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Food - Spices

( Originally Published 1917 )



A luxury of long ago. Spices are especially interesting from the fact that each is a quite different part of its respective plant. The clove is a bud, the nutmeg a fruit, and cinnamon a bark. Commercially, mustard and ginger are usually classed as spices. Mustard is a seed, and the ginger used for seasoning and as a confection is a root. Spices and the fragrant herbs used for seasoning the foods served on the table of the average laboring man today were once enjoyed almost exclusively by the rich, and were regarded as luxuries rightly belonging to royalty.

Many references to spices may be found both in the Bible and in the early histories. These show how highly they were regarded in ancient times by kings, emperors, and princes, and by all the rich and powerful. There is, perhaps, even more in the chronicles of the Middle Ages to indicate that among gifts thought suitable for monarchs spices and "pleasant herbs" held high rank. In a sense they were regarded as belonging in the same class as rare wines, precious ointments, and perfumes.

Perils of the spice trade. Perhaps the regard of the ancients for spices was partly because those most highly prized were nearly all grown in remote South Sea islands. They were to be had only in small quantities and after long and dangerous voyages in seas beset by pirates and swept by the terrible storms peculiar to the Indian and South Pacific oceans. The true adventurers of the seas from the earliest days of navigation down to the present time have been the ships that touched at the faraway islands of "The Straits" and bartered gay cloths, beads, and gaudy trinkets for bales of spices wrapped in queer coverings of woven reeds and native grasses. To catch the scent of a ship in the spice trade, even today, is to breathe the odor of adventure. While it is true that piracy has practically been driven from the high seas, there are still many perils in store for the ships of the spice trade. Even today there is no lack of adventure in the traffic that brings the cinnamon, the allspice, and the cloves, which give out so tempting a fragrance as the pies, cakes, and other dainties come from the oven in our kitchen.

Geography from real life. How easy it is to remember a lesson in geography that has been made a living thing because of some personal association connected with it! No doubt most of the boys and girls who see this book have read some of the stories by Robert Louis Stevenson, especially The Wreckers and Treasure Island, which describe the exciting adventures of sailors in the romantic islands of the South Seas. To the writer these islands where most of the world's spices are grown seem very real because he has heard Mrs. Robert Louis Stevenson tell the strange adventures that befell her and her famous husband as they cruised idly through these fascinating but treacherous seas. Another personal link that has helped make the geography of the spice trade more vivid to the author was his acquaintance with an English sea captain who had sailed these waters. One of his descriptions never to be forgotten was that of passing to the leeward of the island of Ceylon when the fragrance of the spice harvest, carried far out to sea, brought to mind the familiar lines of that old "Missionary Hymn":

"What though the spicy breezes Blow soft o'er'Ceylon's Isle."

"Spicy breezes," this sailing captain declared, was no mere figure of speech, for the aromatic fragrance of the spices may be detected for a surprising distance out at sea.

The original spice markets. In medieval times, Arabia was the home of the rich spice merchants and the world's great spice markets were maintained there. Important as the spice trade was in those days, it became still more so in later years, and had much to do with the making of European and colonial history. In fact, the principal articles. of trade between Europe and the East Indies have always been spices.

The spice markets of today. In one year the United States imported more than 27,000,000 pounds of unground black and white pepper and more than 23,000,000 per and more than pounds of. unground spices. These spices came from the Netherlands, England, France, Austria-Hungary, Spain, the Dutch East Indies, the Straits Settlements, British India,Siam, China, Japan,Zanzibar, Jamaica,Mexico, and the Philippines. Of course, most of the spices we received from England,the Netherlands, and France came originally from their colonies and possessions in the tropics.

Penang the spice producing center. Practically all spices grow in hot climates, and close to the ocean. Intense heat, together with the salt sea breezes, seem necessary to produce that highly aromatic, snappy quality so characteristic of every kind of spice. Scarcely any pastime could be suggested to a boy or girl more interesting than an imaginary cruise to the various islands where most of the world's spices are grown. Suppose you spread before you a map of the world, drawn on a generous scale one that shows the principal ocean routes and play what may be called the spice game.First, find Penang, one of the Straits Settlements; Pulo Penang, or Betel-nut Island, is its native name.

Penang is perhaps the most interesting island in the world, so far as the growing of spices is concerned. Its name is so inseparably associated with the growing of spices, especially pepper and cloves, that its mention at once suggests the aroma of vast spice plantations. Not only does it grow cloves, but almost every known kind of spice; and, both in quality and in quantity, its production is remarkable.

