The History of Spices

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I attended a Smithsonian Resident Associates lecture this week by Fred Czarra, author of the new book, "Spices: A Global History." I can't say I came away with a clear overview of the global spice trade, but I did gain a sprinkling of loosely connected facts. I'll pass them on to you, in case it comes in handy next time you play a trivia game:

  • Black pepper used to come mostly from India's Malabar coast; today, most of it is grown in Vietnam.
  • In the 16th century, Portugal provided Europe with most of its pepper, probably because they had the most ambitious explorers, most notably a guy named Afonso de Albuquerque (who, incidentally, is the namesake of an especially delicious mango, the Alphonso).
  • In the 17th century, the Dutch became power players in the spice trade when the various provinces of the Netherlands united their trading ventures to form the Dutch East India Company. Their center in the "spice islands" of Southeast Asia was called Batavia, present-day Jakarta. The penalty for stealing spices in the Dutch empire was death.
  • Americans made their first foray into spice trading in the late 18th century, starting with an enterprising Salem, Massachusetts sea captain named Jonathan Carnes.
  • In the mid-20th century, a Baltimore-based comany named McCormick changed the rules of the game by eliminating middlemen and setting up subsidiary factories in dozens of spice-growing countries.
  • Some spices are believed to have health benefits. In the old days, people thought they could ward off "noxious vapors" and diseases like the plague. These days, they're touted as a source of antioxidants. (Czarra eats cinnamon every morning to lower his blood sugar. "I don't know if it helps, but it doesn't hurt!")
  • Prince Henry the Navigator was not a dumb bunny. (That's a quote from the lecture. Unfortunately, I'm not sure what it has to do with the spice trade.)
  • Chilies are the dominant spice of our time.

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