Jack Turner has written an erudite, urbane and original book - an appetising debut, in short. Strange to think that the half-forgotten items at the back of the kitchen cupboard changed the world. The voyages of discovery undertaken by Columbus and Magellan were primarily intended to locate supplies of the stuff we now grind over steaks or grate on rice puds.
In , when Vasco de Gama's exploratory flotilla reached the Malabar coast of India, a lowly emissary was dispatched to explain their mission: "We came in search of Christians and spices.
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Jack Turner's epic and evocative account explores why spices had such profound significance in the Western world. He sensibly points out that the common explanation for the importance of spices is so much twaddle: "Anyone willing to believe that medieval Europe lived on a diet of spiced and rancid meat has never tried to cover the taste of advanced decomposition with spices. Spices also helped make oxidised wine - a constant problem before the development of corks and bottles in the 16th century - reasonably palatable.
Spices made their tortuous way to Western Europe long before the oceanic routes to the East were initiated. Pepper crops up in of Apicius's recipes. It appears in a textbook for Roman schoolboys, where a talking pig called M Grunnius "Grunter" Corocotta "obligingly asks to be well cooked with pepper, nuts and honey". The appetite for spices outlived the Roman period. When dying in , the Venerable Bede distributed his pepper among ecclesiastical colleagues. Considering the obscure origins of some spices - the clove and nutmeg only grew on tiny volcanic specks in the Moluccas - it is scarcely surprising they were thought to be of divine origin.
Their fragrance and preservative powers only added to their mystique.
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An Egyptian mummy dating from BC was found to have Indian peppercorns stuffed in its nostrils. Turner notes that the frequent appearance of spices in early-medieval medical texts is "nothing less than astonishing". For the most part, these were of dubious value. When the maritime trade in spices began, they may have been even more deleterious to health.
Spice ships enabled the spread of the black rat and its plague-carrying fleas. Shuffling chronology, Turner explores the role of spice for body and spirit through aphrodisiacs and incense. Some areas of his "long ramble through the past" are more interesting than others, and there are some strange omissions. Why doesn't asafoetida, brought to Europe by Alexander the Great and mentioned in half the recipes of Apicius, get into the book? And where is sumac, utilised as a souring agent before the introduction of lemons? Surely, extravagant saffron deserves more than a handful of fleeting references.
But these are quibbles in a book as readable as it is exotic. Sunday, August 15, The History of a Temptation. By Jack Turner. First-time author Jack Turner starts off his academic history of the spice trade with a cutesy premise.
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The Oxford University Rhodes Scholar reaches back to his grammar school days to retrieve the seed that inspired this deeply astute work. According to Turner's teacher, Columbus stumbled upon the New World in search of spices because "medieval Europeans had been afflicted with truly appalling food, necessitating huge quantities of pepper, ginger, and cinnamon to disguise the tastes of salt and old and rotting meat.
The premise may be coy, but the driving force behind Turner's book, which is to give voice to a history that never received its due, is not. He starts by addressing the establishment of spice routes between the West and East during the "Age of Discovery," a dry but necessary geography lesson interspersed with ugly episodes of Europe's impervious greed and imperial sense of entitlement. The author deftly puts the value of spice into material perspective. Establishing the empirical data allows Turner to move on to the complexities of spices' allure: the value it was assigned spiritually and medically; spice as a status symbol, an aphrodisiac, a culinary additive, an embalming material and an object of ascetic consternation.
Turner's study of spice also illuminates modes of social behavior that are as prevalent now as they were centuries ago, reflecting humanity's timeless tendency toward stratification, fantasy and greed. Much of spices' allure was linked to the mystery of its origins. According to Turner, "none could view the system in its entirety. Trade was a piecemeal business, passed on from one middleman to another. Jerome ca. Here are found carbuncles, emeralds, and shining pearls The West's ignorance of the geography and customs of the East, the source of spices, coupled with Eastern writings prescribing spices for sexual vigor, were two key factors that contributed to a persistent attitude.
Turner produces a potent example from a Victorian English translation of "The Perfumed Garden," a 15th century Arab sex manual that left little to the imagination. In a seduction by spiced perfume, the seducer propositions the seduced in a scented room: " 'If you like you may lie on your back, or you can place yourself on all fours, or kneel as in prayer, with your brow touching the ground, and your crupper in the air, forming a tripod.
