As I wait for my cappuccino, I subconsciously but quite mechanically begin to play with the salt and pepper shakers on the vinyl tablecloth—pairing them off as ballroom dancers across the checkerboard design, then transforming them into charging bull and lithesome matador. In its zeal, the salt delivers a deathblow to the pepper, knocking it over and spilling much of its contents. Turning my head slightly, I note that I am being watched in disbelief by the server. Embarrassed, I set the pepper shaker aright, affording it (and myself) a little dignity.
Dignity? What dignity can I offer my spilled pepper—its day is gone, the sun has set on its empire, it has paid for its commonness in a questionable currency of novelty shakers, plastic bags from bulk stores, bins, and unimaginative pressed-glass bottles. If pepper (and the same holds true for all spices) is distanced from its origins, then we are wholly ignorant of them. Do peppercorns look longingly back on an illustrious past when bloody battles were fought, queens seduced, peoples enslaved, lives lost, pirate-infested waters crossed, and worlds discovered for their sake, when their value was such that they were counted peppercorn by peppercorn? If they don’t, we should, for the “discovery” of our world was founded upon the rapacious pursuit of these peppers, as well as vanilla and allspice. Our land mass stood inconveniently in the way of those ships seeking direct passage to the “wealth of the Orient,” but this diversion was serendipitous if not rewarding: the bounty of the Americas proved to be equally profitable to that of the Far East. Our kitchen cupboards are a living map of trade routes: shelves and racks peppered with spices that have traveled since antiquity along their own routes or hitched a ride along the silk and amber roads of China, India, Indonesia, Africa, and Persia—their distant homelands still evocative of culinary erotica.
Pylons of spices, Marrakech. Photograph by Carolyn Thériault © 2006
My cappuccino arrives, and I note that the cinnamon has burrowed deeply into the foam, leaving rabbit holes in its milky peaks; my nostrils flare at the sharp, aromatic hit of spice. The cinnamon gives me pause. Herodotus, the so-called Father of History, wrote that giant phoenixes, notably called cinnamolgi, used cinnamon sticks to make their nests. He goes on to say that in order to harvest the spice, men would lob chunks of meat at the nests, causing them to fall to the ground and break apart. It would be an understatement to say that such bits of arcana intrigue me. In fact, I wish I could fumble with a few mechanical knobs and not only turn back time but turn myself into a cinnamon stick so that I could travel by camel and tall ship across the ancient world to be traded in Malabar, Cathay, or Babylon, to be lauded in the courts of Kublai Khan, to be put on the “historical” map by the likes of Marco Polo. Since I cannot be that piece of bark, I must use less fantastic means to savor that spice experience and, regrettably, rely upon my memory. Sipping my coffee, I allow my mind to return to the souks (or markets) of North Africa in which I have not only spent a great deal of time but have become deliciously lost over and over again.
It is in Egypt that I first discover that pyramids of saffron and cardamom can surpass their limestone counterparts across the Nile in both beauty and elegance. Crushing hibiscus flowers underfoot, I meander deeply into the Khan Al-Khalili, the labyrinthine souk of medieval Cairo, where I am blinded by color: baskets piled high with spices of vermilion, saffron, ochre, and burnt tangerine. These multihued pylons appear to defy the laws of physics, but it is I who lose balance, reel at the headiness of cloves, turmeric, cumin, and pepper. Here, desiccated pods, roots, fruit pits, stems, seeds, gums, bark, berries, and petals from neighboring continents all coincide in blissful coexistence. These modern souks are the heirs of the world’s first interracial marriages, gastronomic multicultural harems where Lebanese fenugreek flirted with tamarind from Delhi, where no one raised an eyebrow in horror.
The spice trade was once both a serious and a dangerous business: only a few centuries ago, the English stevedores who emptied spice ships were obliged to sew their pockets fast to discourage theft. Spices traveled thousands of kilometers of inhospitable terrain and wild seas by long camel caravans fraught with brigands and in ships plagued by piracy. Conditions at sea were so perilous that if the spice ships returned at all, they normally dropped anchor with significantly fewer crewmembers than when they had left.
But this is relatively recent history: before humans could leave historical records, they were seasoning their food with aromatic plants. Later, the ancient Egyptians used spices to flavor the lives of the living and to preserve the bodies of the dead. The Chinese were importing cloves from the Moluccas over two millennia ago, and spices were traded in Europe before Rome was founded. It was not unknown for Arab merchants to guard the identity of their sources and hide spice routes by inventing bizarre and horrifying tales to discourage other entrepreneurs. In Roman times wealthier households made a conspicuous display of using spices in their daily cuisine and thereby increased their social standing. Later, Crusaders returning from the Holy Land brought with them spices and inspired fortune seekers, merchants, and adventurers to ply the seas for spices, Christian converts, and new continents. Spices became ingrained in everyday life, and their uses far exceeded enhancing the taste of unpalatable or insalubrious fare: in many towns one could pay taxes, tolls, and rent, as well as bribe judges with just the right amount of pepper. Spices were ground into medical compounds; curative wines were enhanced with saffron; and sick rooms were liberally fumigated with spice-bearing smoke. The economic and political fortunes of vying global powers, notably Venice, Genoa, Spain, Portugal, England, and the Netherlands, were directly linked to their ability to control trade routes and their hegemony over the Spice Islands. The colonization of the New World ultimately created a new and highly motivated merchant class that was able to successfully undercut their competitors. The markets of the world became flooded with less expensive spices, and with the increased availability of sugar, coffee, tea, and cocoa, the sun began to set on the sovereignty of the peppercorn and its kin.
