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The Unusual History of Spices

Spice House shares lore at the Milwaukee Public Market

May. 11, 2011
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To discourage Europeans from searching for their precious cinnamon supplies, early Arab traders concocted an elaborate myth about the spice's origins. They insisted that the spice only grew in areas inaccessible to humans, but within reach of large, predatory birds that built their nests from cinnamon sticks. To procure that cinnamon, they said, they had to trick the birds by laying out chunks of meat for them to take back to their nests. Eventually the nests crumbled under the weight of the meat, making the cinnamon sticks fall to the ground. As far-fetched as it seems now, the story was once widely believed. Among the many convinced by it was Aristotle, who detailed a version of it in one of his natural histories.

The history of spices is filled with similarly peculiar tales and trivia, some of which will be shared by the Spice House at a free event called “The Lure and Lore of Spices” at the Milwaukee Public Market at noon on Saturday, May 21.

The Spice House has held similar history talks at the Public Market before, but this one promises to be more interactive, says Spice House manager Michael Kutka.

“Think of a lecture mixed in with 'Jeopardy!' and 'Let's Make a Deal' and you get a sense of what the event will be like,” Kutka says. “We'll share some of the interesting stories and tales behind common spices like cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg, and we'll ask the audience questions about spices and give out a lot of prizes.”

Kutka will reward the audience with jars of spices, many of which will be grill-friendly spices like grains of paradise—an African spice with its own rich history. Grains of paradise first came into vogue in the Middle Ages. It was used as a substitute for black pepper when the spice route dried up, but fell out of favor when pepper became widely available again. It has experienced a slight resurgence over the last decade after some influential chefs and food writers began singing its praises.

“It's like a cross between pepper and cardamom, so it has a sweeter, milder flavor than pepper,” Kutka says. “These days one of the most common uses of it is for brewing. When the Spice House first started carrying grains of paradise, we were one of only two places in the country that stocked it. The other was actually a brewery.”


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