Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Salt is a social and cultural history of one of the world’s most important commodities. By placing one unique but ordinary substance at the center of a multi-faceted narrative, Mark Kurlansky shows how the interdependency of politics, economy, and taste were instrumental in developing the current state of globalization. The author’s previous experience includes tracing the importance of a single foodstuff, cod, which relied heavily on salt for its preservation. That research project led him to understand how crucial preserving food was to a wide variety of enterprises, including long-distance seafaring. Not only the necessity of salt but also its commonness and ubiquity became important when it was elevated to the central symbol of self-sufficiency in Gandhi’s Indian independence campaign.
The very importance and longevity of salt’s use require the author to extend back in time; beginning five millennia ago, he covers “thousands of years of coveting, fighting over, hoarding, taxing, and searching for salt” (13). He looks back at ancient China, probably the earliest society that taxed salt. In pharaonic Egypt, salt figured in the preservation of the mummified dead as well as food for the living. The global breadth as well as the temporal depth of Kurlansky’s treatment, however, is sometimes more of a weakness than a strength, as he occasionally finds it challenging to pull together all the diverse strands.
The work is not only at home within but also has contributed to the expansion of a set of works that has grown since the 1970s. Such works locate single commodities within the political economy of taste and connect it to labor-control regimes, such as slavery. The landmark work in this field is anthropologist Sidney Mintz’s pioneering analysis of sugar in Sweetness and Power (1985). Kurlansky’s book, published in 2002, draws on Mintz’s example. More recently, Kurlansky’s influence is notable in Christine McFadden’s 2011 Pepper. Going beyond food history, such works as these also inquire into other human necessities—such as clothing and its components, as addressed in Sven Beckert’s 2014 Empire of Cotton. In this regard, Salt is significant for its context and influence as well as its singular contributions.