Arts & Culture

Posh spice

Book review

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Chances are that you're not in the mood for a dinner of lampreys, eel-like creatures that include numerous species that use their odd, vacuum-hose mouths to suck the blood of other fish. Or that you would fancy boar's head half gilded with gold leaf and half painted with parsley sauce, breathing fire from a camphor-soaked wick. Or a "hedgehog," ground meat stuffed into a sheep's stomach and stuck with almonds down the back. Or roast peacock, so prestigious its meat is "incorruptible," or partridge, good only for the finer folk and possibly harmful to the lower classes. Well, you might like the partridge -- game is hard to find these days, and chicken tastes like nothing. But it wouldn't come simply done to a turn (a phrase that comes from spit-roasting over a hearth, the medieval method). Like most everything else a burgher or noble would serve, it would be drenched in a sauce so heavily spiced you would have to work hard to choke down a bite without coughing.

These days the only people likely to attempt any of these dishes would be medievalists staging a pageant, or as an exercise to illustrate how far we have traveled from deeply disguised food freighted with ground spices toward strictly fresh, lightly herbed food that tastes only of itself. It's always easy to criticize the tastes of the past, and to revel in current enlightenment. Conversely, it's tempting to reconsider archaic diets to point out that maybe we could learn a thing or two about eating better today.

Paul Freedman sets out to do neither in Out of the East, his absorbing new history, in which he uses food to get and keep our attention. The story of spices comprises exploration of the known and unknown worlds, economic and social history, and visions of paradise. Indeed, paradise was thought to be where spices came from, which likely explains their mystical hold on all levels of society. The swashbuckling story spans thousands of years and can easily fill a lavishly illustrated popular history like Jack Turner's Spice: The History of a Temptation or a chronicle of navigation and adventure like John Keay's The Spice Route.

Freedman includes all these topics, with chapters on trade and economics (the fantastic markups spices commanded when they arrived from the East Indies and other points of origin to Venice, and the even higher ones when they reached northern European apothecaries), and politics and exploration (the competition between Spain and Portugal to gain control of the Spice Islands and the New World). But desire for world domination, and simple avarice, interest Freedman less than they do other writers. He is here as much sociologist as historian, taken with class, fashion, and food -- perennially intertwined topics, and the subject of much of the book.

Spices became the precious commodity they did out of a need to display conspicuous consumption to degrees not seen since the Romans, whose influence was of course everywhere apparent in the Middle Ages. Freedman edited Food: The History of Taste, a collection of essays that appeared last fall, and his foodie inclinations are clear. He is most engaged when looking at why people ate what they did. Our pretensions and delusions are subjects Freedman has a very sharp eye for, and he does not overlook the irrational aspects of choices we think are terribly sensible.

Even if we proudly overlay our consumption habits with a patina of caring for the environment, and base our diet on what is said to make us live longest and best, our behavior is not all that much more admirable or sane than our benighted forebears'. The upper classes and aristocracy of the Middle Ages ate what was rarest and most luxurious and said to be good for health. The big four -- black pepper, cinnamon, ginger, and saffron -- were a necessary show of prestige. Carrying pomanders, precious cases filled with spices, was a sign of status: cloves for the middle classes, and the fantastically expensive pure ambergris for kings and queens. Gold and lapis lazuli would be beaten into leaf or ground up to be used in nostrums; counterfeits were everywhere.

Spices were to health what herbs are today. Freedman summarizes the theory of the four humors that dominated medieval medicine, and the intimate connections foods had to them. Feeling melancholy? Avoid beef -- it's cold and dry, same as the black bile that causes your blue mood. Eels, lampreys, and fresh fruits were thought to be dangerous, but that didn't stop people from eating what they liked, mixing and matching medical advice as they pleased -- a modern echo Freedman hears loud and clear. Henry II is said to have died of a chill he caught after eating lampreys, the food of kings, for a week straight, despite his doctors' cautions; the current fad for eating prosciutto and melon has roots in the medieval precaution of mixing safe, salty ham with risky, vapor-provoking melon. We are not so far removed, after all, from the age of patent medicines and tonics like Coca-Cola, murkily endowed with miraculous curative properties. And we are subject to the claims for and dangers of echinacea and other herbs in the booming, unregulated nutrition-supplement industry. (Counterfeits have a long and rich history in America: Freedman reminds us that Connecticut acquired its nickname, "the nutmeg state," for its expertise in manufacturing wooden nutmegs, to be sold for real.)

Freedman corrects a few common misconceptions we still have about general medieval backwardness. The reason spices were used lavishly was not to cover the putrid taste of rotting meat -- which pretty much any culinary historian would give. In fact, spices cost much more than fresh meat, which was generally available and in cold climates seldom went off before people could eat it. Meat was a vehicle to show off the spices, not the other way around. Nor was perfume a way to avoid soap and water: it was desirable because, being made with spices, it was associated with the "odors of paradise." Washing before a meal was in fact often an important prelude to eating.

By the Baroque era worlds had been conquered and their mystery stripped, and spices lost the enchantment that finally is the only reason Freedman can give for the mania they provoked. Today only salt and pepper are ubiquitous. The rest of the medieval treasure chest is relegated to a back shelf at best, or used for the Indian and Indonesian cooking in which they make the most sense, being truly native and an integral part of the landscape. In an irony Freedman surely knows but does not mention, the foods that the aristocracy of the Middle Ages reviled as fit only for the poor -- pulses and grains, dairy products, vegetables, fruit (which caused dangerous vapors) -- are today the prestige items the rich pay dear to eat. The "locavore" movement would defend the use of spices only in Indian and Indonesian cuisines. Eating naked, untricked-up food is the prevailing cultural trend.

But, as Freedman points out, the ultramodern cuisine of Ferran Adria at his El Bulli, in Catalonia, provides the excitement and incitement for ambitious chefs today. It is as full of artifice, disguises, and exotic spices as anything the Middle Ages concocted. We've never come as far or as fast as we like to think.

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