Thursday, February 04, 2010

Spice: A Broader View

What I found most original in Spice: The History of a Temptation by Jack Turner was the chapter titled "Food of the Gods." Greek and Roman temples were full of the aroma of spices, as incense burning in braziers or in perfumes and unguents rubbed on statues and worshipers. The Greek gods from earliest times insisted on aromas of spice and cooked meat -- Paris's promise to Helen is "Wherever you are, the flames will offer up cinnamon, and a sacrificial victim will strike the bloodied earth." (Cited from Ovid p. 228.)

"When Julius Caesar entered Rome in a triumphal procession in 46 B.C., he was flanked by attendants bearing censers of sweet-smelling perfumes." The elite viewed with outrage this appropriation of a ritual that should have been for the gods (p. 230).

In the East, rituals and games dedicated to the gods used cinnamon, spikenard, saffron, myrrh and frankincense. Turner describes Egyptian, Syrian, and Assyrian religious uses of spice, and even mentions an Egyptian spice god about whom little can be discovered.

Biblical references to spices include Exodus 30.22-23, where Moses is told to make a holy anointing oil of myrrh, cinnamon, calamus, cassia, and olive oil (cited p. 241). The queen of Sheba gave spices to King Solomon. Adam longed for the aroma of Paradise. But Jeremiah and Isaiah condemned sacrifices and the use of incense. In both the First and Second Temples, though, spices continued in use as incense and for anointing the priests -- Josephus noted that the high priest was anointed with cinnamon (p. 245). Incense shovels are part of the Temple imagery in later synagogue mosaics.

"Even to this day," Turner states, "Judaism may remain a faint reminder of spices' sacral past. Spices are still used in the Havdalah ceremony marking the end of the Sabbath.... The precise origins of the custom are impossibly obscure; however, it is at least clear that the practice was current by the early third century A.D." (p. 245)

Turner then describes how early Christians rejected the use of aromas of incense and perfumed oil, but the practice soon came back to the church. Later, in the Middle Ages, monks abstained from spiced food as part of their ascetic practices, and often ranted about those who violated their proscriptions. These descriptions of spices as a part of religious practice are definitely the most fascinating part of this book.

Every book about spice seems to have an obligatory chapter on the era of Columbus, the voyages in search of the spice islands of the East, and the conquest of those islands. Every time I read this repetition, I get impatient. Spice begins in the same too predictable way. Turner's next chapters on the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians, and on Medieval uses of spice were interesting at times -- I did learn a few things from them. Information on early medical uses of spice and traditional uses of spices as aphrodisiacs was relatively unusual. But much of this material also seemed to me a repeat of other books and articles I have read. Only in the last few chapters about spice and religion did the book become really interesting.


~~louise~~ said...

Funny you should choose this subject today, Mae. In spired by a post from Cynthia, just this morning I was leafing through The Spice Book by Avendelle Day & Lilly Stuckey (1964) and thought to myself, "gee, only one small 'blurb' about Columbus. Refreshing...

I wanted to ask your opinion about that New Orleans cookbook you wrote about on my Carrot Cake Day post. It seems, out of all those cookbooks sitting quietly on my shelves, I don't have a book devoted to the cooking of New Orleans. I was thinking about doing a post for Super Bowl Sunday and thought I would feature a book from each team's home city. Although I have, what I think is the perfect book for the Colts, I do not have one for the Saints. Of course, it's too late now, (unless you plan on posting about that New Orleans cookbook of yours) but I do need to shop around for a New Orleans cookbook. I'd love your opinion. And, by the way, if you plan on posting from your New Orleans cookbook Sunday, let me know and I will send visitors to you for the second portion of their journey:)

Thanks Mae...

Mae Travels said...

OK, Louise, I'll write about my New Orleans Cookbook, though I know little else about the food. I did once eat at Commanders' Palace not long after Emeril was its chef.

~~louise~~ said...

Fabulous Mae!!! I considered using one of my Emeril books but this is going to be so much more FUN!!! Let me know when it's posted. I plan on posting mine at 12:01 Super Bowl Sunday!!!

P.S. I had my first Banana's Foster @ Commanders' Palace too many years ago!!!

Jeanie said...

This is pretty fascinating -- I know a little about spices, but not a lot! I always learn so much with you!

Cynthia Bertelsen said...

Hi Mae,

I know, a lot of these books on "single" food subjects are fascinating, but repeat information already in place somewhere else. But I guess that can't be helped.

Today, in honor of the snow, I think I'll make an apple spice cake.

Good post. Wish I were in your food-book book club.

Mae Travels said...

You are right, Cindy -- I should stop reading new books about spice and expecting to get a new result! Even the ones on a SINGLE SPICE tend to go over the stuff about Columbus!