Monthly Archives: March, 2007

Spicy history

I finished Jack Turner’s Spice: The History of a Temptation yesterday. Overall, I really enjoyed it. It’s quite an idiosyncratic history, and deliberately so – writing about absolutely everything to do with spice, even just in western Europe and/or just in the Middle Ages would be an incomprehensibly huge project, I would imagine. So he hasn’t done that: although he does go into great detail in some things, in others he skips over stuff a bit. He does seem to have a fairly good bibliography at the back, so I guess if you were so inclined you could chase stuff up yourself.

The first part is about the spice race – Columbus, Magellan, and their cohort, who opened up the world for Europeans – at least the western ones – all, or at least partly, in the name of spice, I love the idea of Portugese or Spanish explorer getting to Malabar or other such places and finding Italian merchants already there; the look on their faces must have been priceless… much like the spice there were seeking.

The second part focusses on the palate – the thing that I was expecting most of the book to look at, to be honest, despite the fact that I know spices were used in incense etc. Anyway, this section was really interesting: it looked at recipes, it looked at how spice helped to create/maintain class distinction; discredits the idea that spice was used in the Middle Ages to hide the taste of rotting meat (it was rich people who used spice – do you think rich people would be eating rotting meat in the first place? It was at least partly to hide the taste of the salt used in curing the meat, probably).

The third part focussed on the body, in two ways: spice in medicine, and spice for love. Starting with cloves being shoved up Ramses II’s nose, as part of the mummification process, and then talking about the whole idea of pomanders and bad air (mal aria…) being respondible for disease. The section on spice as aphrodisiac was quite funny. And almost entirely male-centred – the remedies suggested, that is, not Turner’s treatment of it, since he himself points it out.

Part four is on the spirit: the use of spice in incense, for example. It mostly focussed, though, on the changing attitude of Christians towards spice in worship. The earliest Church fathers thought it was ok-ish – Christians were often anointed with spices for burial, since Christ was. Then people went a bit off it, because after all if God is incorporeal then presumably he doesn’t enjoy pleasant smells (personally I think this is a daft argument: so you’re limiting what God is able to do, then?). This is a very, very brief overview, of course.

The last chapter is called “Some Like it Bland,” which is a great heading. It talks about the movement – slowly – against spices, for a range of reasons, including that it was a drain of resources away from Europe towards those nasty, decadent Easterners; plus, interestingly, he links the development of the nation-state and national sentiment to the development of a national cuisine, which makes sense, and in England at least this led to a bland cuisine they were proud of, contrasting it with those very spices their forebears used to love.

As I said, this is a ridiculously brief overview, but it gives an idea what the book was about. It’s really well written, and a lot of fun to read; Turner’s not afraid of pointing out the humorous and ridiculous nature of some of the things he discusses.

Reading for pleasure (gasp!)

I feel like it is a long time since I read anything without another agenda in mind: it was for school, or I was going to write a review of it… even history books I read for fun still have the not-very-subliminal purpose of increasing my general (trivial) knowledge. That’s not to say that I dont enjoy those books, of course; just that as I read I’m thinking of things other than just the enjoyment.

To celebrate the start of my break, I am reading Galactic North, by Alastair Reynolds. It has been sitting on my shelf for a while, holding out the promise of complete escapism and masterful writing, for a while now, and it is with a huge sense of relief and relaxation that I dived into it yesterday. It’s 8 short stories – novellas, really – set in the Revelation Space et al universe. The first two are about Nevil Clavain, Galiana, and Felka. I remember them from at least one of the four stories set in that ‘verse, and it’s really nice to get some background on them. It also, of course, makes me itch to go back and read them all again. I think I read them too fast first time around and may have missed some of the subtleties. Plus, they are jsut damned fine stories. Truly, Reynolds is a heroic storyteller.

Hell, and the history thereof

As I cook an enormous lasagne to feed a 5 year old and 4 year old tonight (and their parents), I’m catching up on my “In our Time” podcasts. At the moment it’s “The history of hell,” which is interesting for a whole load of reasons. But something that just struck me: Bosch and Luther were contemporaries! Fascinating.

