Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Jack Turner on His "Spice: A History of Temptation"

(This interview originally appeared in the Newark Star-Ledger in August 2004)

Jack Turner’s new book, “Spice: A History of a Temptation” (Knopf, $26.95) covers the European obsessions with Indian and Indonesian spices, from the ancient Greeks and Romans to the colonial wars between the English, Dutch and the Spanish.

In Turner’s enthralling history, he examines why the market for cloves and cinnamon existed and why explorers like Vasco da Gama and Ferdinand Magellan risked almost-certain scurvy and horrible deaths to bring back ship holds full of pepper and other spices. In his swirling account, Turner goes from the pepper jammed up Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II’s nose for embalming purposes to the use of spices as aphrodisiacs in the Middle Ages. Spices were a symbol of wealth and debauchery for Romans, and battles were fought in the French monasteries over whether they were holy or corrupting. Under Cromwell in 17th century England, rejecting spices became a nationalist statement, leading to the famed bland cuisine of Britain. Turner succeeds is exploring the spice madness that gripped the Western world for 3000 years, which suddenly evaporated as spices became a common commodity.

Turner, 35, was born in Sydney, Australia, and did his PhD. in international relations at Oxford University. Turner, his wife and son live in France, near the Swiss border, where he spoke by telephone to freelance writer Dylan Foley.

Q. What started your interest in the history of spices?

A. The book took four years to write, but it is fair to say that it has been gestating for a long time. My interest stated in school, with the pretty standard course on the history of Australia. I kept coming across spices cropping up in odd places, like Indonesia cloves found in Syria, dating from 1720 B.C. The first question was one of logistics. How did they get there? How did the Egyptians know about pepper and so forth. It seemed to me that the more interesting question was why did this demand exist? What was the nature of this demand? It overlapped whole areas of history.

Q. How did the Greeks and Romans perceive spices?

A. They were hugely expensive and glamorous, but also very mysterious. It wasn’t just a question of economics but also the mystique of the spices. They were believed quite literally to come from the gods. There is no modern analogy that you could draw. You would have to imagine something like moon dust. They had far more mystery than they have today.

Q. What is your views towards the 15th and 16th century discoverers like Columbus, Vasco da Gama and Magellan?

A. I was continually struck by the lengths these guys went to, and the horrible incidents and deaths that occurred. They were mad for pepper. They ended up with scurvy and their teeth falling out, or dying of malaria, all for the sake of cloves. They were prepared to sail round the world and perish for spices.

Q. In the Middle Ages, there was a monastic backlash over spices. What was the conflict?

A. For a nobleman looking to improve his health and his love life, spices would appeal to him, but they would alarm a puritanical monk. The view towards spices was profoundly ambivalent. You have a strange contradiction in the medieval mindset, precisely because something that is so sublime and mysterious, its use on earth becomes sacrilegious. There is the contradiction of banning spices (from the monasteries) while at the same time using them as symbols of the divine, such as saying the Virgin Mary smelled of cinnamon.

Q. In 17th century Britain, there was also a rejection of spices. How did this revenge of bland food develop?

A. It is a complicated answer. In one sense, it represented a victory for the puritans. It made patriotic economic sense, precisely because the English lost out in the spice wars. Any cinnamon or nutmeg in England came through Dutch hands, thus buying spices was giving money to the enemy. It was also the totally inexplicable matter of changing fashions. When the values of spices fell, they ceased to be useful as items for conspicuous consumption. They ceased to be luxuries when they became available to everyone. At the same time, the world was being mapped and understood. Spices lost that cachet and mystery. Also, the marketplace became crowded with alternatives. There were so many new stimulants--sugar, coffee, tea and tobacco. It is a striking coincidence.

I am always at pains to explain that it is not just economics. A lot of these histories are far too materialistic, and omit the cultural, religious and social values that do shift and change with the times.

Q. How did you put this book together and what were your goals for it?

A. When I started, I thought of writing the book in the more conventional chronological manner, but the became hideously tangled because there was so much overlap. It made much more sense to organize it thematically. One reviewer called it a “retrospective focus group of ancient and medieval consumers.” That’s exactly what I did.

In as much as I had ambition with the book, it was to be interdisciplinary about it. The subject has suffered from being compartmentalized. You’ve got economic historians, the hardcore cause and effect guys, who look the balance of payments. The subject of spices is so diverse, and to do it justice you have to be accordingly diverse.

I remember once as a graduate student, an American historian told me, “All historians can be classed into two categories--there are lumpers and splitters. The splitters like to crack up an argument into little pieces. The lumpers have to take a broad view and lump everything together.” I guess I’d be a lumper.

Q. What is your own spice history?

A. I am a huge fan of spicy food. When I was a child, Australian food was terrible, all lamb chops and potatoes. I remember going to an Indian grocery store back then and being blown away by all those spices. I loved those curries.

Dylan Foley
175 Eastern Parkway #3D
Brooklyn, NY 11238

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