How spice forever changed our world
Normally, we don’t get excited about the colorful powders on the spice rack; they seem too ordinary. But the words spice and special are sisters of the same parent, Latin species. Their unmistakable fragrances and exotic origins (bark, root, bud) make spices special. So does the way a pinch explodes into enormous effect. Spices were once believed to be divine. The Garden of Eden--rich with perfume -- was their imagined birthplace. Human hunger for their heavenliness was so insatiable, the search for and securing of spices actually changed the world more profoundly than any event in history. They came from trees and rhizomes in the Far East, and for millennia, their trade belonged to Arabs who tirelessly sailed the Indian Ocean, eventually bringing Islam to south India, Malaysia and Indonesia. (In Genesis Joseph’s brothers sell him to spice merchants.) Desire to eliminate these Middle Eastern middlemen provoked the European voyages of discovery that found the New World, and led to the conquest of ancient ones: India, China, and Polynesia. Because cloves and nutmeg were worth more than their weight in gold, the Dutch were happy to trade Manhattan Island to the British for the Pacific island of their origin. Yankee colonists became so intent on profiting from the trade, they created speedy clipper ships to gain advantage. The New England merchant Elihu Yale founded the famed eponymous Ivy League university with a fortune made from spices.
Why all the fuss?
Fragrance, potency, scarcity and the secrecy of their origin made spices exceedingly special. They spelled luxury and were believed powerful enough to summon gods. They also smelled luxurious enough to herald the entry of earthly god/monarchs like Caesar. The New Testament says the Wise Men or Magi who visited the infant Jesus were kings of Oriental (i.e. spice) realms so naturally brought as offerings not only gold, but the most sacred spices: frankincense and myrrh. The ancients suspected their extravagant aroma meant sanctity and burned these resins at their altars to please their gods. The “divine” scent of spices uplifted moods and thus appealed to the soul. Their perfume suggested paradise and spiritual transcendence required to reach it. They soothed and cheered. They signaled refinement. In ancient Greece, spiced honeyed wines were featured at Dionysian revelries and in Eleusinian mysteries. Spices were used for sacrificial rites, to ward off the “evil eye”, even in love potions, because their fragrance was so “attractive.” Still today, spiced incense is burned during religious services in Greek Orthodox churches. The holiness of Catholic saints was supposedly proved by their wonderful smell, even as corpses. Catholic masses changed languages, but still include the burning of spiced incense to uplift the spirit and make worshipers feel holy. We still share the same beliefs about the power of spices: they’re the essence of aromatherapy.
You’d never know the zesty nutmeg that enlivens cappuccino and peach pie got to them by a horribly bloodied route. It’s the seed—the nut inside the fruit, of an evergreen tree native to the remote Banda islands in the Pacific Ocean. Once Dutch sailors found them, once the Dutch rulers traded Manhattan Island to the British for their nutmeg island, their determination to monopolize what had become an exceedingly lucrative market, made them massacre all residents. Nutmeg was by then a must-have spice, center of a craze. Originally, Arabs traded it as just another scent, aphrodisiac and medicine, but the Black Death made Europeans hysterical to have it at any price. Desperate survivors believed it would ward off the plague. Actually, fleas—transmitters of the virus-- seem to dislike its smell, so possibly someone perfumed with or chewing on nutmeg might have avoided a fatal bite. Part of its popularity was its mood changing, feel good chemical compounds that can create a slight high. Renaissance apothecaries knew it was an intoxicant, even a hallucinogen in large doses, so it was part of potions used by spiritual oracles. In the appendix to his Naked Lunch, William Burroughs's writes that South American "medicine men" snorted powdered nutmeg to "go into convulsive states. Their twitchings and mutterings are thought to have prophetic significance."
Cinnamon is the fragrant bark of a particular laurel tree native to Ceylon and contains compounds that ward off ants and other crawling pests. It can also ward off bacteria, which is why Europeans revered it for proper digestion and Venice grew rich from its trade. In 1,500 BC, Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt used ground cinnamon as an aromatic. Prior to embalming, the corpse of Nero’s wife Poppaea was perfumed with a year's import of cinnamon. Supposedly King Solomon’s garments emitted its aroma. Cinnamon was used in Hebrew rituals at the Tabernacle, in Egyptian mummy embalming, as incense in European Churches. Oil extracted from the tree’s leaves and twigs was a crucial component of the Hebrew anointing oil (Exodus: Then the Lord said unto Moses, “Take the finest spices: of liquid myrrh 500 shekels, and of sweet-smelling cinnamon half as much, that is, 250…), and is praised in Proverbs and Song of Songs as a perfume. (Prov 7:17: I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloes and cinnamon.) Cinnamon oil is the essential ingredient in candles offered to the archangel Michael, aka St. Michael.
