Wednesday, November 26, 2014

A Review: Salt: A World History

Salt is generally associated with the table salt kind for most of us folk (NaCl, to be exact). And that association may get mixed reactions. Salt's reputation has undergone a range from positive to negative. Most of us take salt for granted and have limited exposure to its history and its variety or even the scientific definition of what a "salt" is. This book looks at salt and its most basic relationships with us humans its effect on human history.

I'll never forget my intro to macroeconomics class at UW with Larry Smith. The moment in particular that sticks vividly in my memory is when he talks about the value that people place in the pieces of paper and metal we call "money"; it's the illusion of value that we place on these items that gives them significance. The fact that 'money' gives us leverage to obtain the things that we want/need, is the source of power that these paper and little metal pieces hold over us. Logically, things that are not critical to life or are abundant and easily attainable, have a lower value than that which is critical to life. The good ol' concept of "supply and demand" varies on products or services so a currency is established to bring things to a "standard". These days, we (North Americans) generally don't trade or barter but create value in the bills and coins that become our currency to obtain things (it's a bit more complicated than that but that's the jist of it).

Our omnipotent friends Supply and Demand

All animals require some salt in their diet; herbivores require much more than carnivores as carnivores obtain much of the salt from their diets. In addition, size of the animal and the climate will also affect the needed salt intake. Specifically for humans, we not only ingest salt as part of a biological need but we used it to preserve our food, grow our crops and livestock. The average human requires 1,500-3,200 mg of sodium (3/4 teaspoon - 1 teaspoon) of salt a day (many of us get way more but that's a whole other story). There are two primary needs of salt, from our bodies: nerve and muscular function (hello, high school science!).

You can see, that it's necessary that humans consume salt, at the very least, in order to function. Which is why I think the book has a great deal of significance for us to understand our historical (and current) relationship with salt.

There is a vast amount of information concerning salt available. To present it in a manner that is both comprehensive and comprehensible, Kurlansky has to amass all the information and then distil, filter and rearrange it in a manner that makes sense to a reader. He walks the reader through the history, starting from the earliest available, to the current. But it isn't a simple dump of incidents. He makes it very complete by adding in specific excerpts and images concerning the topic and takes us around the world to different civilizations. I found the organization to be logical and effective. However, some parts of the written pieces felt forced and too dry--it was as if he was missing the segue of content from one place to the next.

Overall, I'd say that the read was enlightening but I would have been happier reading this type of (reference-y) book through a physical book rather than an e-book.

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