Food and Spice

Tobin Harshaw reviews a bunch of books about food and spice, in the New York Times:

the baton has been passed from satirists to traveler-historians like Jason Goodwin and particularly Mark Kurlansky, who rode such unlikely comestibles as cod and salt to the best-seller lists. This year they have plenty of rivals, most formidably Jack Turner, a young Oxford-educated Australian whose SPICE: The History of a Temptation is an erudite and engaging account of how foodstuffs can change the flow of history.

The task Turner has set for himself is relatively straightforward: to describe the cultural histories of pepper, nutmeg, mace, cinnamon, cloves and ginger, and to reveal the many misunderstandings about them that have been passed down over the ages. The most obvious, and easily disposed of, is the myth that medieval Europeans used spices for purely utilitarian reasons — that is, to cover the stench of rotting meat. Anyone who’s ever found those long-forgotten pork chops at the back of the Sub-Zero knows that not all the pepper in Malabar could make them edible.

Turner’s genius lies in his organization. Rather than trying to deal with his Asian delights individually or track their stories through a tidy timeline, he has divided his book into sections devoted to the effects these spices have had on the human body and psyche.

More here.