Hearth to Hearth: Sugar and Spice and Everything Nice – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – December 2003
By Alice Ross
Mother Goose knew just how precious spices were. Not only were little girls made of “sugar and spice and everything nice,” but “a silver nutmeg and a golden pear” connoted something rare and costly. Whatever the hidden references so often imbedded in the rhymes, the value of spice, associated with highly expensive sugar and golden objects, was clear.
It is no wonder that the epitome of “everything nice” so often involved spice. Although well known throughout the ancient Middle and Far East, and popular among the ancient Romans of sufficient means, it was not until the Crusades that Medieval Europeans first discovered and then began their great love affair with the exotic spices of Asia. Many were the flavorings we still use—nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon, and such—but others have long since been dropped from Western cooking repertoires — cubebs, galingale, red sanders, balsam, asaphoetida, zedoary, frankincense, and myrrh.
Understandably, this heralded what would be a great and complex exchange of flavorings that affected cooking globally. At first these imports were fabulously expensive, comparable to gold. Royalty used them lavishly at the table to pronounce its phenomenal wealth and high status, and the spice traders made fortunes. Spices were indeed luxury personified – and nice.
As fashion has always been that which is hard to get, spice became fashionable. It was not only its high cost that made it a symbol of success, but also the amount of time needed to prepare it for use (bought whole, it required grating, pounding, sieving). A meal laden with spice boasted the presence of a well-staffed kitchen. Food of the court (and eventually the more successful merchants and professionals) was consequently highly dosed, to the point that the original flavors of an otherwise bland and somewhat boring diet were often entirely masked. And so were born the ancestors of gingerbread, fruit cakes and puddings, and mince pies. Dining may have been something of an unpredictable adventure.
Modern attempts at reconstructing such period recipes face the problem of just how strong the spice flavors must have tasted; transportation of spices from Asia took so long that a good deal of it arrived stale, its flavor considerably weakened and erratic.
All fashions eventually change. Cooks of the Renaissance rebelled against the heavy-handed spicing, and turned to the virtues of natural flavors. As Asian colonization and trading lines expanded, spice availability increased and prices began to drop; according to the rules of upper-class fashion, its phenomenal desirability slowly slipped. in favor of something more rare and expensive — the innovative and high quality plant and animal foods resulting from agricultural reforms. Spices did not disappear, but were used with more subtlety. No longer central players, they remained as secondary enhancers. And so it has remained in most cuisines until the present day.
By the early days of American colonization, the most popular cooking aromatics were pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves, and allspice, and of these nutmeg enjoyed particular importance (perhaps because of its higher price). Certain exotic spices, often associated with foreign cuisines, occasionally made their way into New World cooking, and so cardamom, saffron, turmeric, cumin, and curry variations were used now and then.
Most curious is the Apple Curry Soup recipe found in the cooking manuscript of 18th-century Catherine Moffatt Whipple, wife of a signer of the Declaration who became a prosperous merchant in the bustling seaport of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The idea of curry in the American colonial diet sounds a bit unexpected, but it may be explained by considering the international nature of the British Empire of the time. England had many Asian colonies, among them India, from which spices were shipped to London merchants for resale. Well-heeled American colonists (and the Whipples were certainly among them) ordered many luxuries from their agents in London or the Caribbean — sent shopping lists, you might say — and had access to fancy foodstuffs that included spice. Today we have no hard evidence that Mrs. Whipple made this soup, but she may well have copied the directions from one of the 18th-century English cookbooks brought to New England. These commonly included a handful of recipes requiring Indian curry.
By the latter years of the 19th century spices were available to almost every American with the taste for them. They were to be found in general stores and specialty shops alike, already ground and packaged in cardboard boxes (in which spices grew stale quickly) and tins. Today the cognoscenti of the food world are not only concerned with freshness, but also take pleasure in using specific varieties of pepper, of vanilla bean, or cinnamon, for example, for their superior or distinctive flavors.
Spices and the Collector
Collectors today may be especially interested in the precious early containers in which spices were stored. As valuable as their contents, they were displayed proudly for their cunning workmanship and intrinsic value, an icon of social and economic importance. Handsome hinged and locked boxes of precious metals and woods expressed the highest level of artistic creation, and such artifacts of early civilizations have become priceless museum pieces. They were often architectural in design and sometimes shaped as footed urns. Domes and faceting were popular. The tradition of valuable spice boxes continued as long as spices maintained their extraordinary value.
As growing availability of spice brought it to a growing number of comfortably-situated people, the numbers of spice boxes increased. During the 17th and 18th centuries, when nutmeg was king, the English contrived wonderful little portable silver nutmeg graters in fanciful shapes. They not only held the whole nutmeg, but when opened they presented a grating surface. No true gentleman was forced to do without his (perhaps ostentatious) scraping when dining in a tavern of unpredictable quality.
