A Savory Story


A World History

By Mark Kurlansky

Walker -- 484pp -- $28

I'm a sucker for the history of the commonplace. I thoroughly enjoyed Henry Petroski's The Evolution of Useful Things, which explained the origin of the paper clip and other stuff to which we don't give a first thought, much less a second. I was also fond of Mark Kurlansky's Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World. So I quickly volunteered to review Kurlansky's latest book, Salt: A World History.

While reading at home, I discovered my tastes may be a bit eccentric. "You're reading a book about salt?" asked my wife. I explained that I'm fascinated by discovering how profoundly simple things have changed our lives. She stared at me quizzically for a good 15 seconds before walking away without a word. After 30 years, I can read her silences pretty well. She was saying: "I think your time would be better spent fixing the leaky toilet upstairs."

Undaunted, I returned to the role of salt in the American Civil War. The stuff has been absolutely essential throughout world history for such things as medical care, food preservation, and human and animal health, so the Civil War was not the first time that disrupting an opponent's access to salt became a priority. Kurlansky relates how the center of the Union salt industry was Syracuse, N.Y., where harvests from surrounding brine wells were transported via the Erie Canal to the Midwest and Northeast. In fact, it was taxes on salt that helped finance the canal in the first place.

The Union salt supply remained secure throughout the war, but one of the first targets of Northern troops was salt production along the Kanawha River in what was then Virginia. The Ohio and Mississippi rivers initially made the salt from those wells available throughout much of the South, but Union troops captured and destroyed the Kanawha installation in November, 1862. With the elimination of this and other Confederate salt factories, the rebels found it impossible to keep their troops, horses, and hospitals supplied. By the final year of the war, notes Kurlansky, the Confederate States Almanac was advising: "To keep meat from spoiling in the summer, eat it early in the spring."

The book offers a few other insights into history. Kurlansky tells how the Venetians of Marco Polo's era parlayed a tax on salt into a monopoly that financed their navy and helped the city-state dominate world trade. And he shows how more than a century of unjust taxation and suppression of the Indian salt industry for the benefit of England's salt producers handed Mohandas Gandhi an opportunity to attract widespread support for his independence movement by defying the British salt laws.

But the episodic, meandering style that worked well in Cod, which had a consistent story line to hold it together, takes us down too many dead ends here. Food writer Kurlansky spends a lot of time, for example, on detailed descriptions of food production involving salt. Readers with a keen interest in the history and mechanics of making pickled herring, Tabasco sauce, sauerkraut, and various forms of cheese may find this book engaging. I, alas, am not one of them. As happens all too often, my wife was right.

By G. David Wallace

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