The intense tropical heat and the humidity force the spices to give out their fragrance with an almost overpowering generosity. The atmosphere is heavy with the pungent odor of the clove, most fragrant of all the spices. The fragrance of a pine or balsam forest in the North is mild in comparison with the perfume drawn by tropic suns from the spices of a South Sea Island plantation. You would undoubtedly find the perfume too strong to be pleasant.

Culture and curing of the clove. The clove tree is an evergreen sometimes growing to a height of forty feet. When seven years old it bears buds which, white at first, gradually turn crimson and then dark red. They are picked before they expand into flowers and are cured either by smoking or by drying in the sun. When cured they are dark brown in color. While the clove tree is supposed to bear two crops a year it cannot be depended upon to do this. Yet on the other hand, if well situated and properly cared for, the clove tree will continue to bear until nearly a hundred years old.

Struggle for control of clove industry. The history of clove culture is a dark one, for the ambition to gain a monopoly or control of the world's output of cloves resulted in much violence and many crimes. Altogether the blackest chapter in this history was the warfare between the Portuguese and the Dutch for control of the clove industry.

At one time the Portuguese held the Moluccas, then known as the Spice Islands. They had large and fruitful clove plantations on practically all of them: Amboina, one of the most interesting of the Spice Islands, was then as now owned by the Dutch. It had been brought under a high state of cultivation, especially as to the production of cloves. The Dutch now began to cast covetous eyes upon the thriving plantations of their Portuguese neighbors. And Dutch colonizers of those days had the courage of their desiresthey could fight as well as farm. The fact is that few of any race or nationality who had the courage to brave the dangers of the South Seas to try their fortunes in the Spice Islands were at all particular about the means they used to gain what they wanted. The Portuguese cared no more about the right or wrong of an act than the Dutch. But history seems to credit the Dutch with starting the Spice Islands feud by raiding the Portuguese plantations and destroying the .trees. The fiery Portuguese planters defended their property with stubborn bravery, retaliating when they could.

But the prize for which they both contended so bitterly did not fall permanently into the hands of either.

Spread of spices to other islands. Nature herself defeated the selfish motives of these Dutch and Portuguese adventurers. Shrewd and clever, they saw quite as clearly the riches to be gained by a monopoly of the spice trade as the keenest promoter or greedy captain of industry of today sees the gains to be had from an unfair advantage. But they failed to realize the fact that the South Seas were generously set with many other islands quite as well suited to the growing of spices as the Moluccas. While they were fighting, adventurers like themselves had been busy planting clove trees on other islands.

These men who dreamed of cornering the world's production of cloves had overlooked some of the greatest clove-producing islands of the world. The growing of cloves on the island of Zanzibar, just off the east coast of Africa, began just in time to upset the plans of the Spice Island planters. Later, plantations sprang up on Penang, where now the choicest cloves perhaps in the world are grown. These plantations yielded fortunes to generation after generation of spice kings who controlled them.

Picturing the spice kings. Before we dismiss those old pioneers of the Spice Islands, it will be interesting to try to picture them as they appeared some two hundred years ago. We shall probably not be far wrong if we think of them as looking like the pirates of Howard Pyle's famous illustrations. Certainly the fierce, swarthy, black-whiskered Portuguese fit perfectly into the picture with the ferocious Malay pirates that then scoured the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean for any helpless ship they could overhaul.

Hardships of the spice grower. When you try to picture.the conditions surrounding the production of the spices which add a pleasing tang to homemade mince pie or pickled pears, you will do well to remember that the heavily scented air, the brilliant flowers, and the gorgeous birds do not make up the entire background. The picture lacks completeness unless you are able also to see something of what it means to subdue a tropical jungle and' transform it into a thriving plantation; to realize that deadly fevers, poisonous snakes, and swarms of maddening insects have claimed thousands of victims wherever spices are grown or gathered. The planter of today in spice growing islands does not have to contend, as did the pioneers in this strange kind of farming, with hordes of Malay pirates and with covetous competitors. He has also learned how, through the introduction of modern sanitary methods, to reduce greatly the perils of the tropical jungle. At the same time, he finds no lack of hardships and adventures so long as he lives where his spices are grown.

Why spices are costly. These things give us more than a hint as to the reason why spices have always been and probably always will be comparatively expensive. It is but natural that we should be expected to pay a premium on an ar 1icle of food brought from the most remote and inaccessible islands of the sea, a food raised under the torrid sun of the tropics and calling for the constant sacrifice of comfort on the part of the producer.

