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STYLE & CULTURE | BOOK REVIEW

A race that changed the world

SpiceSpice The History of a Temptation Jack Turner Alfred A. Knopf: 336 pp., $26.95

August 09, 2004|Merle Rubin | Special to the Times

When Columbus discovered America, when Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope to venture across the Indian Ocean, when Pedro Alvares Cabral accidentally bumped into Brazil, when Magellan set forth with five black ships bound westward to circumnavigate the globe, what they were actually trying to do was reach the far-off realms of India and the East: the fabled lands where spices grew.

The mariners who undertook these grueling and dangerous voyages (in the case of Magellan, a fatal one) and the monarchs and bankers who financed them were not interested in exploration for its own sake nor (initially, at least) in the lands that later became known as the Americas. As Jack Turner reminds us in "Spice: The History of a Temptation," they were looking at a way to cut out the middleman: the ancient, mysterious (to them, anyway) network of traders, caravans and sailing ships that had hitherto served as the sole conduit between Europe and the fabulous East. The spices that came via this route -- primarily pepper, cloves, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg and mace -- were as valuable to them as gemstones. The goal of Turner's book is to help us understand why these aromatic seasonings, nowadays considered little more than appetizing condiments, were once among the most prized and sought-after substances on Earth.

Approaching this question from several angles -- historical, cultural, literary, culinary and theological -- Turner divides his book into four parts. In the first, he pithily recounts the not-very-pretty story of the Spice Race that sent Columbus west to the "Indies," as he believed them to be, and, through violence and artillery power, established the Portuguese Empire in the East.

The next part, "Palate," explores matters culinary: the ways that spices were used in the cuisine of ancient Rome and in the kitchens of medieval Europe. Part three, "Body," looks at the various medicinal and sexuality-enhancing powers that were attributed to spices and at their use in embalming, and the fourth part, "Spirit," examines how spices were perceived in various religious and spiritual contexts.

The key point that Turner wishes to impress upon us is that the whole was much more than the sum of its parts: The idea of spice was freighted with such a rich train of feelings, beliefs and associations as to imbue these costly substances with a value far beyond the many uses to which they were put.

"Before Columbus and company remapped the world," Turner notes, it was widely believed that spices grew in the Earthly Paradise. Verses by 11th century churchman and saint Peter Damian show how Europeans beset by strife and privations imagined this blessed realm: Harsh winter and torrid summer never rage. / An eternal spring puts forth the purple flower of roses. / Lilies shine white, and the crocus red, exuding balsam. / The meadows are verdant, the crops sprout, / Streams of honey flow, exhaling spice and aromatic wine.

What also seems to have enhanced the allure of spices -- paradoxically -- was that they were also associated with luxury, sexual excess, depravity and decadence And indeed, as Turner notes, the Roman Empire's appetite for spices seems to have depleted its coffers substantially.

"Spice" marks Turner's debut in the field of popular history. A graduate of Australia's Melbourne University with a doctorate from Oxford, he has done his research and handles his subject with discernment and confidence.

Aimed at the general reader, his style is appropriately brisk and animated, although at times he borders on glibness, overusing buzzwords. Perhaps the chief problem for the reader is the somewhat circular quality of the narrative.

In part, this is inherent in the nature of the subject: Discussion of one aspect of spice, the culinary, say, involves mention of other aspects like the medicinal and spiritual. But the problem also comes from a weakness in the author's ability to organize his material.

What is impressive, however, and reassuring, about Turner's overall treatment of the subject is his combination of sympathetic understanding and tough-minded rationalism. In exploring a realm so abundantly rich in symbolic and allegorical ways of perceiving and believing, he steadfastly maintains his objectivity. Although he never condescends to the past, neither does he ever blur the line that separates fascinating lore from the objective truths of science.

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