This New World spice, with the Latin name capsicum, was part of what Columbus discovered. Its name comes from the French Guiana city of Cayenne. It’s also called Guinea spice, cow-horn pepper, aleva, and bird pepper. Cayenne pepper is a chili whose heat is esteemed for working medical wonders: it can lower blood pressure, calm ulcers, numb pain, fight bacteria and soothe arthritis. People traditionally scattered it around the house to break bad spells and ward off demons. They also added it to love powders to enflame the loved one with passion and ensure a spicy relationship. Some people actually used cayenne pepper as a male aphrodisiac because it’s full of the chemical capsaicin that increases blood flow to all parts of the human body.
Clove has been revered for millennia as an effective local anesthetic, particularly in the mouth, and also a breath freshener. A clove is the dried flower bud of a tree native to five islands in the Pacific, the Moluccas, so scarcity and distance made it extra special. In the 15th century 1 kg cost 7 grams of gold, yet by the 17th and 18th centuries, cloves were literally worth their weight in it. Their outrageous value made them a perfect temple or church offering. Traditionally, cloves have been the crucial element of Havdalah, the weekly Jewish ceremony that marks the end of the Sabbath. Perhaps along with cinnamon, they are put into a specially decorated box, a b’samin, and at sunset a blessing is recited over them. The aroma is supposed to be compensation for the loss of Sabbath grace. Because cloves are thought to stimulate the memory, its scent helps people sustain the departing Sabbath spirit. Sometimes, cloves’ anesthetic quality is symbolically summoned to comfort the bereaved and mourning; they are offered cloves to carry in their hand or pocket. Cloves are sewn into sachets along with aromatic mint and rose petals to chase away melancholy. Cloves worn in an amulet are said to drive away negativity and hostility. Clove oil is even worn as a perfume by those who think because it can stimulate the mind, it’s an aphrodisiac.
Black peppercorns, sometimes called “king of spices”, were one of the four main spices that changed the world, the French “quatre epices”: black peppercorns, cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg or mace. They were found deliberately placed in the nostrils of the mummified corpse of the great Pharaoh, Ramses II, who died in 1213 BC. The Romans traded them ounce for ounce with metals and in medieval times, peppercorns were even used as a substitute for money. They are actually the berries of tropical vines that grow along the humid Malabar coast of south India and from ancient through Medieval times, merchants from everywhere and every religion—Jews, Christians, Persians, Chinese, Islam-- settled the area to get into the lucrative pepper business. Black peppercorns remain the world’s most widely traded spice. They’re revered not just for their taste; they stimulate taste buds and that triggers digestive juices to flow. Black peppercorns, with their mild heat but sharp flavor and health benefits, were once presented to the gods as a sacred offering. Washing the floor with ground peppercorns mixed with salt and water is a voodoo trick for repelling evil spirits and harmful people. In 2011, a witch in Romania threatened to sow civil discord by casting a spell using black pepper and yeast.
Saffron, the world’s most expensive spice, may also be its oldest. Ancient Persians cultivated saffron in the 10th Century BC to weave into noble textiles and offer their gods. Sumerians put saffron in medical remedies and magical potions. It’s mentioned in a 7th Century B Assyrian botanical guide and before the 2nd Century BC was a precious commodity of global trade. It comes from the tiny pistil of a crocus native to Greece and Anatolia (now cultivated in Kashmir and Iran), and its threads must be painstakingly harvested by hand. Everywhere, expense and scarcity made saffron spiced food, ritual offerings or priestly cloth the hallmark of nobility. Tibetan Buddhists use saffron threads to transform ritual rice offerings from white to yellow to symbolize gold and indicate the richness of the occasion, and also because saffron is so rare and costly, to represent maximum (no holding back) generosity. Saffron’s golden color also makes a rich textile dye considered the holiest of hues. All Buddhist monks wear at least one saffron- colored garment to symbolize the spiritual fire that promises transcendence. Saffron came to the Americas during the Reformation with members of the German Schwenkfelder Church fleeing persecution. Their trunk of crocus corms allowed them to grow and sell precious saffron to finance their spiritual quest.
Sandra Garson is the author of Veggiyana, the Dharma of Cooking and How to Fix a Leek and Other Food From Your Farmers’ Market. As a longtime student of Tibetan Buddhism and well-known cook for Dharma centers from Maine to Mongolia, she became the first food historian to explore the Buddha’s influence on how the world now eats. This led to exploration of more religious beliefs about food.