Books on the Spice Trade and Food History
Spice: The History of a Temptation
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 discoverhow 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.
“A wide-ranging, learned treat for epicures and cultural historians from–let us say it first–a man for all seasonings.”
“[A] series of lively essays….Turner’s sedulous research is manifest on every page….”
New Yorker (09/06/2004)
Dangerous Tastes: The Story of Spices
Spices and aromatics are woven into human history. Since antiquity they have taken pride of place in the markets of the world for their irresistible contribution to food, drink, health, perfume, sex, religion, magic, and ritual. Hunger for spices lies behind some of the great explorations and has led to wealth, conquest, and even genocide.
Aromatics are among the earliest commodities of prehistoric trade, and evidence of spices and perfumed oils has been found at numerous archaeological sites. Interest in their application to diet and pharmaceutics, expressed by classical writers and developed by medieval Islam, has continued in many traditional societies, and modern medicine has begun to agree.
It was in search of Eastern spices and drugs that the Portuguese opened up the sea route to India and the East Indies. Columbus sailed westward in search of another route to the Indies and discovered a New World with aromatics of its own. Colonial powers fought, enslaved, and killed to control this rich trade.
Spices and aromatics-the powerful, pleasurable, sensual ingredients used in foods, drinks, scented oils, perfumes, cosmetics, and drugs-have long been some of the most sought-after substances in the course of human history. In various forms, spices have served as appetizers, digestives, antiseptics, therapeutics, tonics, and aphrodisiacs. Dangerous Tastes explores the captivating history of spices and aromatics: the fascination that they have aroused in us, and the roads and seaways by which trade in spices has gradually grown. Andrew Dalby, who has gathered information from sources in many languages, explores each spice, interweaving its general history with the story of its discovery and various uses.
Dalby concentrates on traditional spices that are still part of world trade: cinnamon, cloves, ginger, pepper, saffron, and chili. He also discusses aromatics that are now little used in food but still belong to the spice trade and to traditional medicine: frankincense, myrrh, aloes-wood, balsam of Mecca. In addition, Dalby considers spices that were once important but that now are almost forgotten: long pepper, cubebs, grains of paradise.
Dangerous Tastes relates how the Aztecs, who enjoyed drinking hot chocolate flavored with chili and vanilla, sometimes added annatto (a red dye) to the drink. This not only contributed to the flavor but colored the drinker’s mouth red, a reminder that drinking cacao was, in Aztec thought, parallel with drinking blood. In the section on ambergris, Dalby tells how different cultures explained the origin of this substance: Arabs and Persians variously thought of it as solidified sea spray, a resin that sprung from the depthsof the sea, or a fungus that grows on the sea bed as truffles grow on the roots of trees. Some Chinese believed it was the spittle of sleeping dragons. Dalby has assembled a wealth of absorbing information into a fertile human history that spreads outward with the expansion of human knowledge of spices worldwide.
Nathaniel’s Nutmeg: Or, the True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed the Course of History
Would you believe that nutmeg formed the basis of one of the most bitter international conflicts of the 17th century, and was also intimately connected to New York City’s rise to global preeminence? Strange but true: nutmeg was, in fact, one of the most prized commodities in Renaissance Europe, and its fascinating story is told in Giles Milton’s delightful Nathaniel’s Nutmeg.
The book deals with the competition between England and Holland for possession of the spice-producing islands of Southeast Asia throughout the 17th century. Packed with stories of heroism, ambition, ruthlessness, treachery, murder, torture, and madness, Nathaniel’s Nutmeg offers a compelling story of European rivalry in the tropics, thousands of miles from home, and the mutual incomprehensibility which often comically characterized relations between the Europeans and the local inhabitants of the prized islands.
Exotic spices such as nutmeg, mace and cloves were treasured in the kitchens and pharmacopoeias of 16th and 17th century Europe. Nutmeg was even believed to be an effective remedy against plague. Small wonder, then, that traders of the time ventured to the ends of the earth to secure it. With high drama and gracefully integrated research, Milton (The Riddle and the Knight) chronicles this “Spice Race,” profiling the leading participants and recording the ruthless violence with which this very real trade war was conducted. The maritime powers of Europe sent companies of adventurers to the Spice Islands (now part of Indonesia), each nation intent on establishing a monopoly and reaping the stupefying profits that the spice trade could produce.
