Wednesday, July 18, 2012

A History of Cinnamon and Its Sweet, Hot Lies

I always love a dash of cinnamon in my coffee or to compliment other spices, and since cinnamon is one of the most popular spices in the US, it’s likely that you do too.  Every time you grab the cinnamon at Starbucks or your grocery store though, it’s just as likely that you’re not using real cinnamon, but one of its cousins. 
Cinnamon is one of the oldest known spices, being mentioned in imports to Egypt in 2000 BCE.  It’s mentioned specifically in the Talmud, and was considered a precious gift—keep in mind this is before spices were easily obtainable, and their origins and how they found their way to the table were just as exotic as their flavors.  Hundreds of years before Columbus sailed on his quest for spices, no one at the end of the spice trade was sure where exactly their cinnamon came from, and since much of the world was a complete mystery to the average customer, anything seemed feasible. 
This brings us to the story of the cinnamon bird, a bird first mentioned in Book III of Herodotus’s Histories in the 5th century BCE, and what I imagine is the sort of conversation that often happened at the market as a customer learned all about a merchant’s cinnamon:
Spice Merchant:  You must try!  This spice, it is delicious!  It smells sweet but is also warm!
Customer:  You’re right, I love it!  How much?
SM:  How much do you pay your lord for your rent each month?  I’ll take that.
C:  Robbery!  Surely it’s not worth that much.
SM:  Oh but it is sir, it is.  You don’t know what my fellow merchants have been through to obtain this spice, just for you!  They have had to risk the wrath of the mighty cinnamon bird!
C:  The what?
SM:  The cinnamon bird!  It is a giant bird, a winged beast that finds pieces of this cinnamon as it flies across the faraway lands of Arabia, building its nest from the cinnamon on rocky cliffs, and woe to any man who is caught trying to steal this spice from the cinnamon bird!  And so to obtain it, to get this cinnamon and bring it to you, he must accomplish a true feat of daring.  He must distract the cinnamon bird, and only then is the cinnamon left vulnerable for gathering.
C:  How terrifying!  What must he do?
SM:  You see, the cinnamon bird only builds its nest atop dangerous cliffs on the shores of the sea.  The hunter must first kill a great ox, and drag it to the beach.  This alone is dangerous; for his death is certain if he is seen by the great bird!  After leaving the ox upon the beach, he must wait in hiding for the bird to see the dead animal and be tempted by it.  The cinnamon bird will then fly down and grasp the ox in its talons, flapping its great wings, and carry the ox to the top of the cliffs, dropping it into its nest.  But the ox is so heavy, it will cause the cinnamon bird’s nest to collapse, sending twigs of cinnamon raining down upon the sand!  The hunter must then run from his hiding place, gather up as much cinnamon as he can carry in the few minutes the great bird is panicking from the loss of its nest, then run back to his home, thankful to still be alive!
C:  I have heard of these exotic lands, and can only imagine the many horrid beasts that live there!  This cinnamon bird sounds terrifying, and to face it must indeed have taken true bravery!
SM:  I know, right?  Which is why this cinnamon is so expensive.  Make sense now?
C:  It does, it truly does.  I can’t believe I doubted its worth before.  Here, take all my coins—I’ll get the rest to you next week!
Stories of the cinnamon bird were passed down and varied for hundreds of years, until people started to suspect that maybe, just maybe, this was a big fat lie concocted by merchants to drive up the price of cinnamon, and no giant, ox-eating birds were actually involved.  By this point, however, Italians had a monopoly on the spice trade and the average merchant or customer had no choice but to pay whatever price was quoted.  Eventually other European countries decided they’d had enough paying for overpriced spices, and that it was worth the risk to send out the crews and ships in search for their own routes to exotic lands.
Over the years, cinnamon was cultivated elsewhere in the world and it was realized that cinnamon’s close cousin, cassia, tastes close to the same thing and is easier to harvest.  Both contain cinnamaldehyde, the essential oil that has that signature cinnamon smell, but cassia has a stronger, more astringent taste, while cinnamon is more “layered” and complex.  The ground cinnamon you’ll find in stores, or the hard cinnamon sticks you can try to grate or just place in a mug of cider?  That’s all cassia, and has been used as a cheaper cinnamon substitute since around the 18th century.  True cinnamon is called Ceylon cinnamon (Ceylon being the name given to Sri Lanka by the British centuries ago), has finer layers and a more brittle, crumbly bark.

Cinnamomum verum, "true cinnamon"

Cinnamomum aromaticum, cassia
Ceylon cinnamon is certainly still available, it just takes a little more effort and money to purchase it.  After all this time tasting cassia, however, the general population is more used to it and expects that strong cinnamon taste, preferring it to the subtler flavors of Ceylon cinnamon.  Nobody tell the cinnamon bird though—it’ll be irritated it built and lost all those nests for nothing.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Salt Cellar: Before You Could Take It with a Grain of Salt

