A brilliant, original history of the spice trade--and the appetites that fueled it.
It was in search of the fabled Spice Islands and their cloves that Magellan charted the first circumnavigation of the globe. Vasco da Gama sailed the dangerous waters around Africa to India on a quest for Christians--and spices. Columbus sought gold and pepper but found the New World. By the time these fifteenth- and sixteenth-century explorers set sail, the aromas of these savory, seductive seeds and powders had tempted the palates and imaginations of Europe for centuries.
Spice: The History of a Temptation is a history of the spice trade told not in the conventional narrative of politics and economics, nor of conquest and colonization, but through the intimate human impulses that inspired and drove it. Here is an exploration of the centuries-old desire for spice in food, in medicine, in magic, in religion, and in sex--and of the allure of forbidden fruit lingering in the scents of cinnamon, pepper, ginger, nutmeg, mace, and clove.
We follow spices back through time, through history, myth, archaeology, and literature. We see spices in all their diversity, lauded as love potions and aphrodisiacs, as panaceas and defenses against the plague. We journey from religious rituals in which spices were employed to dispel demons and summon gods to prodigies of gluttony both fantastical and real. We see spices as a luxury for a medieval king's ostentation, as a mummy's deodorant, as the last word in haute cuisine.
Through examining the temptations of spice we follow in the trails of the spice seekers leading from the deserts of ancient Syria to thrill-seekers on the Internet. We discover how spice became one of the first and most enduring links between Asia and Europe. We see in the pepper we use so casually the relic of a tradition linking us to the appetites of Rome, Elizabethan England, and the pharaohs. And we capture the pleasure of spice not only at the table but in every part of life.
Spice is a delight to be savored.
Spices helped draw Europeans into their age of expansion, but the Western world was far from ignorant of them before that time. Turner's lively and wide-ranging account begins with the voyages of discovery, but demonstrates that, even in ancient times, spices from distant India and Indonesia made their way west and fueled the European imagination. Romans and medieval Europeans alike used Asian pepper, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and mace to liven their palates, treat their maladies, enhance their sex lives and mediate between the human and the divine. While many of these applications were not particularly efficacious, spices retained their allure, with an overlay of exotic associations that remain today. Turner argues that the use of rare and costly spices by medieval and Renaissance elites amounted to conspicuous consumption. He has perhaps a little too much fun listing the ridiculous uses of spices in medieval medicine--since, as he notes in a few sparse asides, some spices do indeed have medicinal effects--and fails to get into the real experience of the people. His account of religious uses, on the other hand, paints a richer picture and gets closer to imagining the mystery that people found in these startlingly intense flavors and fragrances. It is this mystery and the idea that sensations themselves have a history that make the entire book fascinating.
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August 07, 2005
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Excerpt from Spice by Jack Turner
Chapter 1 . The Spice Seekers The Taste That Launched a Thousand Ships According to an old Catalan tradition, the news of the New World was formally announced in the Sal� del Tinell, the cavernous, barrel-vaulted banquet hall in Barcelona's Barri G�tic, the city's medieval quarter. And it is largely on tradition we must rely, for aside from a few sparse details the witnesses to the scene had frustratingly little to say, leaving the field free for painters, poets, and Hollywood producers to imagine the moment that marked the watershed, symbolically at least, between medievalism and modernity. They have tended to portray a setting of suitable grandeur, with king and queen presiding over an assembly of everyone who was anyone in the kingdom: counts and dukes weighed down by jewels, ermines, and velvets; mitered bishops; courtiers stiff in their robes of state; serried ranks of pages sweating in livery. Ambassadors and dignitaries from foreign powers look on in astonishment and with mixed emotions-awe, confusion, and envy. Before them stands Christopher Columbus in triumph, vindicated at last, courier of the ecosystem's single biggest piece of news since the ending of the Ice Age. The universe has just been reconfigured. Or so we now know. But the details are largely the work of historical imagination, the perspective one of the advantages of having half a millennium to digest the news. The view from 1493 was less panoramic; indeed, altogether more foggy. It is late April, the exact day unknown. Columbus is indeed back from America, but he is oblivious to the fact. His version of events is that he has just been to the Indies, and though the tale he has to tell might have been lifted straight from a medieval romance, he has the proof to silence any who would doubt him: gold, green, and yellow parrots, Indians, and cinnamon. At least that is what Columbus believed. His gold was indeed gold, if in no great quantity, and his parrots were indeed parrots, albeit not of any Asian variety. Likewise his Indians: the six bewildered individuals who shuffled forward to be inspected by the assembled company were not Indians but Caribs, a race soon to be exterminated by the Spanish colonizers and by the deadlier still germs they carried. The misnomer Columbus conferred has long outlived the misconception. In the case of the cinnamon Columbus's capricious labeling would not stick for nearly so long. A witness reported that the twigs did indeed look a little like cinnamon but tasted more pungent than pepper and smelled like cloves-or was it ginger? Equally perplexing, and most uncharacteristically for a spice, his sample had gone off during the voyage back-the unhappy consequence, as Columbus explained, of his poor harvesting technique. But in due course time would reveal a simpler solution to the mystery, and one that the skeptics perhaps guessed even then: that his "cinnamon" was in fact nothing any spicier than the bark of an unidentified Caribbean tree. Like the Indies he imagined he had visited, his cinnamon was the fruit of faulty assumptions and an overcharged imagination. For all his pains Columbus had ended up half a planet from the real thing. In April 1493, his wayward botany amounted to a failure either too bizarre or, for those whose money was at stake, too deflating to contemplate. As every schoolchild knows (or should know), when Columbus bumped into America he was looking not for a new world but for an old one. What exactly he was looking for is clearly delineated in the agreement he concluded with the Spanish monarchs before the voyage, promising the successful discoverer one tenth of all gold, silver, pearls, gems, and spices. His posthumous fame notwithstanding, in this respect Columbus was only a qualified success. For in what in due course turned out to be the new world of the Americas, the conquistadors found none of the spices they sought, although in