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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Our sense of smell is powerful, and for many of us, an aroma evokes a particular memory. NPR's Allison Aubrey has looked into how, for many of us, one pungent spice has become the smell of the holidays. Allison explained it all to our own Renee Montagne.

RENEE MONTAGE, HOST:

Hi, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Hey there, Renee. I'm wondering if I might be able to turn the tables for just a moment this morning and ask you a few questions.

MONTAGE: Oh, sure. OK. It might be about the nutmeg that I was asked to bring in this morning.

AUBREY: Well, that's right. We asked you to bring in a nutmeg, and you had one in your pantry, right?

MONTAGE: I did.

AUBREY: Well, I'm wondering if you can shave a little bit off and tell me what it is it smells like.

MONTAGE: OK. Shave it off. I'm going to be doing a bunch of this in the coming weeks. It smells like the holidays.

(LAUGHTER)

AUBREY: Any particular moment? Does it conjure up a particular memory?

MONTAGE: Yeah, you know what it reminds me of? It reminds me of egg nog, which is a childhood memory, because my family used to always have the egg nog that came from the grocery store.

AUBREY: And you just sprinkle it right on the top.

MONTAGE: That would be the one special fresh edition.

AUBREY: Got it. Well, you know, it turns out there is a reason that nutmeg - along with a few other spices, like cloves and cinnamon - turn up everywhere this time of year. And the explanation for this actually goes back centuries.

KATHLEEN WALL: Nutmeg really does have chemical constituents that make you feel good.

AUBREY: Kathleen Wall is the culinary historian at Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts. This is where the pilgrims landed. Wall says in colonial America, spices weren't just about adding flavor. People believed that nutmeg helped protect against head colds and all kinds of sicknesses.

WALL: Absolutely. Nutmegs show up in the books of medicine, the physic books, before they show up in the cookery books. And they show up in cookery to improve your health.

AUBREY: The spices thought to actually warm up your body, according to the philosophy of that day, which was based on the Greek doctrine of humors, you needed to keep your body in balance. And a key to healthy eating was to balance wet and cold foods like vegetables or milk with things that are warm and dry, like spices.

WALL: They're looking to temper things. That's what they call it when you sort balance them out a little bit.

AUBREY: It sounds a little whacky, but it turns out these ancient ideas still underpin modern cooking. I paid a visit to the kitchen of Birch and Barley, a restaurant that's a favorite of locavores here in D.C.

KYLE BAILEY: Did you get that nutmeg ready?

AUBREY: Chef Kyle Bailey says he's got the perfect recipe to demonstrate the idea of balancing flavors.

BAILEY: We're - really quickly, we're wilting some spinach, a little brown butter, shallot and nutmeg.

AUBREY: He says nutmeg and spinach make a nice marriage.

BAILEY: Nutmeg and spinach are good buddies. They go back. They go way, way back.

AUBREY: As he sautes the spinach on high heat and grates nutmeg into the pan...

BAILEY: A little more. There you go.

AUBREY: The flavors start to merge.

BAILEY: You can smell it immediately, and it's just a level of complexity. It's depth. It's layering the flavors.

AUBREY: And how does it taste?

Nice, wow.

BAILEY: It's really good. It's really, really great.

AUBREY: Did they tell you that nutmeg can also make you hallucinate?

BAILEY: It sure can, man, from what I've heard. I've never tried it.

AUBREY: Hallucinations, holidays, good memories. We may be laughing now, but the fact is - and this is switching gears here, big time - nutmeg has a very dark and bloody history.

MICHAEL KRONDL: Nutmeg has been one of the - is one of the saddest stories of history, in many ways.

AUBREY: That's historian Michael Krondl. He says way back in the 1600s, in Europe, nutmeg was the spice of the upper classes. The wealthy were gaga over it. It was exotic, expensive, and having it on your table was a sign of wealth.

KRONDL: It was, you know, it was the iPhone.

AUBREY: It was the iPhone.

KRONDL: It was the iPhone. It was something that, you know, a relatively small percentage of the population could afford, but it was something that they had to have.

AUBREY: Unfortunately, unlike the iPhone, which can be mass-produced, nutmegs were hard to come by, and the pursuit of them turned horribly violent.

KRONDL: It is a horrendous, horrendous tale.

AUBREY: The Europeans knew of only one place in the world to find them.

KRONDL: Nutmeg specifically grew on this tiny little archipelago kind of in the middle of nowhere in what is now Indonesia.

AUBREY: And there was fierce competition among European traders.

KRONDL: Well, the fighting begins because the Dutch, who long had had their eye on the spice trade, essentially muscled their way into what is now Indonesia to the Spice Islands.

AUBREY: And when they get there, the native islanders had already set up shop selling and trading nutmegs. But the Dutch decided this was a problem. They wanted a monopoly.

KRONDL: What the Dutch realized was that the only way of getting control was to eliminate the problem, the problem being the people.

AUBREY: Ah-ha. So just get rid of them?

KRONDL: Just get rid of them.

AUBREY: Wow. So I have a feeling this is not headed in a pretty direction.

KRONDL: This is not - this tale does not have a happy ending at all - oh, quite horrifying, actually.

AUBREY: So what happens next?

KRONDL: The Dutch, very systematically, either kill them, they run them off these giant cliffs - all these islands are very, very mountainous - or they deport them. And what happens...

AUBREY: Yeah, so they just - it's a massacre. They're beheading people or...

KRONDL: It's a massacre. They behead people. They deport people. And in many cases, they departed them under such situations that most of the people didn't make it to the other side.

AUBREY: And by the time it was all said and done...

KRONDL: Over 90 percent of the population was eliminated.

AUBREY: It was really unspeakable.

MONTAGE: Allison, that is a - God, that is a terrible story.

AUBREY: Yeah, it's really gruesome, isn't it?

MONTAGE: So what happened next so that today, we have very easy access to this nutmeg that's now the spice of the holiday?

AUBREY: Well, here's what happened. Traders smuggled out some nutmeg plants and got them growing on a bunch of other islands in Indonesia and in the Caribbean. And once this happened, the nutmeg market slowly opened up. But there's a strange little twist to the story that I haven't mentioned yet. You've heard of the island of New Amsterdam.

MONTAGE: That would be Manhattan.

AUBREY: That's right, part of present-day New York. Well, in the mid-1600s, the Dutch controlled Manhattan, and the British and Dutch had been fighting for years over various territories. But in the 1660s, historian Michael Krondl explains they sit down to try to hash things out.

KRONDL: So both sides have something that the other side wants.

AUBREY: The British want to hold onto Manhattan, which they'd managed to snag a few years earlier. And one of the things the Dutch want is the last nutmeg island that the British still occupy.

KRONDL: So what they did was they traded Manhattan - which, in those days, wasn't all that important - for a place where they can get nutmeg and sugar.

MONTAGE: So the Dutch actually traded Manhattan for the nutmeg-growing island.

AUBREY: Yes. This is how the story goes. And along with the nutmeg came a piece of South America, where some very valuable sugar cane was growing. So as Michael Krondl sees it...

KRONDL: It was a sweet deal.

(LAUGHTER)

AUBREY: Absolutely. I mean, put nutmeg and sugar together, what have you got?

KRONDL: You've got Christmas.

AUBREY: So there you have it, Renee, the surprising and somewhat grisly tale of nutmeg.

(LAUGHTER)

MONTAGE: Allison, thank a lot.

AUBREY: Thanks so much, Renee.

INSKEEP: NPR's Allison Aubrey, with Renee Montagne.

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