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.
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.
November 6, 2020
Centuries ago, Europeans went to extreme and horrific lengths in search of the spice.
May 12, 2020
The long, wonderful history of the chili pepper.
December 15, 2021
As garlic mustard naturalized in North America, it became a popular plant to forage for impoverished and rural communities.
September 17, 2021
An archaeological dig turned up eight bottles of mustard powder in one eighteenth-century homestead. Why the condiment love?
November 3, 2022
Few foods elicit such strong reactions as chili peppers. Why do we love something that hurts so much?
July 27, 2022
An important part of Indigenous spirituality and identity, the aromatic evergreen shrub is being threatened by poachers and over-commercialization.
June 1, 2017
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.
March 4, 2020
The plant’s golden color has inspired a long—and potentially deadly—fascination.
September 7, 2015
Spicy foods may prolong life; they certainly act as food preservatives.
February 17, 2021
Of early modern medicinal monopolies and the nature of a "true" product of empire.
August 7, 2019
Magellan’s voyage in search of the “Spice Islands” was marked by storms, sharks, and scurvy—plus multiple attempts at mutiny.
November 2, 2020
Immigrants from southern Italy were stereotyped for their use of the aromatic vegetable.
June 25, 2019
Artisanal sea salt makers are reviving the ancient method of sustainably harvesting salt.
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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