Top Stories

How sweet I roam'd from field to field, And tasted all the summer's pride 'Til the prince of love beheld Who in the sunny beams did glide!

He shew'd me lilies for my hair And blushing roses for my brow; He led me through his garden fair, Where all his golden pleasures grow.

With sweet May dews my wings were wet, And Phoebus fir'd my vocal rage He caught me in his silken net, And shut me in his golden cage.

He loves to sit and hear me sing, Then, laughing, sports and plays with me; Then stretches out my golden wing, And mocks my loss of liberty.

-William Blake

The Early Modern Period was in many ways an age of discovery. Not only was a new, gigantic landmass found along with its native inhabitants, but scientific discourse was also growing rapidly, with new reality-turning discoveries made day after day. Yet one of the chief, often less talked about changes actually took place in the culinary world. Specifically, that of spices. Spices hailing from Asia had been slowly but surely making their way across Europe and infusing themselves into the local cuisine, and spices of an entirely different kind were discovered in the Americas. This was huge on a commercial level, given that the spice trade was incredibly lucrative even then, but also on a personal, sensual, and cultural level: The new spices and ingredients completely changed not only European culinary habits but also had a role to play in the upbringing of modern society as we know it.

“The powers of a man's mind are directly proportioned to the quantity of coffee he drinks.” ― Sir James Mackintosh

"The sweetest honey is loathsome in its own deliciousness. And in the taste destroys the appetite." ― William Shakespeare
Spices of the New World

It was as early as the late middle ages when spices became a form of ecstatic delight. It was often true that the higher your standing in society, the more spices you would integrate into your lifestyle. Standard dishes would be drowned in an exotic array of spices, pretty much blocking out any semblance of the thing the spices were peppered upon (a practice bearing an interesting resemblance to the use of edible gold in modern culinary luxuries). Sometimes, the spices would outgrow the need for a culinary vehicle: Guests would pass around a gold or silver tray bearing small, neatly separated hills of cinnamon, pepper, and nutmeg much like a watercolor palette. Back then, spices weren't only a way to enliven a dish, but an exhilarating delight rich with cultural, ritual, and symbolic meaning. They were, in a way, a method of purification, an effort to saturate the human body with lavish earthly satisfactions, as if to draw a line in the sand between regular, poor folk and the revered aristocracy, as if they were trying to become spice cyborgs.

Europe was bursting in feverish intoxication. Demand for spices skyrocketed, while the technology required for the transportation of spices from the Orient (which, in this case, meant the Arab world) had come to a grinding halt. Political upheavals had also resulted in changing of the hands of authority in the areas which were heavily involved in the spice trade. The new rulers imposed exorbitant tariffs. All these factors lead to a sort of spice crisis, the price of pepper coming from India to Venice rose approximately thirtyfold. To circumvent this staggering price leap, Europeans began to imagine new forms of trade routes to India. Those who could establish a stable, cost-effective way to import spices could potentially bring forth an age of unprecedented wealth and prosperity. This is what partially motivated the Spanish empire to endorse Christopher Colombus' outlandish journey to the "Indies".

In this very sense, the driving force for the great exploration of the Earth was a hunger for pepper. One can very much liken this hunger to an addiction, a craving that had to be fulfilled by any means necessary, one that bridged the gap between the medieval and modern eras. And while Colombus certainly didn't reach India, he did, however, stumble upon a rich plethora of new spices such as chocolate, vanilla, and allspice. And as settlements in the New World became more established, so did their eating practices. As a peripheral branch of the British Empire, American settlements - far away from their command center, slipping in and out of reach of central, British authority -  often acted as a laboratory of sorts, a place to conjure and mess with the most intoxicating and exotic substances and ideas of the time.

The very nature of society changed as a result. Coffee, spreading alertness through the veins, had realized the Protestant ideal of a rational, productive psyche, destabilizing the natural rhythm of work; tobacco, on the other hand, counteracted the nervous temperament of coffee lovers by instilling an immediate calmness. The new stimulants and substances of the modern era, set in motion by the discovery of the New World, had changed the essential core of humanity, which, since then, has only become more entangled in the extrinsic realm of material supplements.

reality is
relative