How Spices Have Made, and Unmade, Empires

Not until Greek and Roman antiquity did the West learn of these treasures, as Arab traders became the intermediaries between the hemispheres. They tried to keep the origins of spices shrouded in mystery to prevent customers from finding or planting them on their own; in the fifth century B.C. the Greek historian Herodotus reported tales of cassia gathered from a lake guarded by “winged animals, much resembling bats, which screech horribly, and are very valiant,” and of cinnamon sticks knocked out of the nests of enormous birds, both in unknown Arabian locales. To the ancient Greeks, spices were “the product of an exceptional union between the earth and the fire of the sun,” the Belgian historian Marcel Detienne writes in “The Gardens of Adonis: Spices in Greek Mythology” (1972) — a literal embodiment of their often tropical origins. They served as emblems of all that lay beyond the known world, be that defined in terms of geographic distance or the more nebulous passage between life and death; the Greeks, Detienne argues, used spices “to mediate between the near and the far-away and to link the above and the below,” notably in funeral rites and sacred devotions. In one version of the phoenix myth, when death finally looms after a thousand years, the bird readies a nest of cinnamon and frankincense to help ensure its resurrection. During the Roman Empire, Nero burned a year’s supply of cinnamon at the funeral of his second wife, Poppaea, perhaps regretting that, as recorded by early historians, he himself had murdered her. (On a more earthly note, spices were also employed as tools of seduction — Caesar was reportedly beguiled by the cinnamon wafting from Cleopatra’s hair — and served practical purposes, mitigating the salt in preserved foods and masking bad breath and odors from poor sanitation.)

The Romans eventually figured out how to bypass the middlemen to find the sources of those spices themselves. Their yearning for these potent scents and flavors drove them into the monsoon winds — an advancement in navigation skills — toward India and its cache of black pepper. In the first century A.D., pepper was “bought by weight like gold or silver,” as recorded by the Roman historian Pliny the Elder, who worried that the empire would squander its wealth on such spices. At its height, a pound of pepper cost half a month’s wages; Alaric the Visigoth, on the verge of sacking Rome in 410 A.D., exacted 3,000 pounds of black pepper as part of the city’s ransom.

Pepper’s value was sustained in Europe throughout the Middle Ages, as landlords accepted peppercorns as rent and daughters were married off with peppercorn dowries. Only in the mid-17th century did Europeans begin to turn away from spices, in part because they had become more readily accessible and lost their ability to confer status on those wealthy enough to afford them, but also, as the historian T. Sarah Peterson has argued, because of advances in science and medicine and a new skepticism toward spices’ supposed occult capabilities. The historian W.E. Mead, writing in 1931 in “The English Medieval Feast,” dismissed Middle Age diners as “coarse eaters” with palates dulled from overexposure to spices “by which the most innocent meats and fruits were doctored and disguised until the cook himself could hardly distinguish from the taste what had entered into their composition.” In the meantime, in the regions of the world where spices were native, they simply continued to be part of the landscape and culture, subjects of neither idolatry nor condemnation — until Europeans brought their new, more minimalist culinary standards to the countries they colonized, suppressing indigenous cuisines and the very ingredients they once fought wars over.

IN NICARAGUA, Dávila and González leave their turmeric plants in the fields for two years instead of the typical six to 12 months, and that longer gestation — abetted by partial shade instead of direct sunlight — appears to have boosted the amount of curcumin in the rhizomes as well as deepened their orange hue. Reshii’s “The Flavour of Spice” reports a high of 6.5 percent curcumin in turmeric from Kerala, India, compared to an average of 3 to 3.5 percent in the crop from nearby Tamil Nadu; Nicaraguan turmeric has registered at 7.9 percent. It’s ideal for a market primarily interested in the spice for its curative rather than culinary properties, even as the health benefits of curcumin remain unproven beyond a few preliminary clinical trials that suggest its potential as an anti-inflammatory and an antioxidant.

Dávila and González’s current crop is still in the ground, but the harvest of fellow farmers in their cooperative is available in the United States through Burlap & Barrel, a spice purveyor based in New York. Ethan Frisch, one of the company’s founders, visited the couple last spring and was intrigued to find that they had no plans to use their turmeric in the kitchen. He asked if they might try the leaves, if not the spice itself, the way they use banana leaves, to wrap tamales. Eyebrows were raised. A crazy notion, to change the way things have been done for hundreds of years.

It may take time, but the spice could still win converts here. Consider what happened to nutmeg, which once grew only on the Banda Islands of modern Indonesia and now flourishes on Grenada in the Caribbean. In the early 17th century, the Dutch slaughtered Banda’s indigenous inhabitants to gain control of the spice; out of 15,000 natives, barely 1,000 remained. In London, nutmeg was marked up at more than 60,000 times its Banda price. It was the Frenchman Poivre, again, who smuggled seedlings to the West, where the spice eventually gained a second home in Grenada, nearly 12,000 miles away. Today, it suffuses jams, cakes, ice cream, the batter for fried fish and a syrup for basting chicken. It even holds pride of place on the country’s flag.

Note, however, that nutmeg is considered an intoxicant and is classified by some Muslim jurists as haram, as it’s laced with myristicin, which has hallucinogenic properties, and safrole, a chemical sometimes used in synthesizing the psychedelic MDMA. Malcolm X wrote in his 1964 autobiography of getting high off nutmeg while in prison in Massachusetts in the 1940s — “a penny matchbox full of nutmeg had the kick of three or four reefers” — and the spice was reportedly banned from New Jersey state prison kitchens at one point. So the connections multiply: from 17th-century Dutch colonialists to the Black Panthers of 1960s America, and farmers in balmy Grenada — even to the frantic crush and heave of Manhattan, a bit of swampland once called New Amsterdam, which those same Dutchmen saw fit to pawn off on the British in 1667 in exchange for Run, one of the nutmeg-producing Banda Islands, and so tiny, it’s barely visible on a world map. The Dutch didn’t care — Run had nutmeg, after all. They thought they’d got the better deal.

Photo assistant: Carlos J.

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