The book concentrates on the competition between the Dutch and English East India Companies to control the spice trade nearly 400 years ago. In 1616, Nathaniel Courthope led an English expedition to occupy the Spice Island of Run, a few square miles of land thickly forested with nutmeg trees. As Milton explains, Courthope’s assertion of English ownership of Run Island was rejected by the Dutch, who besieged the island for four years before ousting the English (and killing Courthope). However, Courthope’s apparent failure led to an unexpected benefit for his country when, in 1667, a treaty confirmed Holland’s seizure of Run but, in exchange, validated England’s seizure of another piece of land on the opposite side of the worldAthe island of Manhattan. Sprinkled with useful maps and illustrations, Milton’s book tells an absorbing story of perilous voyages, greed and political machinations in the Age of Exploration.
“[A] rousing historical romp. Milton leaves one both yearning for a time when the world seemed full of infinite adventure and appalled by what greed did to such a paradise.”
New York Times Book Review – Kevin Baker (07/11/1999)
True History of Chocolate
Sophie D. Coe
Theobromo caco . . . chocolate . . . “the food of the gods.” Delicious indulgence or cause of migraines? Aphrodisiac or medicinal tonic? Religious symbol or Mesoamerican currency? This delightful tale of one of the world’s favorite foods draws upon botany, archaeology, socio-economics, and culinary history to present a complete and accurate history of chocolate. The story begins some three thousand years ago in the jungles of lowland Mexico and Central America with the tree Theobroma cacao and the complex processes necessary to transform its bitter seeds into what is now known as chocolate. This was centuries before chocolate was consumed in generally unsweetened liquid form and used as currency by the sophisticated Maya, and the Aztecs after them. The Spanish conquest of Central America introduced chocolate to Europe, where it became first the stimulating drink of kings and aristocrats and then was popularized in coffeehouses. Industrialization in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries made chocolate a food for the masses—until its revival in our own time as a luxury item. The True History of Chocolate is the first book to present the real facts of the pre-Spanish history of chocolate—and it does so with great authority, since the authors share an unrivaled knowledge of the history of pre-Columbian civilizations and their cuisine. We discover how chocolate got its name and how it was used as a medicine, and we find that the Spanish learned of chocolate through the Maya, not the Aztecs. From Maya hieroglyphs to the kingdom of the Hershey Bar, this is a fascinating history, beautifully told, and enhanced with quotations, illustrations, and old recipes—abook for chocolate-lovers everywhere. 97 illustrations, 13 in color.
“Sophie D. Coe died before completing her engaging history of chocolate, which has been finished by her husband. The book covers archaeological information about the presumed use of chocolate from the Olmec to the Aztecs….All of this seems amusingly like our own times, and the Coes tell the story well.”
Atlantic Monthly – Phoebe-Lou Adams (07/19/1996)
“…[S]cholarly and sound, with few surprises….While Michael Coe deserves thanks for his dedication to the late Sophie Coe’s worthy undertaking, one wishes, as he does, that she had been able to finish it herself.”
Times Literary Supplement – Sidney W. Mintz (08/09/1996)
“…what the Coes have achieved is to strip away…the myths and misunderstandings, and to reconstruct from often very obscure sources, with some exciting archeological fieldwork and hieroglyphic deciphering, the remarkable passage of chocolate from its origins in the lowland jungles of southern Mexico to ‘Hershey’s Kisses’ and Cadbury’s ‘chocolate box,’ and to reestablish its genealogy over three millennia.”
New York Review of Books – Kenneth Maxwell (09/19/1996)
“At last a true classic in the repertoire of chocolate books. Based on flawless academic research, ‘The True History of Chocolate’ is a delightfully readable, and aptly illustrated book. At a stroke, Sophie Coe and her husband Michael have made this book the point of departure for all future studies on chocolate….The Coes set the record straight on many points.”
