Summary and book reviews of Spice by Jack Turner

Spice

The History of a Temptation

by Jack Turner

Spice
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2004, 368 pages
    Paperback:
    Aug 2005, 384 pages

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Book Summary

A brilliant, original history of the spice trade, and the appetites that fueled it.

A brilliant, original history of the spice trade—and the appetites that fueled it.

It was in search of the fabled Spice Islands and their cloves that Magellan charted the first circumnavigation of the globe. Vasco da Gama sailed the dangerous waters around Africa to India on a quest for Christians—and spices. Columbus sought gold and pepper but found the New World. By the time these fifteenth- and sixteenth-century explorers set sail, the aromas of these savory, seductive seeds and powders had tempted the palates and imaginations of Europe for centuries.

Spice: The History of a Temptation is a history of the spice trade told not in the conventional narrative of politics and economics, nor of conquest and colonization, but through the intimate human impulses that inspired and drove it. Here is an exploration of the centuries-old desire for spice in food, in medicine, in magic, in religion, and in sex—and of the allure of forbidden fruit lingering in the scents of cinnamon, pepper, ginger, nutmeg, mace, and clove.

We follow spices back through time, through history, myth, archaeology, and literature. We see spices in all their diversity, lauded as love potions and aphrodisiacs, as panaceas and defenses against the plague. We journey from religious rituals in which spices were employed to dispel demons and summon gods to prodigies of gluttony both fantastical and real. We see spices as a luxury for a medieval king’s ostentation, as a mummy’s deodorant, as the last word in haute cuisine.

Through examining the temptations of spice we follow in the trails of the spice seekers leading from the deserts of ancient Syria to thrill-seekers on the Internet. We discover how spice became one of the first and most enduring links between Asia and Europe. We see in the pepper we use so casually the relic of a tradition linking us to the appetites of Rome, Elizabethan England, and the pharaohs. And we capture the pleasure of spice not only at the table but in every part of life.

Spice is a delight to be savored.

Chapter 1
The Spice Seekers

The Taste That Launched a Thousand Ships

According to an old Catalan tradition, the news of the New World was formally announced in the Saló del Tinell, the cavernous, barrel-vaulted banquet hall in Barcelona's Barri Gòtic, the city's medieval quarter. And it is largely on tradition we must rely, for aside from a few sparse details the witnesses to the scene had frustratingly little to say, leaving the field free for painters, poets, and Hollywood producers to imagine the moment that marked the watershed, symbolically at least, between medievalism and modernity. They have tended to portray a setting of suitable grandeur, with king and queen presiding over an assembly of everyone who was anyone in the kingdom: counts and dukes weighed down by jewels, ermines, and velvets; mitered bishops; courtiers stiff in their robes of state; serried ranks of pages sweating in livery. Ambassadors and dignitaries from foreign powers look on in astonishment...

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Reviews

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BookBrowse

Welcome to the glamorous and romantic world of spice. Turner's history is arranged thematically with essays exploring different aspects, such as exploration, love, romance and religion. Although he consciously avoids using sweeping statements such as 'changed the world', he explains that the search for spices sparked a whole complex of activities we have come to take for granted, but which were anything but inevitable.   (Reviewed by BookBrowse Review Team).

Full Review Members Only (121 words).

Media Reviews

San Francisco Chronicle

Turner impressively weaves a tremendous amount of information into a cohesive, pointed narrative…His study of spice illuminates modes of social behavior that are as prevalent now as they were centuries ago, reflecting humanity's timeless tendency toward stratification, fantasy and greed.

The New York Times - Michiko Kakutani

In this, his first book, Mr. Turner not only gives the reader a wonderfully vivid history of the quest for spices and the lucrative spice trade, but he also provides some intriguing insights into why spices once exerted such a hold over the human imagination -- and how they catalyzed the Age of Discovery.... a culinary history and a delightful read.

San Jose Mercury News

A nifty grab bag of a book. Entertaining and informative.

