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Daily Journal

Flashback: Sprinkle Some Spice

May. 7th, 2012
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Doing final page layout and proofing on my book. So no fresh DJ today. Here's a review I wrote in 2005 of someone else's book. Hey, we authors gotta stick together.

RALEIGH – Those who know me know that I am inclined towards spicy food. When at the sub shop, I order the spiciest deli meats and plenty of jalapenos. At the Chinese buffet, I’m not at all chicken about kung pao. I have been known to cook my own Indian food and mash up my own garum masala. I enjoy various pickled and barbecued foodstuffs. I fear no wasabi.

And yet, I must admit that I’ve never burned with curiosity to discover the birthplace of cinnamon, the derivation of “cloves,” or the aphrodisiacal applications of pepper oils. For me, spices have held an instrumental interest only. They have made things taste good. Until now, that is.

Almost by accident, I ordered a copy of Jack Turner’s recent work Spice: The History of a Temptation. I’m glad I did. A former Rhodes Scholar and McArthur Foundation Research Fellow, Turner is a young author with broad interests and the valuable ability to make a seemingly limited subject into a fascinating, wide-ranging discussion of economics, history, theology, politics, warfare, and other subjects.

The history of spices, you see, is far more than a journey into the culinary arts. The rarest and most valuable of spices in the Mediterranean World – cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, and black pepper – all originated in faraway lands. For example, cloves (the word comes the Latin clavus, or “nail,” referring to their shape) came from just five little volcanic islands in the easternmost extremity of what is now Indonesia. They are the dried, unripe flower bud of an evergreen tree native only to that Northern Moluccas archipelago. Similarly, the nearby South Moluccas, consisting of just 17 square miles of forested islands, was the only source for nutmeg, which is the core of an apricot-like fruit. And cinnamon is the sun-dried inner bark of an evergreen tree native to western Sri Lanka.

Still, these spices were known not just to the classical Greek and Roman world but also to far more ancient civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia. They were used to flavor meals, burned as offerings to the gods, swallowed or smeared to induce passionate embraces, and used to embalm the deceased in sacred ceremonies. How did these ancient consumers, often but not always the wealthy, come to obtain so much of these spices that they became a part of everyday life? Living thousands of years before seaworthy caravels and galleons, centuries before any large-scale empires could “guarantee” the safety of caravans (for a fee, naturally), ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians acquired and enjoyed goods that originated half a world away, on hard-to-reach islands whose precise location remained mysterious even into the 16th and 17th centuries.

The answer, of course, is that venturing forth to seek out new things to consume and enjoy is a natural human impulse. As a result, trade is a natural human behavior. There was a world-spanning market for spices long before anyone knew it. No central authority needed to “create” this industry. No government gave it an economic-development grant. It was a market that arose spontaneously as islanders traded their wares for the goods of mainland India and Southeast Asia, who in turn traded the spices to sailors traversing the Indian Ocean and to caravans traversing the Silk Road from China and Central Asia to the Middle East and Europe.

Silk may have lent its name to the trade route. But as Turner ably demonstrates, spices deserve their own hallowed place in the economics and the history of trade. Even the word specie, often used to refer to money, is derived from the word spice. The book is worth a little specie, trust me.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.