Literary Review – Chantal Coady (09/19/1996)
Vanilla: Travels In Search of the Ice Cream Orchid
We have all used the phrase “plain old vanilla,” associating the flavor with all that is dull and boring. In his book, Vanilla, Tim Ecott shows us that from the tropical orchid to the gallon of ice cream, vanilla is anything but boring. Farming can mean murder, businessmen and traders are secretive and suspicious, its origins are exotic, and the effects can be aphrodisiacal.
In the late 80’s, on the politically chaotic island of Comoros, Ecott was waiting to leave with a pack of refugees when he saw something wild sticking out of a rattan basket. It was vanilla, a souvenir of home for one woman, and Ecott knew he’d return because of it. Since then he has traveled around the world, mostly tropical islands on the equator where the vine can grow, to learn its history, uses, and how it has shaped the world.
Vanilla begins as a simple yellow orchid that can live for hundreds of years. Due to its intricate design, insects rarely pollinate it, leaving it to humans who use toothpick-sized sticks to do it manually. A thousand years ago it could only be found in Mexico, but the Spanish brought it to Europe, and the colonists brought it to the islands in the Indian Ocean. There are many varieties from each part of the world where it now grows, but Madagascar Bourbon has the highest quality extract. Of course the majority of consumers probably have not experienced such things — the average ice cream or cola is usually made with an artificial substance called vanillin that can be synthesized from other materials besides vanilla beans, costing far less. There’s a reason Ben and Jerry call their ice cream the World’s Best Vanilla — it contains the real thing. That explains the price, too. For flavor, it can cost the manufacturer a mere 12 cents per gallon for vanillin instead of 73 cents for vanilla. For fragrances, Chanel #5 uses high concentrations of vanilla aroma “vanilla absolute” at $5,000 per kilo. The knock-off containing vanillin: $20. The fact that the scent of real vanilla has the power to arouse men even as they sleep: priceless.
Ecott also shows us how the price and availability of vanilla have affected the world market, politics, and everyday lives in unimaginable ways. “The most labour-intensive agricultural product in the world” can earn $5-6 per kilo for farmers in Mexico, compared to $200 in Madagascar, and people have been murdered over it. Of course Ecott shows us the fun side to vanilla, like the Vanilla Queen, Patricia Rain, in California, who writes cook books. He also provides interesting vanilla trivia, Mexican legends about the Aztec’s “Black Flower,” and photos of vanilla in its various states. Ecott also delved into a wide range of unheard tomes, some more centuries old, on everything from perfumery to 18th century gardening.
There has been comparison to Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief, another writer uncovering the mysteries behind a beautiful plant. Ecott’s work, scope and subject go beyond the Florida Everglades that Orlean traipsed through. But like The Orchid Thief, Ecott became addicted to life with an exotic plant and had to include himself in the story. By the time someone warned him, “If you start following it around the world, it’ll get a grip on you and it won’t let go,” it was too late. Ecott’s book is equally addictive. You may also be interested in All About Vanilla.
Salt: A World History
How important is salt in our world? It was once one of the world’s most sought after commodities, often serving as currency (it still does in some places). The demand for it led to the creation of major world trade routes. It was a factor in both the Revolutionary War and Civil War. Revenues from its sale have been used to finance works as diverse as the Erie Canal and the Great Wall of China. Medically, it’s helped to preserve and sustain life. From the award-winning and bestselling author of Cod comes the dramatic, human story of a simple substance, an element almost as vital as water, that has created fortunes, provoked revolutions, directed economies and enlivened our recipes.
Salt is common, easy to obtain and inexpensive. It is the stuff of kitchens and cooking. Yet trade routes were established, alliances built and empires secured – all for something that filled the oceans, bubbled up from springs, formed crusts in lake beds, and thickly veined a large part of the Earth’s rock fairly close to the surface. From pre-history until just a century ago – when the mysteries of salt were revealed by modern chemistry and geology – no one knew that salt was virtually everywhere. Accordingly, it was one of the most sought-after commodities in human history. Even today, salt is a major industry. Canada, Kurlansky tells us, is the world’s sixth largest salt producer, with salt works in Ontario playing a major role in satisfying the Americans’ insatiable demand.