Orlando Sentinel

Based on research that is broad and deep, Turner succeeds remarkably well in capturing the evanescent attractions of spice.

The New Yorker

Turner arranges his history of spices thematically, in a series of lively essays on their role in different aspects of human endeavor, such as exploration (Columbus was looking for cinnamon when he discovered America) and love (a fifteenth-century tract prescribes an ointment of honey and ginger for Increasing the Dimension of Small Members and Making Them Splendid).

Christian Science Monitor

Turner combines erudition with a breezy style, and some wonderful touches of humor. Spice is history that hits home.

Washington Post - Sidney W Mintz

Turner's history is chronological only for particular places; each definitive episode mostly stands on its own. Turner aims to tease out the more important continuities of spices' past and follow them down through time. Hence readers must be prepared to move from the spread of Islam after the death of Mohammed -- which cut Europe off from the clove islands for a time -- back to the peppercorns discovered in the nose of the mummy of Ramses II. In principle there is no reason why this serial presentation -- selected anecdotes about spices as flavorings, as medicines, as embalming agents, as magical agents and so on -- should not serve the reader well. And this is entertaining, for a while. Yet because of it, the book takes on something of the quality of a trip to the zoo, where one moves from the aviary to the monkey cage, with each case standing on its own.

New York Times

In his fascinating new book…Jack Turner not only gives the reader a wonderfully vivid history of the quest for spices and the lucrative spice trade, but he also provides some intriguing insights into why spices once exerted such a hold over the human imagination -- and how they catalyzed the Age of Discovery.

Los Angeles Times

Jack Turner handles his subject with discernment and confidence, his style appropriately brisk and animated…Impressive and reassuring is his combination of sympathetic understanding and toughminded rationalism. Although he never condescends to the past, neither does he ever blur the line that separates fascinating lore from the objective truths of science.

Publishers Weekly

.....His account of religious uses, on the other hand, paints a richer picture and gets closer to imagining the mystery that people found in these startlingly intense flavors and fragrances. It is this mystery and the idea that sensations themselves have a history that make the entire book fascinating.

Kirkus Reviews

A wide-ranging, learned treat for epicures and cultural historians from - let us say it first - a man for all seasonings.

Booklist - Mark Knoblauch

Turner displays erudition without pretension in compelling prose; the result is a highly readable account of the oft-reported quest for spices.

Library Journal - Dale Farris

Exhaustively researched and amply footnoted, Turner's title nicely updates J.W. Purseglove's Spices, fleshes out Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz's The Encyclopedia of Herbs, Spices, and Flavorings, and provides more details about the intriguing story of spice than Andrew Dalby's Dangerous Tastes. Highly recommended.

Author Blurb Philip Ziegler
Jack Turner possesses the two ingredients most essential for the great historian–scholarly detachment allied to a passionate obsession with his subject. He also writes uncommonly well. A splendid book.

Author Blurb Peter Mayle
A fascinating and scholarly book that can help you improve both your cooking and your sex life. An excellent piece of work.

Reader Reviews

Julianna

This first book by Turner is very entertaining and well written. It contains many bits of information which are entirely new to me. I appreciated all of the literary references made in the book.
I am looking forward to further books by this author.   Read More

Johnpslater

A thorough encyclopedia of spice. Many interesting stories and facts. Best read over a period as a reference book...a little hard going as a continuous read.

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Beyond the Book

Useful link: For ages now I've been fighting a seemingly losing battle with the quantity of paper catalogs arriving at our house - firstly, I dislike shopping, and secondly, with the internet, I just don't need them anymore and hate the waste. However, there is one catalog that I will not be canceling, and that's the Penzey's spice catalog, which combines an awesome array of spices for sale with articles about the spices and where they come from, plus many recipes. It makes excellent bathroom reading, has inspired many a delicious meal, and more than once has been the basis for a school project! Penzey's is online at http://penzeys.com/

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