Such images," writes Turner, "were grist for the mill of those who saw in spices one of the hallmarks of the sensual decadence of the East. It was perhaps inevitable that spices came to be considered the aroma of the libidinous Oriental. According to Turner, a doctrine favored by medieval moralists was that "'anything even remotely enjoyable is bad for you.
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For sweetness now surely meant everlasting stench later. Decadent Romans and medieval nobility showed off their wealth in ways worthy of today's hip-hop elite. Turner writes, "In the medieval as in the modern world, however, the ultimate in ostentation was not to boast, display, or dispense but to discard. Tropez: to buy bottles of Cristal just to shake up and pour all over each other. Turner also offers the reader a fascinating window into uniquely medieval quirks, the information ranging from the amusing to the enlightening to the painful.
For instance, the medieval explanation of digestion "The stomach was conceptualized as a form of cauldron heated by the liver, digestion being understood as the final phase of the cooking process. That the earth was spherical had been accepted by all informed opinion since ancient times.
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One of Turner's outstanding qualities is that he avoids judgment of the medieval lifestyle, no matter how peculiar it may seem. Likewise, he encourages the 21st century reader to view history with an open mind. After describing, then debunking, the prevalent medieval medical practices, which relied on balancing "the humors" by ingesting foodstuffs that were placed "on the spectra of hot through cold and dry through wet," Turner swiftly counters, "Though who are we to laugh? Modern dietary fads can be just as bizarre -- and we have fewer excuses for our gullibility.
The author's touch is about as light as can be hoped for in a work that surveys nearly 4, years of civilization. Turner impressively weaves a tremendous amount of information into a cohesive, pointed narrative. Unavoidable overlap of subject matter can make the book repetitive at times, and an abundance of historical data can become overwhelming, but this is not by any stretch a stuffy academic treatment. Turner comfortably weaves in the present, using colloquialisms and incorporating such subject matter as pop culture Spice Girls , soft-core porn the Spice Channel and Coca-Cola the secret formula is said to contain nutmeg and cinnamon , all unexpected but welcome citations in a serious scholarly work.
In a predictable turn of human behavior, once spices lost their mystery, people lost interest. According to Turner, this happened at some point between the 12th and 15th centuries. Gabriella Gershenson is a food columnist and critic in New York City.
Article Published: Sunday, August 08, Spicy tale of temptation. The mythic properties and age-old appeal of aromatic spices. By Roger K. Miller Special to The Denver Post. Spice: The History of a Temptation. In Padua, Italy, in there was a kind of medieval food fight that neatly illustrates one of the contentions in Jack Turner's "Spice: The History of a Temptation. Conspicuous consumption was not the only value of spices. Their scent was put to many uses, including magical and religious, to the extent that spice became the odor of sanctity, both before and after death.
The second century Christian martyr Polycarp was said to have given off a smell of fragrant spices on his funeral pyre - a "human incense stick," as Turner puts it. Anecdotes such as those can be found throughout "Spice," and it's a good thing, for they spice up the readability of his work.
The author presumably did not set out to rope smoke, but he might just as well have, for he chose a tough topic to get a handle on. The book is not so much a history of the spice trade "as a look at the reasons why it existed. Turner explores why spices are appealing and how that appeal emerged, evolved and faded. Spices came to the West bearing a cargo of associations, myth and fantasy, and "How spices came to acquire this freight His approach is not narrative, but, as he says, more like polyphony, "albeit without the satisfying resolution. Still, basing his writing on research that is wide and deep, Turner succeeds remarkably well at capturing the evanescent attractions of - primarily - pepper, nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon.
He begins with an overview of the trade - the great explorers of the Age of Discovery, such as Columbus and Da Gama, were spice-seekers first, he maintains, and geographic discoverers second - and then moves on to sections dealing with uses of spice in food enhancement, religion and magic, medicine and as aphrodisiacs.
There is some overlap in all of this as he weaves back and forth between the ancient and medieval worlds because, as he writes, food and cooking were considered less an art and more a medical science. Spices and medicines were one and the same; the High Middle Ages were the golden age of the spice trade and spice medicine. Though spices from the Spice Islands in what is now Indonesia had been available in Europe centuries before Columbus, it was widely believed they were grown in a terrestrial paradise.
Fantastical accounts of these fantastic "places" were more readily accepted than factual ones, like Marco Polo's, of actual places. Shades of the National Enquirer. Along the way he spikes a few myths, one being that the reason medieval folk used spices so heavily was to conceal the taste and smell of rancid meat. As Turner explains, if you had enough money to buy costly spices, you could afford to buy at least half-decent meat.