As he did in his highly acclaimed Cod, Mark Kurlansky once again illuminates the big picture by focusing on one seemingly modest detail. In the process, the world is revealed as never before.
“It is Kurlansky’s neat trick to be both encyclopedic and diverting, to leave no grain unturned as he ties one intriguing particular to another, through time and space, keeping the reader’s attention: the story of a Cellini salt cellar, Moors in sky-blue robes moving caravans of salt to Timbuktu, Gandhi starting a revolution with a pinch of salt, the pecking order of salt qualities, why some salts have color, why when it rains Morton’s still pours.”
San Francisco Chronicle Book Review – Peter Lewis (01/27/2002)
“I entered into this nearly five-hundred-page deal a skeptic wanting to be disappointed or bored, and I finished wanting more….One can only wonder what will catch Kurlansky’s fancy next.”
Ruminator Review – Hans Weyandt
Bittersweet: The Story of Sugar
From Australian science writer and broadcaster Macinnis, an informative and readable history of the simple substance that changed the world and often brought out the worst in people. Sugar cane, a member of the grass family, was first discovered in the New Guinea jungle some 9,000 years ago. The locals found that chewing and sucking it was pleasurable; eventually they learned to cultivate it. A widely grown crop in the ancient civilized world, sugar’s darker history began when the returning Crusaders brought it into Europe. There, it was a luxury item, being both capital- and labor-intensive, until the opening of the New World, particularly the Caribbean islands and Brazil, gave European colonizers the abundant land and suitable climate necessary for growing cane. Because a huge labor force was required to work the plantations, the author writes, “Sugar and slavery seemed to go hand in hand.” Surveying the sweet stuff’s bitterest legacy, Macinnis unsparingly describes the appalling cruelty and dangerous working conditions inflicted on slaves and their not-much-better-off counterparts, indentured servants. He also writes of sugar’s influence on policy matters and history, such as Napoleon’s decision to hang onto France’s sugar-growing colonies and sell the others to the US in the Louisiana Purchase. Blessed with a fine sense of humor as well as a sense of history, the author leavens his otherwise dramatic tale with lighter moments and such oddities as a four-volume 18th-century treatise on sugar-making written in blank verse, from which he quotes. Only a hardhearted few could resist priceless gems like, “Of composts shall the Muse descend to sing, / Nor soil her heavenly plumes? The sacredMuse / Nought sordid deems, but what is base; nought fair / Unless true Virtue stamp it with her seal.” Lively and entertaining: a splendid saga for the general reader.
“Few foods have had such an impact on human history as sugar, from its origins, its influence on the slave trade and its use as a medicine, a luxury, a comfort food and now a cheap filler in the modern processed food industry,” says nutritionist Rosemary Stanton on the book’s cover.
Some 550 years BC, Buddha was exhorting people not to eat sugar if they were not sick. Sugar was first imported into England, from the Atlantic island of Madeira, in 1319, and in 1598 a German visitor remarked that Queen Elizabeth I, at 64, had black teeth “a defect the English seem subject to, from their too great use of sugar”. However, only the very wealthy then could afford to rot their teeth. Sugar was an expensive, luxury product, but it became cheaper, and over about 100 years, from the late 17th century, consumption of sugar in Britain increased 20-fold. Cheap sugar required cheap labour, and so slavery, although not unknown before, became big business. Sugar grows in the tropics and it was believed white men could not work in such climates — a justification for slavery and the movement of South Pacific islander Kanakas to Queensland.
Macinnis says it’s estimated that between 1450 and 1900 about 11.7 million slaves were exported from Africa to the Americas, and that only 9.8 million reached the other side of the Atlantic. White planters “with cheerful racism”, says Macinnis, later wondered if Mediterranean Europeans might also be up to the task of working in the tropics, which saw Portuguese go to Hawaii and Italians to Queensland.