In 2003, I stumbled on Mark Kurlansky’s book Salt, and found it intriguing that an entire book could be written on such a simple topic.  I’ve since come to love many books that focus on similar topics, ones that (as it turns out) are not so much simple as so integrated into our daily lives that we don’t even think about how they came to be there.  There are many, many things to be said about salt, so it’s a topic I’ll be returning to in the future; for now though, I’ll stick with how salt was presented at the table until the relatively recent past:  the salt cellar.
An essential mineral, salt is also the only mineral for which we have an innate craving, partly because it’s one of the basic tastes (salty, sweet, bitter, sour, and umami).  That means that throughout time, we’ve been adding salt to our foods both during cooking and when dining.  “Pass the salt” has likely been spoken innumerable times since people started gathering around a table, and up until about sixty years ago, after making the request you’d be passed a salt cellar.
The salt cellar, an open dish usually made of glass or metal, has been used since at least the fifth century BCE, but it was in the Middle Ages, when salt was still a very valuable commodity and proof of wealth, that they started to become a more special, significant item.  The class system was still very much in place, and was reflected even at the dinner table:  your rank or place in the household determined your type of chair or stool, what your plate was made out of (i.e., wood or metals ranging from pewter to gold), and most importantly where you sat in relation to the head of household, who of course always had the salt cellar within reach.  Sitting towards the far end of the table with your wooden trencher, you’d have a lowly seat “below the salt;” sitting nearer the head of household and within passing distance of the salt cellar, you’d be (a phrase still in some use today) “above the salt.”   
Salt cellars became increasingly ornate and decorative, covered in materials ranging from enamels to precious stones.  They were often given aquatic themes with shells or pearls to connote the salty oceans, or really just gave a sculptor and head of house a chance to show off:

shiny shiny
Fifteenth century salt cellar, Musee du Louvre

Well now you're just bragging.
Cellini salt cellar, 1543, Vienna
That Baroque ostentation eventually went out of fashion, but salt cellars remained both decorative and a staple of the table:

Late nineteenth century

In the early twentieth century though, things started to change.  Salt had previously been sold in blocks and chipped off with a salt spoon or the diner’s knife, but around this time distributors started adding magnesium carbonate and other agents that absorbed moisture; suddenly salt came in grains and could be poured!  This was a handy breakthrough in convenience, even becoming the selling point for Morton’s Salt which remains to this day: 'When it rains, it pours!'  This was probably the greatest thing ever, until sliced bread came along about twenty years later.
The salt cellar with its blocks of salt met its match in the salt shaker, which could pour individual salt grains to taste and be shared at the table very easily.  Salt shakers gained popularity in the 1940s and 1950s, until salt cellars simply became nostalgic collectibles.  Perhaps a bit of tradition has been lost with the salt cellar, so pour out a pinch of salt in memory of it next time you’re at the table.

Monday, July 9, 2012

A Brief History of Thyme

In honor of my blog's namesake, I wanted to start our historic journey through foods with one of the basics:  the herb thyme.

A "green" tasting herb with a finishing taste of cloves, thyme has been used for both flavoring and preserving--used by the Egyptians to embalm humans, then more for meat and poultry when they got tired of building pyramids.  Still used today both fresh and dried, it's a common herb consistently adding flavor to stuffings and sauces around the world.

What's changed about it, however, is what it represented.  Used by the Egyptians with intent to provide safe passage to the afterlife, it was believed by the Greeks and later in the Eurpoean Middles Ages to bring courage.  Apothecaries would use it in their potions, and women would present thyme leaves to their knights as part of a nosegay (a small bouquet bundle) to be tucked into the sleeve during battle.

The meanings of herbs have essentially become obsolete, but before diseases and medicines were properly understood those meanings were very important.  To mention an herb in poetry or song was to imply the emotion or purpose behind it; just as we know a red rose denotes love, it was generally known that thyme would denote courage and bravery.

The most commonly known song today to still use this imagery is one of my favorites, and has been sung since at least the 17th century:  Scarborough Fair.  Thinking of the herb nearly always puts the refrain "Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme" in my head, because I clearly need to get out more.  We mostly know the version popularized by Simon & Garfunkel in 1966, but the song actually contains ten verses giving a potential lover impossible tasks, while giving him or her the herbs needed to make their love possible.  Two of my favorite verses:

Tell her to make me a cambric shirt
(Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme)
Without any seam or needlework
Then she'll be a true love of mine

Tell him to buy me an acre of land
(Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme)
Betwixt the salt water and the sea sand
Then he'll be a true love of mine

A linen shirt with no seams?  Acres of land between sand and sea?  Madness!  But with the properties of the herbs mentioned:  parsley to remove bitterness (because let's face it, all that seamless stitching would make anyone bitter), sage to provide power, rosemary for love and remembrance, and our friend thyme for courage, maybe these tasks become feasible.  Or maybe the person demanding them should lower their standards a bit and just be excited they're getting an acre of land.

So when throwing in a dash of thyme to any of your dishes, or when seeing it on the grocery shelf amid all the other herbs, think of its representations and what it meant to use them those hundreds of years ago.  It's a tale as old as thyme--nope, that pun's never going to get old. 

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Thyme to Start

Welcome to my blog!  Here I'll be combining two of my great loves:  food and history.

I love the fact that throughout time, people have always tried new foods or ways to make their usual foods interesting.  Food is the core identity of culture, and each food or dish has a story of how it made its way to you.  I hope to dig into those stories to learn more and to share them with you, as well as to discover how they're translated into today's tastes.

I plan to focus each entry on a specific item, whether it be an ingredient, spice, dish, or culinary technique.  I welcome suggestions so if you've ever used something in your kitchen and wondered about how it's evolved into what we know today, please comment!