Now they’re talking about the fact that in many early traditions, hell was freezing, rather than being, with the speculation that this is some sort of folk memory of the change, 10,000 years ago, from the last Ice Age. Apparently – and I don’t know who thinks this – there is an idea that the Ice Age changed over just 10 years or so, such that people would experience it very obviously.

And now they’re talking about Heart of Darkness The Waste Land. The idea of the journey down the Congo, to the supervisor at the inner station, who might be described as a modern Tiresias. Now that is a really, really interesting idea.

Spice, and Spice Girls

I’ve been hearing the Spice Girls song, “Stop”, a lot recently, at school. This has a weird effect on me. A group of girls at college used to do the moves to this song all the time, and consequently when I hear it I have a vision of them doing so – and an urge to join in. Mainly to upset the kiddies.

What made me think of this is the book I am reading: Spice: The History of a Temptation, by Jack Turner. It’s very enjoyable – although I am dubious of his repeated use of the term ‘Dark Ages’ in referring to the time after the (now) official end of the Western Roman Empire. Nonetheless. He has a whole chapter, of course on spice and sex: looking at all the different ways it was recommended to use spice to improve sex in a variety of ways, as well as the problems the more prudish (and supposedly celibate) members of the community had with it. Throughout, he makes comments on some of the things that have lasted to the modern day, and towards the end he comments on the Spice Girls, saying they “shot like a gaudy, squawking comet through the outer orbits of pop stardom before, in obedience to the Newtonian physics of celebrity, the acrimonious plummet back to earth and bust-up.” Beautiful. No wonder he writes about spice; he certainly has the language for it.

New music for me!

I don’t know why, but Guardian’s Buzz came to mind this afternoon. A friend at college had it, oh – 9 years ago. Hello, iTunes: they have it! I would have got it from Word, but they were out of stock. And then, thinking about Guardian, I started thinking about the News Boys and Take Me to your Leader: again, a friend (not at college this time, but at Christian Union) had a copy, and I borrowed it, and listened to the title track about a zillion times. iTunes again: this time because it was about half the price of Word. Bit sad, but ultimately – eh. I’m not that attached to the hard copy version.


are no more.

I chucked out all of my cassettes a couple of weeks ago, in a mood of downsize or die. It was a bit sad… but I do own a large chunk of the stuff on CD now anyway, so I guess it’s not a complete loss. And the only place I could possibly still listen to them is the car, and I do actually have a secret stash of them there already. My tape with Boom Crash Opera on one side and Ice House on the other, and a tape of American Christian music my friend Denise, from way back at college, made for me. Listening glory!

Ipods and earphones

So it seems the thing to do these days as a teen is to share your ipod – walk around with someone, each of you having one earphone attached to the one ipod. Seems like a slightly looser version of the 3-legged race to me.

Thing is, though, lots of friends are in trios or more. So what I want to know is, has someone invented earphones with more than just 2 listening bits? Or a double-jack or similar so that more than 1 pair of earphones can go into the one plug? This would seem to be the next innovation that ipods bring about.

Is it wrong to spend a book voucher on music?

Well, it wasn’t specifically a book voucher, but it was for organising a Literature Enhancement programme at school last year, and it was for a mostly-book-store… but it just so happens to be the ABC store as well, and the latest JJJ Hottest 100 (volume 14) just came out. So I got that. I also got a book – it was on special, Jeanette Winterson’s Tanglewreck, which looks fairly interesting.

Year 12s

Hello! to the Yr 12s who have found my blog today, because they decided to find out exactly what the deal with my email address was.

And thanks to the one student who said they thought it was Rando Male X. Lovely.

The Sweetest Thing

I don’t know why, but we are watching The Sweetest Thing. It’s terrible. It’s all about Christine Applegate and Cameron Diaz showing off their bodies and being ridiculous. It purports to be about the sexual revolution, wherein the girls get to sleep around and have the fun that we’ve always imagined the boys got to have since, after all, they don’t have to worry about getting knocked up. Of course, it turns out that that isn’t fulfilling, and what the girls actually really want is a steady relationship with a man who makes them laugh.

I have no problem with the idea of steady relationships – hell, I got married at 22. What I do have a problem with is people who pretend like they’re being controversial or breaking sexual stereotypes, but actually simply reinforce them.

And use really, really bad jokes to get there.