Sugar is a greedy product. It requires capital — land on which to grow the cane, mills to crush it. Once the cane is cut, it must be crushed within 24 hours to preserve the sucrose. In the 18th century, it took 20 tonnes of cane to produce 1 tonne of sugar, and 5 tonnes of water had to be evaporated, requiring heavy inputs of labour and fuel — proximity to a sugar mill was not a good outlook for a forest.
About 1500 years ago, long after sugar cane had spread from its point of origin in New Guinea and was being enjoyed for its juice throughout the tropics, someone discovered that adding an alkali, such as ash or lime, brought the impurities out of the solution, and that with further boiling crystals formed. Because sugar crystals would stick together on a long, humid sea voyage, sugar had to be refined near to where it would be consumed, a restriction that also meant the value-adding to turn a cheap product into a valuable one remained with the “home” country, not the colony. Sugar, molasses and rum were also taxed, which caused resentment in the colonies. Macinnis reports that the author Anthony Trollope noted how the potential for a preserved fruit industry in Tasmania in the 1870s was blocked by the requirement that sugar from Queensland “be taxed as though it came from a foreign land, taking away the opportunity for profitable commerce in both colonies”.
“Sugar has caused the mass movement and death of millions of humans,” he writes. “It has resulted in the large-scale clearance of land and the destruction of soil and whole environments. “If we need sweetness in our food, perhaps we should seek other ways of finding it, because right now our joint human sweet tooth looks set to cause a nasty abscess in the environment.”
History of the World in Six Glasses
Technology historian Standage (The Turk, 2002, etc.) follows the flow of civilization as humanity guzzles a half-dozen prime beverages. First made by nature in prehistory was beer. Finding it good, and more salubrious than plain water, mankind turned brewer. (And so the stage was set for cartoons set in barrooms eons later). From cuneiform beer ledgers, Standage’s story hops to Dionysus and the oenophiles of Greece and Rome, who knew as much about the pleasures of the grape as any modern wine snob. Here, we learn the vintage that Caligula preferred. In C-rdoba, distilled spirits formed rum. Allotments of rum, in turn, enhanced the fighting effectiveness of British tars against foreign sailors debilitated by scurvy. The attempt to pay for the recent revolution by imposing federal taxes on independent stills produced the short-lived Whiskey Rebellion in the new United States. Islam eschewed booze, but a sober gift from the Arab world was coffee. In 17th-century Europe, coffeehouses were not only as ubiquitous as Starbucks, they were “information exchanges” where people traded news as “vibrant and unreliable” as that found on a contemporary Internet blog. Tea, which tradition holds was first brewed some 4,500 years ago (our author dates it closer to the first century), became largely controlled, along with opium, by the East India Company. From British tea-time dominance, beverage history goes to that fizzy badge of American hegemony, Coca-Cola. We learn why drugstores once featured soda fountains and how Coke fought Pepsi in WWII. Don’t drink the water: throughout history, beer, wine, whiskey, coffee, tea and soda pop were all more potable. Ironically, now that it’s bottled and pricey,water seems to making a comeback. Standage offers a distilled account of civilization founded on the drinking habits of mankind from the days of hunter-gatherers to yesterday’s designer thirst-quencher. History, along with a bit of technology, etymology, chemistry and bibulous entertainment. Bottoms up! (24 b&w illustrations).
“Standage starts with a bold hypothesis…and takes readers on an extraordinary trip through world history. The Economist’s technology editor has the ability to connect the smallest detail to the big picture and a knack for summarizing vast concepts in a few sentences.”
Publishers Weekly (04/11/2005)
“Standage offers a distilled account of civilization founded on the drinking habits of mankind from the days of hunter-gatherers to yesterday’s designer thirst-quencher.”
“The six glasses in the title allow Standage to tell a zippy narrative around the sequential appearance of various beverages…What remains attractive about Standage’s exercise is the way that he uses something mundane and everyday to tell vivid and accessible stories about the changing textures of human life.”
New Yorker – Steven Shapin (08/01/2005)
Other articles of interest: The Spice Trade, A Taste of Adventure, Pepper: King of Spices, and Spices, or the Dawn of the Modern Age