ANDREA SEABROOK, host:
Pumpkin pie would be nothing if it weren't for the nutmeg, the cinnamon and the cloves. This classic of Thanksgiving, of Americana even, owes its very existence to a long history of travel, adventure, murder and intrigue along the spice route.
So we invited spice historian Jack Turner to help us deconstruct our Thanksgiving table. He is the author of "Spice: The History of a Temptation." And he joins me now by phone from his home in Geneva.
Mr. Turner, how are you, sir?
Mr. JACK TURNER (Author, "Spice: The History of a Temptation"): I'm very well. Thank you. How are you?
SEABROOK: Good, thanks. So most of our spices came to us along a specific historical path we call the spice route. Remind us of what that is.
Mr. TURNER: The spices all evolved in Asia, in the far east of Asia. And they all made their way through sort of network of routes across sea and land, to Europe and then eventually onto the Americas.
SEABROOK: Spices were the inspiration for travel, exploring the world.
Mr. TURNER: Well, that's right. When I lived in New York, I always used to enjoy telling people how important spice was for the discovery of America. And I was always astonished that how few people actually knew this that when Columbus discovered the Americas, he wasn't looking for the Americas, he was looking for the Indies. And he's looking for the Indies because of their gold and their spices. Then, of course, in that sense, America was a great disappointment and it took a long, long time, many generations, before people actually realized that there were, in fact, no spices to be had in America.
Columbus, for instance, actually took back all these plants from the Caribbean, showed them off to the king and queen of Spain and said, look, I found cinnamon and nutmeg and pepper, and if there's something funny about them, they're not quite like the spices that we know. But that's simply because I'm a newcomer to this game and I don't know how to harvest these things if I'd had to treat them in the voyage.
SEABROOK: But they weren't real.
Mr. TURNER: They were not remotely real. However, they did bring back one thing, which was, of course, the chili pepper.
Mr. TURNER: And he said this is sort of clearly some relative of the black pepper we know which is Indian. And that, if you like, was the first spice of the New World. But it was not the spice that they used in - back in Europe.
SEABROOK: So how do we go from that early history to our own table today?
Mr. TURNER: Basically, where Columbus failed, if you like, others went off to Asia and, in fact, found ways to get into these spices. And that set off several hundred years of exploitation of these spices. And it's not a pretty story. It's a very traumatic, very bloody story of companies and brutal merchants setting out and often paying with their lives and taking a great many lives along the way for the sake of these spices. And it's really only in the 19th century that the spices were transplanted and moved around the world. They planted in other places apart from their origins, and then the supply grows and the price fell, and spices became more common place, if you like.
SEABROOK: You know, that's funny. It just doesn't seem that they're the kinds of things that people would fight wars over.
Mr. TURNER: The spices were valuable for a great many reasons. And they were used as aphrodisiacs. They were used for religious purposes, not least of which was incense in the church. They were used, for instance, in the medieval Jewish tradition of the spice box. And there were seen as incredibly potent drugs which could drive away any disease, which was classed as cold or wet. So the plague of melancholy, any number of dangerous diseases could be cured, so was thought, with spices.
SEABROOK: Let's get down to the specifics here. Tell me about nutmeg.
Mr. TURNER: Well, nutmeg is an extraordinary plant by any measure because it's unique to a group of islands in Indonesia called the Banda Islands. They form a very small archipelago and from the top of the highest volcano in the Bandas, you can see pretty much every square inch with a nutmeg grew until about 1750. That fact alone helps explain why the nutmeg was so valuable. There were simply nothing else like it in the world and no other place in the world where you could get it.
SEABROOK: What about cinnamon? I think cinnamon is from the bark of a tree. And I know that most of the cinnamon we have in this country is fake.
Mr. TURNER: That's right. There's a couple of cinnamons. True cinnamon is from the forest of the island of Sri Lanka. There are a couple of relatives, which tend to be much coarser, thicker bark and more bitter. And the one that most people know of as cinnamon is, in fact, cassia. True cinnamon has a much finer, lighter and more aromatic quality. And there's a real pungent feel, bitterness to cassia, which in some recipes is called for.
SEABROOK: Jack Turner, did the early Americans - did the Pilgrims have spices? Do they know about them?
Mr. TURNER: Puritans were intensely opposed to spices and yet they're contemporaries who were arriving at the same time were intensely interested in spices and looking for them. So the Puritan spices were everything that food should not be. They serve no obvious nutritional purpose except making you want to eat more. They were eastern. They were luxurious. They're exotic. They were symptomatic, if you like, of a sort of undue attention to bodily pleasure.
SEABROOK: Oh, how far we've come with our spices. Jack Turner is the author of "Spice: The History of a Temptation." Come Thursday night, all those flavors are going taste a lot more exotic, a lot deeper.
Thank you very much, sir.
Mr. TURNER: It's been a pleasure.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.