Origins of Salt, Pepper, and Other Spices
Let’s take a look at the stories behind some of your favorite spices.
If you eat enough pepper you’ll start to sweat, which explains why the ancients thought the stuff made an excellent medical treatment. The Chinese employed it as a treatment for malaria, cholera, and dysentery, while Indian monks used it as a sort of PowerBar: they swallowed small amounts of the stuff in hopes that it would help them survive their long treks through the rough countryside. Later, pepper became so valuable that it served as a de facto form of currency; it was used for centuries in Europe to pay rent and taxes. In one exceptional case, it was also used for ransom: Attila the Hun is said to have demanded about 3,000 pounds of the stuff in 408 C.E.; in exchange, he promised to lay off the city of Rome and stop sacking it.
It’s probably been the most valuable food additive in all of history, mostly because it did such a good job of preserving foods in the centuries before the refrigerator was invented. Salt mines in Chehr Abad, Iran, also testify to the stuff’s ability to preserve people. Four “salt men” have been discovered there, eerily mummified by what they were digging for; two of them may date as far back as 650 B.C.E. But the use of salt far predates the Iranian salt men. In China, writings that are something like 4,700 years old testify to its value; the Peng-Tzao-Kan-Mu, the earliest known treatise pharmacology, mentions more than 40 kinds of salt. And a tragic piece of Chinese folklore that has probably been around since the time of the Peng-Tzao-Kan-Mu tells a story of how the phoenix, that majestic mythical bird, first brought salt to the attention of a lowly peasant—who was accidentally put to death by a temperamental emperor before anyone realized the value of what he had found.
Although it’s originally from the hard-to-reach island of Ceylon (a.k.a. Sri Lanka), cinnamon has been a global sensation for millennia. It first appears in Chinese writings that date to 2800 B.C.E. (they called it kwai). Cinnamon was also used by the Egyptians in embalming, perhaps, as with salt, for the same reason that it became a popular cooking spice—its warm aroma and antibacterial properties could hide the stench of food starting to go bad. The Romans had attachments to cinnamon, too, both medical and sentimental. Pliny the Elder records the stuff as being worth about fifteen times its weight in silver. And the Roman Emperor Nero, known for both his evil tendencies and his extravagance, sacrificed a year’s supply of the stuff as an apologia for murdering his wife—although we’re guessing Roman spice merchants failed to appreciate the gesture.
Like cinnamon, this one’s been a popular spice since the days of, yep, Pliny the Elder, who writes about a curious plant that bears two spices: Nutmeg is the plant’s seed; mace is made from a fleshy covering around the seed. Nutmeg’s distinctive scent (think eggnog) has made it consistently popular throughout the ages; Emperor Henry VI reportedly had workers blanket the streets of Rome with the aroma in celebration of his crowning. The vast majority of the world’s nutmeg now comes from the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada—in fact, the local economy is based almost entirely on tourism and nutmeg exports, and the spice is the centerpiece of the country’s flag—but that’s not where the plant originated. In fact, nutmeg didn’t even exist in Grenada until British sailors brought it there in the early 1800s; it’s from the East Indies, not the West Indies. The British had good reason for introducing an invasive species, though: The combination of a blight, political upheaval, and Dutch merchants who burned nutmeg warehouses to keep the prices high had pretty much wiped out the world supply of nutmeg at that point.
There’s plenty of debate over whether Marco Polo brought back pasta from his trip to China, but one thing is certain: he did bring back ginger. Hugely popular in the Roman Empire, ginger suffered roughly the same fate as said empire; by Polo’s days, it was barely known in the West. Polo and company reintroduced it as a rare luxury, and it stayed that way for centuries. In fact, Queen Elizabeth was a noted enthusiast, and some historians think she may have invented the gingerbread man.
Anything that tastes as strong as horseradish has got to have a history of use in medicine—and indeed, horseradish does; in the 3,500 years that humans have been eating it, they’ve used it to treat everything from rheumatism to tuberculosis, from lower back pain to low libido. Hippocrates wrote about it (along with the 400 other spicy medicines he recommended), and the oracle at Delphi was a big fan, too; he supposedly told Apollo that “the radish is worth its weight in lead, the beet its weight in silver, and the horseradish its weight in gold.” Horseradish had a bit of a renaissance during, well, the Renaissance; as a food fad, it spread all over Europe and Scandinavia, and by the late 1600s, it was a British staple, eaten alongside beef and oysters and made into pungent cordials. Which is all fine and good (we like the stuff too), but why is it called horseradish? The answer has very little to do with horses. The Germans call the stuff “meerrettich,” or “sea radish,” since that’s where it grows. English-speakers may have picked up the word and bastardized it to “mare-radish,” which then became not-necessarily-a-female-horse radish. We, however, prefer the more descriptive name that some American settlers used for it; they charmingly (and accurately) called it “stingnose.”