The icon indicates free access to the linked research on JSTOR.

Flavoring food through the addition of spices probably dates back to 6000 BCE. Spices were frequently mentioned in the Bible, and they were popular in Greek and Roman times. Historian Elizabeth Ann Pollard notes that recipes saved by the first-century CE cook Apicius called for pepper, ginger, costum, folium, malabathrum, spikenard, asafoetida, sesame seed, turmeric, and spica India, a list that not only demonstrates a diverse palate but the trade relationships between the Roman Empire and points east. Pliny the Elder’s writings indicate casia, myrrh, and frankincense found their way to Rome from southeast Asia; costus, bdellium, lykion, nard, malabathron, and black pepper arrived from India.

JSTOR Daily Membership AdJSTOR Daily Membership Ad

During the Middle Ages, the spice trade was the source of “fabulous wealth” in Mediterranean Europe, writes food historian and cookbook author Clifford A. Wright.

“[T]he money made from spices contributed to the rise of the European city-state, perhaps played a role in the transition from feudalism to capitalism, fueled the impetus that opened an age of discovery, and contributed to the later emergence of the Renaissance,” he argues.

When Old World crashed into New in the late fifteenth century, encountering the chili plant (capsicum annum and spp.) and all its derivatives, the European spice trade began to shift its focus from east (India and China) to west (South and Central America). Today, chili pepper is a global commodity, grown and hybridized around the world.

This collection contextualizes the ways in which we acquire, use, and assign cultural value to spices, from sage to cinnamon, chili pepper to salt. As always, the underlying scholarship is free for all readers.

Cinnamon sticks and powder

The Desperate Quest for American Cinnamon

Centuries ago, Europeans went to extreme and horrific lengths in search of the spice.
Capsicum annum peppers

Some Like Them Hot!

The long, wonderful history of the chili pepper.
Garlic Mustard

Plant of the Month: Garlic Mustard

As garlic mustard naturalized in North America, it became a popular plant to forage for impoverished and rural communities.
Ground mustard

The Mystery of the Mustard Family

An archaeological dig turned up eight bottles of mustard powder in one eighteenth-century homestead. Why the condiment love?
Pierre-Joseph Buc'hoz. Plantes de Chine

Plant of the Month: Chili Pepper

Few foods elicit such strong reactions as chili peppers. Why do we love something that hurts so much?
From The Mountains of California, by John Muir (New York: The Century, 1898)

Plant of the Month: White Sage

An important part of Indigenous spirituality and identity, the aromatic evergreen shrub is being threatened by poachers and over-commercialization.
Chili peppers

The Science of Hot Chili Peppers

Why do spicy foods feel hot? A look at the science behind the world's spiciest hot chili peppers, including the new "Dragon's Breath" variety.
A book opened to a chapter on Tumeric

Plant of the Month: Turmeric

The plant’s golden color has inspired a long—and potentially deadly—fascination.
Close-up of a spicy Chinese chicken dish

Will Spicy Foods Preserve You?

Spicy foods may prolong life; they certainly act as food preservatives.
Cinnamomum verum

Plant of the Month: Cinnamon

Of early modern medicinal monopolies and the nature of a "true" product of empire.
Illustration of Ferdinand Magellan

The Pirate-y Life of Ferdinand Magellan

Magellan’s voyage in search of the “Spice Islands” was marked by storms, sharks, and scurvy—plus multiple attempts at mutiny.

Garlic and Social Class

Immigrants from southern Italy were stereotyped for their use of the aromatic vegetable.
Flakes of sea salt spilling out of a jar

A Grain of Solar-Made Sea Salt

 Artisanal sea salt makers are reviving the ancient method of sustainably harvesting salt.



JSTOR is a digital library for scholars, researchers, and students. JSTOR Daily readers can access the original research behind our articles for free on JSTOR.

Journal of World History, Vol. 24, No. 1 (March 2013), pp. 1–23
University of Hawai'i Press on behalf of World History Association
Gastronomica, Vol. 7, No. 2 (Spring 2007), pp. 35–43
University of California Press