The Vegetable Seller, Marrakech. Photograph by Carolyn Thériault © 2006
The value of a man’s life was once equivalent to a bag of pepper; in light of this, it seems frivolous if not obscene to consider the current price of spices. In the spice souks it seems equally disrespectful to be able to simply walk by such historical wealth with modern indifference. Nonetheless, as I do, the breeze from my passing causes a slight tremor, and a few grains of allspice hover in the air like dust motes. I freeze—how much money have I inadvertently wasted? An annoying mechanical noise jars me from my spice-guilt, and I turn to watch a man in the Khan Al-Khalili operating what looks like a wood chipper, grinding curled cinnamon bark into its more common powdered form. Connecting with my imaginary cinnamon stick persona, I wince in sympathy for my fallen comrades.
In the Nubian markets of Aswan—the southernmost point of pharaonic Egypt and the most “African” in temperament and temperature—I buy henna to color my hair. The ancient Egyptians likewise dyed their hair and tattooed their bodies with these dried plant leaves. After spending an afternoon sitting on the balcony of my hotel with malodorous goop on my head, I fear that my hair more closely resembles the garish locks of the Egyptian Museum’s dehydrated mummies. In the souks of Khartoum, I buy kilograms of frankincense from Somaliland. I have no clue what I will actually do with it—my experience with frankincense is limited to the Three Magi and interminable high masses from my childhood—but know that I must have it. In a world where Catholic parishes are increasingly offering incense-free masses—O mores! O tempores!—I can indulge my obsession for a fragrant hit of this freakishly sinus-purging but soothing sweetness behind closed doors. In a charred brass pot from India, I set charcoal briquettes alight and sparingly add a few grains of the amber-like resin—sparingly because the smoke is so prolific that I must disconnect my smoke alarm beforehand lest I invite the entire fire department into my home.
In Fès, considered by many the largest living medieval city in the world, I visit a khan or caravanserai (from the Persian for “merchant’s inn”) still guarded by colossal wooden doors able to admit laden camels and still kept secure by massive iron locks so large that I cannot cover them with my two hands. These hostels served the caravans that traversed the East and North Africa and were ingeniously designed around an open concept to cater to its entire clientele, both man and beast. Spices and goods were stored under lock and key; camels were kept safe in stalls on the ground floor courtyards; and merchants were lodged in the overlooking upper galleries. Looking about this now-derelict building, I am momentarily transported to a bygone era of travel—I am certain that I hear the tinkle of camel bells. Peering out the great doorway, I see instead a white mule pass by loaded with plastic crates of clanking Coca-Cola bottles. Caravans of cantankerous camels no longer wind their way through the twisting alleyways of Fès’s souks, but deliveries haven’t changed much in the last nine hundred years.
Not long ago, I presented my mother with an unlikely souvenir from Africa: nutmegs from Marrakech. When I was a girl, my mother baked cookies flavored with nutmeg. Unlike my friends’ mothers, she grated her own spice and stored the scraped brindled nut in the receptacle of her nutmeg grater—an aged tin coffin that was affixed to the kitchen wall. It was no wonder to me that her molasses cookies were the world’s best. On a rainy afternoon in Marrakech, I sought refuge in the souk, where I forewent indigo leather slippers and Berber carpets for a clutch of nutmegs the size of robins’ eggs. These formidable nutmegs made their grocery store counterparts pale in comparison; indeed, they were so large my mother’s grater could not hold them. Her home on the south shore of Nova Scotia completed these nutmegs’ journey, which possibly had begun in Madagascar. Thus the cycle continues. The trade route lives even if a knapsack has replaced a Portuguese sailing vessel. This ancient gift of spice still feels like a serious and somber business, and it should—execution awaited thieves who stole nutmeg trees from the Dutch.
I play with my coffee cup and watch the foam and cinnamon sprinkles swirl about the sides of the cup, leaving Rorschach patterns for my contemplation. I think about Herodotus and his giant birds. I wonder if he was the victim of a dodgy merchant hoping to protect a source or if perhaps, just maybe, cinnamon sticks once had such fabulous origins. I finish my cappuccino, now grown cold, with a quick gulp and wistfully hope that they did.