The story of the clove industry is typical of almost every other spice and is sufficient to suggest what has taken place wherever the spice trade has been established.

Two spices from one fruit. The nutmeg is the pit or kernel of a fruit which, when ripe, looks some-thing like a small peach. The pulp of this fruit is quite unpleasant to the taste. Inside the pulp is a red flesh known as "mace"one of the most popular spices known to modern cookery. When you taste a dish flavored with "mace" you will know that you are eating what was once the soft red covering of a nutmeg. Nutmeg trees properly located and well cared for are remarkably prolific. In one year a single tree has been known to produce more than two thousand nutmegs. The _nutmeg blossom is white, bell-shaped, and as fragrant as it is beautiful. When eight years old the tree begins to bear, often continuing to yield fruit until it is seventy-five years old.

Although there is ripe fruit on the nutmeg tree the year round, the principal harvest occurs in the fall of the year and a smaller one in April, May, and June.

Preparing nutmegs for market. The harvesting of nutmegs is' very interesting. The berry or pit of the fruit is first separated from the surrounding pulp and placed over a slow fire to dry. Then the shells are cracked and the kernels, or nutmegs, sprinkled with lime to protect them from insects. They are now ready for shipment to the markets of the world. Nutmegs are grown in Penang, the Celebes, and also in some of the islands of the West Indies.

America, which is by far the largest consumer of nutmegs. Africa and South America also have nutmeg plantations.

Harvesting and shipping cinnamon. Much choice cinnamon is grown in Penang. This fragrant spice is supposed to be a native also of the island of Ceylon. This island is possibly the real center of cinnamon production. Cinnamon is also grown to some extent in the East Indies. Cassia, another variety, comes from China as well as from the East Indies.

Nearly every boy and girl knows that cinnamon is the bark of the small branches and twigs of the cinnamon tree. The irregular pieces of bark are called sticks, and all cinnamon is shipped to whole-sale grocers in stick form. This form is not only more convenient but is necessary in order to pre-serve the strength and fragrance of the cinnamon.

Grinding spice, like grinding coffee, releases the aromatic oils. If the ground spice is then exposed to the air its fragrance and flavor are soon lost. For this reason many housewives have preferred to buy cinnamon and other spices in their natural forms and grind them as needed. This practice, once almost universal, is not now nearly so general. Doubtless the change is due largely to the improved airtight packages in which ground spices are sealed. In such packages the strength cannot escape into the air.

Foreign and home-grown pepper. Probably very few American boys and girls know just what black or white pepper looks like growing in the plantations. Very likely the commonest notion is that the black and white pepper from the grocery store in its natural state looks like the green peppers, or the sweet peppers, generally found in our kitchen gardens. The truth is that there is very little relation between our garden pepper and the pepper of commerce. The black or the white pepper in the shaker on your dining table once grew in the form of berries on a climbing shrub in a garden of Southern India, Sumatra, Java, Ceylon, Siam, Borneo, Penang, or some part of the Malay Peninsula. In the natural state the berry is red, but curing turns it dark brown or black. White pepper is produced by certain variations in the curing process.

Cayenne and other red peppers. Find Cayenne, French Guiana, on your map. Our cayenne pepper gets its name from this town, although much of our supply comes from Zanzibar, Mombasa, and Sierra Leone, Africa, and from Japan. Both cayenne pepper and red pepper are the powdered ripe pods of a small plant bearing a bright red fruit. The United States has ruled that true cayenne pepper is obtained from the small red pepper pods, and that common red pepper is from the large pods. A great deal of our red pepper comes from Mexico, our own Southern States, and from both the East and the West Indies.

Paprika is grown principally in Hungary, although we buy much of this product from Spain. Paprika is now being grown in America in increasing quantities. It is the dried flesh of a large, long red pepper, powdered, and is mild in taste. It is used extensively for flavoring salads and in making sauces and pepper vinegar.

Louisiana is the home of tabasco, a long-podded red pepper, somewhat similar to the paprika. This is made into a rich, extremely strong sauce served in salads, soups, and other dishes and on meats and oysters. As tabasco is perhaps the strongest of all sauces or flavorings, it should be used only in moderation.

Our imports of pepper. You shake but little pepper upon your food, hardly enough, to be seen. A mere drop of tabasco is all that one requires to flavor a bowl of soup. Yet you will be astonished to learn how many pounds of pepper we import from other countries in a single year. The total exceeds 25,000,000 pounds.Besides this supply, remember, we grow millions of sweet peppers in our own gardens, and our Western and Southern States have many acres planted to the stronger varieties.



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