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SPICE by Jack Turner


The History of a Temptation

by Jack Turner

Pub Date: Aug. 17th, 2004
ISBN: 0-375-40721-9
Publisher: Knopf

A convincing case that once upon a time spices were pretty influential in world history.

Visiting olden lands like the Moluccas, Malabar, and Vindoland, the text is redolent of such exotic, long-forgotten substances as malabathron and costus, galangal and zedory. Extracted from bark, root, gums, resins, seeds, and fruits for the gratification of Caesars and potentates, they are the reason Columbus set sail and brought back little more than hot chili peppers. Magellan died for the craving for spices; da Gama did better on his trip to Calicut. In ancient Egypt, Ramses was laid to rest with peppercorns in his nostrils. The attraction of pepper, the most widely popular spice, had something to do with the decline of Rome. In the Middle Ages, pepperers and spicers flourished. And, debut author Turner maintains, their products were not really used to salvage rotten meat. That’s a canard: medieval meat was probably local and therefore fresh. (Wine needed spicing, though.) Sundry spices were prescribed, like diet supplements today, to cure illnesses resulting from imbalances of the four humors. Some, presaging Viagra, were recommended to enhance amatory performance. (Thus ginger was in every pharmacopoeia.) Churchmen were often conflicted about the use of spices, which represented the sweetness of good or the stink of evil, but found a place for them in the sacristy. Eventually the consumer pepper index plunged, and flavorings became more available. Other than perfumery, the uses of such assets remain principally as condiments and flavorings. Frankincense and myrrh may be rare now, but the ancient favorites ginger, pepper, cardamom, cloves, and caraway still fill spice racks.

A wide-ranging, learned treat for epicures and cultural historians from—let us say it first—a man for all seasonings. (8-page color insert, b&w illustrations in text)