Spicing Up Food, And The Global Economy

Martha Teichner and spice author Michael Krondl.
At McCormick, the world's largest spice company, they've been bottling cloves. Between now and the end of the year, Americans will buy 2.5 million ounces of cloves.

If you think that's a lot, last year we consumed more than 110 million pounds of pepper.

"Pepper is really what started globalization as we know it," Michael Krondl, author of "The Taste of Conquest," told Sunday Morning correspondent Martha Teichner. "I would call black pepper the black gold that started it all. Black pepper is a berry. It originates in India and it grows on these kind of vines that will grow up basically just about anything."

As far back as 1200, the Venetians were satisfying Europe's craving for spices - pepper particularly. They ferried the Crusaders to the Middle East, bought spices while they were there, and resold them back home. The profit from pepper was staggering.

"It could be anywhere from about 500 percent to 2,000 percent," Krondl said.

Columbus, you may remember, was after spices when he discovered America.

"He wants pepper. He wants nutmeg," Krondl said. "He wants cloves, and he comes back to Spain saying, 'Look, I found pepper,' except what he's found is crushed red pepper in this case, or capsicums or chili peppers."

Exactly the sort of peppers you'll find at Ted Blew's stall at New York City's Union Square Market.

"We have a lot of peppers that come from Mexico, and really all hot peppers have the name chili," he said.

All chili peppers originated in Central or South America. The Portuguese carried them first to Africa, then on to the Far East.

And then, in the 17th century, the Dutch muscled their way into the spice trade. The Dutch East India Company, the world's first multinational corporation, wanted a monopoly and literally murdered anyone who dared to resist.

"They essentially wipes out the entire nutmeg producing islands which are in the Far East - Indonesia," Krondl said.

Imagine, a genocide occurring over one of the ingredients in pumpkin pie!

So what exactly did people eat back then? Krondl showed Teichner the oldest known cookbook, kept at the New York Academy of Medicine. It's Roman, by Apicius.

"The Romans ate a lot of pork. That was their big favorite and they mostly seasoned it with a kind of fish sauce, something called liquimen, and they seem to have used a lot of pepper," he said.

The invention of the printing press in 1440 meant mass-produced cookbooks, and new fashions in food.

"By the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, you have a highly developed cuisine that depends on mostly sweet spices. Cinnamon is the spice of the Renaissance," Krondl said.

Why, one might ask, cookbooks in a medical library? Spices were often sold as medicine. They still are.

Recipe: Speculaas With Almond Filling
"Cloves are filled with something called mouginol which is an anesthetic," Krondl said. "In olden times, particularly in the Middle Ages, cloves were considered to be a powerful aphrodisiac."

Not all the supposed benefits are bogus.

"Recently they've been doing very serious studies and have discovered that there is something in pepper, something called pepperine, that makes drugs more effective," he said. "Turmeric is this fabulous yellow spice; it's what makes curry powder yellow. They're finding in mice that it shrinks back cancer tumors, breast cancer tumors."

But watch out for nutmeg!

"It's a hallucinogen. If you eat enough of it, you will actually start tripping," Krondl said. "There are apparently some very nasty side effects, I should warn everybody."

And in a Manhattan spice store we discovered a secret: the truth about cinnamon. When people buy cinnamon in the supermarket, what they are really getting is a related spice, called cassia.

Who knew? And who knew spice consumption would more than double over the last 20 years in the U.S.? It seems our appetites are becoming as global as the spice trade.