Spices have been the movers and shakers of a good chunk of civilized history. Our spice obsession brought about the discovery of continents, the dismantling of empires, and a newly circumscribed globe. Access to spice was as direct an indicator of wealth and power as anything else. Those who controlled the spice really did control the universe.
Given the changes in culinary fashion that occur at the drop of a hat, spice has endured as a perpetuated signal of the exotic, a ship on the sea of time that brings a taste of the past to the present. Spices are heralds of the faraway, of romanticized authenticity as important to our cross-cultural sense of good faith as to our palates. They're more than our history—they're a link to the hearts and minds of people who lived hundreds and thousands of years before us.
But some of these flavors, as essential to old empires as gold, slaves, and colonial supremacy, have drifted from our culinary consciousness into shameful obscurity. Some have been made into museum pieces, to be heard of but not touched or used. Others languish in the realm of the commonplace, robbed of their majesty in unceremonious plastic shaker jars. I'm talking about some of the spices that shook the world: pepper in all its varieties and substitutes. Nutmeg and mace. And about the worthwhile spices that never enjoyed universal popularity and have now vanished from our culinary lexicon.
We use black pepper so much we don't pause to think about it. About the sheer number of varieties out there with palpable differences in flavor and fragrance—differences that formed merchant trade routes and lines of colonial power. Today's nutmeg lives a half life in plastic canisters to be spilled in our hot cocoa and pumpkin pie. And what happened to mace, nutmeg's lighter, brighter twin? Grains of paradise, the oft-overlooked spice of a thousand flavors? Or complex and aromatic hyssop, the herb given more than lip-service in the Bible?
Then there are spices domesticated by familiarity. Cinnamon, its range and depth of flavor neutered by culinary gentrification. Coriander, which doesn't command the awe it should only because it's a victim of its own success. Through everyday use that takes them for granted and an industrial belief in quantity over quality, we've forgotten the beauty and resonance of these flavor gems.
It's a sad truth that the more we learn about the world's culinary history, the more we are forced to divest attention from in the embrace of the new. At a time when we've never had a more comprehensive sphere of knowledge about global cooking, we've neglected some of its greatest players. But these forgotten spices aren't just museum pieces to be shelved and forgotten. They're powerful, magical flavors well worth bringing into the fold of modernity in ways that celebrate their uniqueness.
For me, the lure isn't just flavor. It's that food always tastes better with a story. We feel a certain satisfaction noshing on cheese from cows raised down the street, or feasting on eggs from chickens a neighbor raised, or garnishing a salad with herbs from the garden. But to me no story is as exciting or enduring as that of the spices that changed the world. These forgotten spices are a visceral connection to the past. Our ancestors' tastes and values speak through them.
Clever chefs are rewarded with critical affection for constructing dishes that convey ideas as well as flavors. A mélange of spices on the plate can convey a sense of history, a celebration of the past and its influence on the future. They bring to light the flavors of the past better than any other ingredient or technique because they were there, and time hasn't done much to change them.
Never has our culture been more excited to learn about what's on our plate and what happens behind the kitchen door. If we want to provide that education with any sense of historical perspective, spices are a prime way to start. Especially the ones we've forgotten or let fall by the wayside. They were the flavors that rode, and ruled, the world. Now seems like the time to give them their due again.
Do you use any long-lost spices? Here are some recipes that put a modern twist on ancient ingredients: