salt: A World History Summary

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With Salt: A World History, (2002), Mark Kurlansky tells the riveting history of salt and how it has shaped the world of humanity.

The first few chapters deal with our earliest knowledge of salt. The Chinese and the Egyptians were the first civilizations that we know of to use this mineral in their daily lives. Egyptians used evaporated salt from the sea and the Nile in their dishes and as an essential ingredient in the mummification process. The Chinese also mined salt from the sea and used it in dishes, and as a preserving agent for fish. They invented a sauce we still use today, soy sauce. Later on, the Romans took salt preservation to a new level with their heavily fish-based diet and even paid soldiers in salt—leading to the word “salary.” The word “salad” comes from the Roman habit of using a fish brine on vegetables.

The next chapters outline the ways in which salt was essential to Christian Europe during the Middle Ages. The Gauls and Celts worked with salt extensively and mined vast quantities in their elaborate salt mines before being conquered by the Romans. The Church’s habit of restricting meat in everyday diets created a huge market for fish, and because refrigeration was non-existent, salt was the most common and most reliable preservation method. Around this time, cod was discovered. Cod was the perfect salted fish, creating a huge market and spreading salt even to the new world.

In the colonies and the new world, salt was a catalyst for major revolutions against imperial powers. A salt shortage in the American colonies created major discontent, eventually leading to the war for independence. In France, a tax on salt also created major unrest and was one of the factors resulting in the French revolution.

In India, during the early 20th century, Gandhi led his supporters on a march as a protest against British salt restrictions. Although India’s struggle for independence was complex, this simple restriction played a part in the decision to break free from imperial control.

Salt has always been a major player in economics and the shifting of power. It is plentiful but difficult to mine and transport, so for thousands of years, the world revolved around the salt trade. However, in the modern era, scientists began to find ways to mine salt and eventually to synthesize it faster and more efficiently. Morton salt company was one of the first to offer mass-produced salt, and the company became one of the biggest salt providers in the world. Now that we have modern refrigeration and access to salt in our local grocery store, it is difficult to believe that salt was once a major economic factor.

A major theme of the book is that of unintended consequences and serendipitous events. There are many instances in the book that outline salt’s unlikely power history. For example, if the Egyptians had not been so obsessed with perfectly preserving bodies, would they have created such a demand for salt?

Fishers in the Middle Ages were looking for a different kind of fish when they found cod. It was by accident that they discovered the perfect fish for salt preservation, and this commodity spread salt’s importance even further into the world at that time. Without the church’s heavy restrictions on meat, and the serendipitous finding of this fish, it is possible that salt might have faded into obscurity. Instead, it found a renewed significance.

The economic impact of salt is also heavily discussed. It might seem strange to us now, but salt has historically been a valuable bartering tool and a way to pay people for their work. Salt now is a cheap commodity because it can be synthesized, but the fact that we have words with their Latin roots in salt tells us that its value as a historical commodity cannot be understated. Salt made empires rich as they gained control over trade routes and mining locations around the world. Artificial trade restrictions to the colonies created an even bigger demand.

It has been a factor in revolutions, and it is only now that we have modern refrigeration that our need for salt is purely a dietary preference. Dishes prepared in the past needed salt as a preservation agent; without access to salt, starving was a possibility.

Although a book on salt might seem boring, this history of the only rock we eat is a fascinating look into the development of modern cuisine, trade, and economic policy. The empires of the past owe their success to salt, and its possession and trade shaped much of our modern world.