In 19th-century America, as spices became further available to the general populace, fanciful and precious spice containers were no longer appropriate. In keeping with lowered prices, popular spice boxes were mass produced. They ranged from simple covered wooden boxes or tins to larger containers that held them in sets. The Shakers, early retailers of flavorings, used their finely-made round wooden boxes; later in the century these were replaced by Japanned tin sets. Stenciled names identified the contents and reveal the most commonly used spices: cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, mace, cloves, allspice, and pepper. No longer evidenced were cardamom and saffron (the very expensive ones), and coriander.
In addition, whole or already-ground spices in brightly-painted tins and cartons became available in general stores, and they no longer needed to be stored in dedicated spice boxes. Mass production and transportation made them more common in middle class homes, but the glamour was slipping. Spice boxes, when used, were no longer works of art in themselves and no longer needed locking. Instead, miniature wooden “chests of drawers” were mounted on the wall to hold the often pre-ground, ready-to-use spices. What began as an emblem of extreme wealth and power had worked its way down the social and economic ladder.
Mechanical graters and grinders were invented as the cost of metals came down. Late 17th-century, hand-forged grinders were the forerunners of more recent coffee grinders. They were often two-part contraptions in which the spice or coffee was placed in the receptacle, moved through the grinders by means of a manually-turned handle, and came to rest in the bottom container. Later versions employed drawers at the bottom for easier removal, in the style of wooden box coffee grinders that would become popular in the 19th century.
At the same time, mechanical nutmeg graters of great ingenuity were invented and patented. The most popular, by Dover, secured the nutmeg in a small box by means of a spring, and allowed the cook to slide the grater past it, back and forth. Others featured boxes that were moved manually against the pierced tin surface. Some had rotary handles to keep the grating surface moving. Modern collectors of nutmeg graters must be prepared for the rising costs of these ingenious little utensils.
Today it is sometimes hard to tell the “fakelore” from the facts. Despite common wisdom to the contrary, only a few spices, among them cinnamon, actually have preservative qualities. Spices were not used primarily for the questionable purpose of masking tainted foods, as so many would have us believe. Actually throughout recorded history human beings have known how to keep themselves safe from food poisoning by using salt, sugar, drying, vinegar, alcohol, smoking, and saltpeter (nitrates) to prevent putrefaction. Health problems often came about because of fraud, carelessness, or ill-advised short cuts.
The effects of spice on health is not clearly established today, although herbals of different eras made great claims. Some early beliefs have survived the centuries and been made credible today. Ginger, for example, is widely accepted as a digestive aid. At the same time, spices have not been clearly established as aphrodisiacs, despite the fact that in various cultures, and at different times, a number have been thought to impart benefits.
Some confusion exists over unclear distinctions between spices and herbs. Some define herbs as the dried leaves of locally grown plants, categorizing spices as tropical and not leafy. Others distinguish spices as plants producing any flavoring compound if it is of vegetable nature, and thus include not only seeds (nutmeg, allspice), and dried bark (cinnamon), but also dried roots (ginger) or flowers (saffron). Although the Far East has been assumed to be the origin of all spices, allspice and the important chili peppers are both from the New World.
Clearly the subject is vast. Although new research continues to add to the story of spice, the final and complete story has not yet been written. When it is, it will surely be a complex and extensive multi-volume work.
The following recipe for a curried soup is attributed to 18th-century Catherine Moffatt Whipple and was adapted from The Thirteen Colonies Cookbook, edited by Mary Donovan, et al.
Recipe: East India Soup
1 large onion
2-3 tablespoons butter
2 large tart apples, peeled, cored, and sliced in quarters
2 tablespoons flour
1-2 teaspoons curry powder
3-4 cups of chicken broth
salt and pepper to taste
1 cup heavy cream
1 additional apple, peeled, cored, and sliced thin, for garnish
Chop the onion fairly fine and saute in butter until limp. Add prepared apples and saute with the onions until almost tender. Stir in flour and curry powder.
Stir in chicken broth, and bring to a slow boil. Continue simmering until the apples are soft. Stir in cream and heat, but do not bring to a boil.
Taste and correct seasonings.
When hot, float the sliced raw apple slices, each lightly sprinkled with additional curry.
Serve hot. Serves 6. Note: this is equally good as a cold summer soup.
Alice Ross brings 25 years as a dedicated food professional teacher, writer, researcher and collector to her Hearth Studios, at which she teaches workshops in various aspects of hearth, woodstove and brick oven cookery. She has served as consultant in historical food for such noted museums as Virginia’s Colonial Williamsburg and The Lowell National Historical Park in Massachusetts. Ross wrote her doctoral dissertation in food history at the State University at Stony Brook. Currently, she is involved in a major kitchen report on Rock Hall Museum, a 1770’s Georgian mansion on Long Island. Dr. Ross’ e-mail address is email@example.com. Her web site is www.aliceross.com
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