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Salt

(article, Caroline Cummins)

There is writing about food, and there is food journalism, but Mark Kurlansky, with his popular nonfiction books about food, culture, and history, has combined and surpassed both genres. 

His best-known books, [%bookLink code=0140298517 "The Basque History of the World"] and Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, spiral outwards from a single subject (the Basque people, the codfish) into a discussion of how that subject influenced human culture in myriad unusual ways. 

His Salt: A World History, follows the same pattern, but on a much larger scale. Too large a scale, some readers have complained; the book, which hops from Asia to Europe to America and back again, is (at 484 pages) nearly twice as long as its predecessors. And it's true that Kurlansky never seems to seize his topic with quite the passion he had for the Basques or for cod. 

But then, it's not so easy to get emotional about a chemical compound, and the unifying theme of the two earlier books — the endangered culture of the Basques, and the near-extinction of the codfish — is lacking in the case of salt. Salt is everywhere; as Kurlansky writes, "Almost no place on earth is without salt." Great empires have been founded on the wealth from salt taxes, and great environmental destruction has been wreaked by humans extracting and refining the substance. But there is no tragic story to salt itself. 

Nevertheless, like all of Kurlansky's books, Salt is an engaging, entertaining, educated read, speckled with illustrations and recipes and anecdotes, such as the tale of the ancient salt miner found perfectly preserved in, yes, salt. Salt may indeed be ubiquitous, but the human struggle over getting it, distributing it, and inventing new uses for it makes for a rare epic, fascinating in its universality.

p(bio). Caroline Cummins is the managing editor of Culinate. This review was originally published in January Magazine.


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