A spicy history of humanity

The quest for spices drove exploration around the world

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On a shelf in one of my kitchen cabinets, I have a small jar of much-traveled cloves that have crossed the Atlantic twice in the international moves I have made over the past decade. As their numbers have dwindled over the years since I bought them, back in the last century, they have been transferred from their original pasteboard box to the rather spiffier glass jar. At the rate they are disappearing, they may well last another couple of decades. They are not, in short, a big deal in my household.

But I have new respect for those cloves since reading Jack Turner's "Spice: The History of a Temptation." For he demonstrates that it was cloves - 60,060 pounds of them, to be precise - that funded no less historic a human enterprise than Ferdinand Magellan's circumnavigation of the globe.

Recent years have seen the flourishing of a new genre of history: the book focusing on some object of material culture considered a window on the larger pageant of human history. Thus we read about "salt" or "cod" as having "changed the world," or about the ordinary lead pencil, or the manufacture of chemical pigments, or even the color mauve. "Spice" continues that tradition.

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Turner locates spices at the confluence of some major currents of the human experience: life and death; God and religion; sex, love, and food. It was the desire for spices as much as the desire for gold and silver, he argues, that motivated the great voyages of discovery of half a millennium ago. "The Asian empires of Portugal, England, and the Netherlands might be said with only a little exaggeration to have sprouted from a quest for cinnamon, cloves, pepper, nutmeg, and mace, and something similar was true of the Americas.... For the sake of spices, fortunes were made and lost, empires built and destroyed, and even a new world discovered. For thousands of years, this was an appetite that spanned the planet and, in doing so, transformed it."

Magellan, Columbus, and Vasco da Gama are the heroes of the adventure story of the spice trade. But the history of spice has other sides as well. Those who risked their lives in the spice trade were motivated by what Turner calls "the idea of spice," an idea derived from a reading of Christian theology that saw spices as literally the fruit of an earthly paradise. It was an idea reinforced by the fact that so many spices came to medieval Europe via the markets of the Bible lands of the Middle East.

Spice has another, much worldlier, set of associations, too. Someone at an airport newsstand looking for a spicy novel to read on the plane is not thinking of cinnamon and nutmeg.

Indeed, one of the threads of "Spice" is the long-running tension in Christian Europe between spice as the fragrance of the saints and spice as a (real or imagined) aphrodisiac. Of many anecdotes along this line in the book, the one that can be cited in a family newspaper is the story of the (apocryphal) Pope Joan of the 9th century, who was so aroused by the luxurious spices in her cuisine that she swooned over one of her courtiers, with obstetrical consequences nine months later.

This book is organized thematically rather than chronologically, "flitting across time and space," as the author admits. But he adds that "if the narrative wanders from one time and place to another, this is exactly what spices themselves have always done, cropping up in defiance of the received wisdom, in places where, by rights, they should never have been."

Turner, an Australian classicist now in New York by way of Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, combines erudition with a breezy style. His research is contemporary enough to draw on the Internet and cable television. But it also extends back as far as an archive of ancient clay tablets caught in a house fire in Syria around 1721. The blaze baked them as if in a kiln, and thereby preserved them for the erudition of generations of delighted archaeologists.

There is definitely a gross-out factor in some of the anecdotes (spices were the key to early embalming practices). But Turner has a knack for talking about previous centuries in a way that resonates with our own times. And there are some wonderful touches of humor here, as well. Describing an ancient Roman chef's effort to present a cooked hare with wings to suggest Pegasus, the flying horse, he notes the effect was "not unlike a broiler hen trussed up as Superman."

And having grown up in a household where even freshly ground pepper represented a venture into the terra incognita of the gastronomic map, I was interested to read Turner's confirmation of my hunch about the link between religion and culinary practice: The Puritans were not big on spice.

In this telling, the spice trade itself is implicitly a sort of proto-Internet over which the traffic was not in bytes but in grains, and it went forth much more slowly. "Spice" is history that hits home.

Ruth Walker is the Monitor's chief copy editor.

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