Sunday, June 6, 2010


Salt: A World History

I think that if Salt were 100 pages shorter, I would have loved it. There are parts of the book I found fascinating and informative, but it ran long and superfluous for scattered stretches. It took me a lot longer than I thought I would to get through it.

That said, I'm glad I've read it. A good synopsis shows up in the first chapter:

"The search for salt has challenged engineers for millennia and created some of the most bizarre, along with some of the most ingenious, machines. A number of the greatest public works ever conceived were motivated by the need to move salt. Salt has been in the forefront of the development of both chemistry and geology. Trade routes that have remained major thoroughfares were established, alliances built, empires secured, and revolutions provoked -- all for something that fills the ocean, bubbles up from springs, forms crusts in lake beds, and thickly veins a large part of the earth's rock fairly close to the surface."

The book absolutely accomplishes this exploration. It also explains the question I had - why salt was so valuable when it fills the ocean and exists in huge piles and mines close to the surface. It has to do with the fact that solar evaporation (of seawater) doesn't happen very efficiently in Northern climates where Western global powers existed, that we need salt so desperately for biological function, and a largely agrarian society needs to locate salt separately from their normal diets just as wild animals seek out natural salt licks to supplement their diets.

Instead of a synopsis, I'll just regale you with fun tidbits that made me dog-ear my copy of the book.

Did You Know... Roman soldiers were sometimes paid in salt, which is where we get the word salary. The Seven Seas were just the lagoons between Venice and mainland Italy, now mostly filled in by landfill. It's possible Marco Polo never really went to China - he just disappeared for 25 years, returned to Venice, got captured in a naval battle, and dictated his story to a fellow prisoner who happened to be an established writer of adventure tales. Cheese without salt is essentially ricotta - it doesn't become aged cheese until it's brined. China discovered salt mine drilling techniques millennia ago, and also harnessed natural gas from the same wells. The town of Syracuse, NY exists because of a weigh station built there for Erie Canal barge loads (often salt). Foods were thought to be better preserved in salt than in ice for many centuries, and not always because of climate or lack of refrigeration. The salt laws and salt taxes in British colonial India were insane because Britain had a subsidized salt industry, and efficient evaporation of Indian salt was a threat. The British banned salt production and gathering of natural salt that had been going on for centuries, and enforced the ban by building a 14 foot high thorny hedge that stretched 2,500 miles from the Himalayas to the ocean.

On a side note - I'd like to read a Celtic History of the World, because the Celts sound fascinating. I knew they were in the British Isles, and I knew they sacked Rome, but they ranged over all of Europe, invented new technologies, mined salt, invaded Turkey, were called Gauls by the Romans (after a Greek word for salt), and people don't know much about them because they didn't leave behind permanent records in stone or metal.

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