The salt industry proudly boasts that its product has some 14,000 uses in hundreds of industries. After reading Salt: A World History, you'll no doubt respond to "Please pass the salt" with a new measure of respect for the substance, since every one of us would perish without it. Author Mark Kurlansky has compiled a remarkable book in which he explores every aspect of the mineral that for centuries was one of the most sought-after commodities in human history, presaging, in a sense, what today is viewed as a dependence on foreign oil.
Kurlansky tracks the impact of salt on the political, military, economic and social lives of societies throughout history. He details, for instance, Mahatma Gandhi's leading thousands of Indians on an exhausting 240-mile march to the sea to make their own salt in protest of a tax on the substance. Gandhi was jailed, but the march was a tool that led to his ending British rule over India without striking a single blow. Another of Kurlansky's heroes is Anthony Lucas, who ignored the advice of geologists and drilled a Texas salt dome called Spindletop. He struck oil in 1901 and thus gave birth to the modern petroleum industry.
Salt deserves a place on the shelf next to Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, which earned Kurlansky a James Beard Award for Excellence in Food Writing, as well as a slot on the New York Times bestseller list. His new book brims with recipes from around the globe. Some of them are hundreds of years old, which just might entice a few adventuresome cooks back into the kitchen. And here's a taste of the countless other items spicing the text: some Lapplanders prefer salted coffee; sauerkraut was valued more than caviar in 19th century Russia; and in the United States, salt workers were considered so vitally important they were exempt from conscription in the Confederate army during the Civil War.
While homemakers and master chefs alike should enjoy this book, it's also likely to consume the interest of those who survive on TV dinners.
Alan Prince of Deerfield Beach, Florida, is an ex-newsman and college lecturer.