The Spices of Life

When it comes to cooking and eating, neither would be as interesting without spices! Ground or whole, seeds, pods, and leaves have a long and complex history with our favorite and not-so-favorite foods:

  • The Romans filled their sauces with spices.
  • During the Middle Ages, spices were a sign of wealth and largely only accessible to those of rank. The more elaborate the dinner and the more spices in your dishes, the more your guests were likely to “oooh” and “ahhh.” Of course, it also conveniently covered the taste of the rotting meat you may not have otherwise preserved.
  • Salt, common on our tables today, has been everything from a religious offering to a barter item to literally a guarded commodity, locked away in towers.
  • Many spices (and herbs) have medicinal values, in addition to their flavor powers!

This week, we’re featuring a spice supplier’s price list from 1899. This small publication from the collection contains photographs of the facility and testimonials from stores, in addition to the price lists themselves. The images above (click on the first image to bring up the gallery) include the title page, several photographs, and lists for a household spice, as well as as a few more exotic choices. It is worth noting that the title pages states “Quotations subject to fluctuations of the market” and the first page has hand-changed prices! Market values changed fast, which has long been a trend when it comes to the supply and demand of spices.

The Culinary History Collection includes a few cookbooks whose recipes are based around spices, rather than specific meals or ingredients. Although limited in number, they are a nice homage to the humble spices, from the bitter to the sweet. Like food, we have our favorites and our not-s0-favorites, but without them, life might be a little more bland. So when you’re in the kitchen today, be sure to spice it up, whether it’s plain old salt and pepper or saffron.

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Just a little update: About two hours after I posted this entry, a story popped up on one of my news feeds from Epicurious.com. Apparently, it’s National Pepper Week! So cracked those little white, pink, or black corns into your favorite dish!

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