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.