Spice: The History Of A Temptation
With all of the great non-fiction work that’s around these days (from fascinating biographies to documentary movies that are better than many Hollywood summer tentpole releases), you might be tempted to pick up the new non-fiction book "Spice: The History of a Temptation". Beware though because, despite their titillating titles, sometimes non-fiction books are just as dry as you’re afraid you’ll be.
"Spice", by first time author Jack Turner, doesn’t deal so much the spice trade from the Far East to Europe as it tries to get at the motivations for it. The book spans time periods from the Ancient Greeks, Egyptians and Romans to the Dark Ages to the Renaissance and beyond. Despite its sprawling time period, "Spice" is neatly organized into thematic chunks: an overview of the European explorers who sailed the world in search of spices, people’s taste for and the uses of spice in food, the medicinal and aphrodisiacal powers of spices, and lastly their part in religious ceremonies. Throughout, Turner explains the reason for the various rises and falls of the popularity of spice in all these quarters.
Turner’s main thesis is not so much that medieval people used spices to cover up the smell and taste of spoilt meat, the popular preconception, but that spices became wildly popular whenever the rise of a class of nobility made conspicuous consumption fashionable. Lords and ladies liked their spices not just because they tasted good but because they were incredibly, mind-bogglingly expensive. Having a well-spiced meal at a dinner party was equivalent to showing off by serving it on solid gold plates with hand-carved ruby utensils. An extensively used perfume, oil of cinnamon, in Turner’s words, "smelled like money evaporating."
The flipside is that, once progress in navigation and trade made importing spices more affordable, their popularity dropped off. True, more people used pepper on their meals, but it was no longer the "in" thing. Just as when a couture gown turns up as ready to wear and is subsequently churned out for the masses by Isaac Mizrahi for Target, so did the wealthy and fashionable lose their fascination with spices and go off in search of the next big thing (in this case new luxuries such as coffee and sugar).
Likewise with the religious uses for spice. Originally thought of as the breath of the gods and used extensively in both pagan, Jewish and Christian ceremonies (not so much by Muslims), once spices were on everybody’s dinner table, they lost most of their mystical quality and mostly dropped out of spiritual use.
Turner’s book is exhaustively researched, which unfortunately results in it being quite exhausting to read. It’s not that Turner doesn’t write well or doesn’t make several good points with tons of proofs from recipes, historians and poetry of the times to back them up. It’s just that a good non-fiction book needs to do more than simply pile on facts or come to a conclusion from them.
Non-fiction works that are truly worth reading need to be compelling, they need to transport you in the same way good fiction does. Yes, you can learn an enormous amount about the historical uses of spices and get the occasional juicy tidbit like medieval tips on "How to Make a Small Penis Splendid" (which actually involves rubbing it with honey and ginger or putting cinnamon on the tip, probably something best not tried at home). But "Spice" never actually lets you feel the trade winds from the Indian Ocean, smell the fragrant cinnamon oil of a sacrifice to a Roman god, or feel the bustle of the kitchens in one of Henry VIII’s palaces.
As an end result, "Spice" comes off as a really well-written textbook. If it was assigned reading for a course in medieval studies or culinary history, you wouldn’t resent having to read it. But for pure pleasure reading, you’re better off with "The Joy of Cooking".
by Jack Turner
Published by Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95 in hardcover