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Spice: The History of a Temptation by Jack Turner Alfred A. Knopf, 352 pages (available in August) Imagine a product that combined the popularity of Viagra, the curative power of penicillin, the snob appeal of caviar, and the supernatural force of holy water. Suppose that its source was shrouded in mystery, and that its supply was drastically limited. Such a product would only begin to approximate the enormous allure that spices enjoyed in ancient Rome and medieval Europe. As Jack Turner’s “Spice: The History of a Temptation” explains, tropical spices — principally pepper, clove, nutmeg, mace, cinnamon, and ginger — gripped the European imagination for more than two millennia. Portable, potent, and long-lasting, spices were an ideal commodity. The fact that they grew only in distant Asia (on five tiny Indonesian islands in the Moluccas, as well as in India and Sri Lanka) heightened their mystery and value. “Spice” is the latest in a bumper crop of books — “Salt,” “Cod,” “Tobacco,” “Coal” — that examine history through the story of a single commodity. While they look at the past from intriguing new angles, these books obviously run the risk of overemphasizing the importance of their chosen lens. It’s a criticism Turner addresses in the introduction to “Spice,” his first book. “Insofar as I have a thesis,” he writes, “it is that spices played a more important part in people’s lives, and a more conspicuous and varied one, than we might be inclined to assume.” Turner, an Australian who lives in New York City, has the chops to tell this story. A Rhodes scholar, he won a MacArthur fellowship while at Oxford University’s Exeter College and later taught there. But, happily, he eschews the dry tone and thickets of footnotes that mark academic writing. If he stumbles, it is in the occasional use of anachronisms. Spices were mysterious and sexy in the ancient world — citing the Spice Girls as evidence of that legacy is a bit corny. Turner’s objective with “Spice” is a sophisticated one. His goal isn’t to produce a formal work on the spice trade, or a treatise on how this trade led to the earliest Western contacts with Asia, but something altogether more complex and fun. Turner has written a cultural history that incorporates the senses, considering not just what past generations thought, but what flavors and smells they craved. He succeeds impressively, giving us a fascinating glimpse into the medieval mind and a deeper understanding of the West’s cultural inheritance. And he does so with a stylistic panache tailor-made for his subject. The result is a delectable read, rich in historical anecdotes, telling quotations, and a nice assortment of period illustrations. What Turner does in “Spice” is to conduct a sort of retrospective focus group with ancient and medieval consumers. By combing through literature, historical records, diaries, and archaeological evidence, he shows how people viewed spices (costly, exotic, sexy, dangerous) and what they were willing to risk to get them (money, life, war, hell). The long-distance spice trade dates back to nearly 2,000 years before Christ. As Turner explains, the trade grew to near-frenzied proportions in the late Roman era, when demand for pepper caused an imperial trade deficit with India. Medieval Europeans adopted Rome’s love of spice and added more layers of superstition; many people literally believed that spices grew in paradise. Despite their supposedly divine origins, spices also had fearsome connotations. Because they were the chief ingredients of the embalming process, they were closely associated with death. The Catholic Church viewed spices as decadent and corrupting, not least because they were thought to be aphrodisiacs. In a chapter on negative attitudes about spices, Turner notes that “making a small penis splendid was hardly a recommendation to endear spices in the eyes of a celibate clergy.” Despite this complex mix of attraction and revulsion, spices were extremely valuable. Fraudulent merchants adulterated pepper with slivers of silver, which was comparatively cheaper. And, in the 1660s, the Dutch traded their claim to Manhattan for the Moluccas. Eventually, the potentially astronomical rewards of the spice trade drew Portuguese, Spanish, English, and Dutch ships across uncharted oceans and into a long, bloody struggle for control of the spice trade. The Dutch won, but the age of spice was over. Made commonplace by increased trade and stripped of their exoticism, the tremendous allure of spices slowly faded.

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