three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
13-Nov-Dec-2004
By: 
Jack Turner
user_rating: 
0

The History of a Temptation

A-SpceA Roman emperor perfumed his swimming pool with them. Literary ladies like the Queen of Sheba wore them on their skin. And doctors of the Middle Ages used them to cure ailments from gout to impotence. Spices once served humankind in many capacities beyond the merely culinary, and Turner’s Spice examines their once considerable popularity. The European lust for cloves and cinnamon was strong enough to spark the Age of Discovery; Turner’s goal is to understand why. Through historical anecdotes, Spice examines why today’s humble condiments were once a continent-wide obsession, one that sent many men on arduous journeys—and some to their deaths.
Knopf. 352 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 0375407219

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"Indeed, one of the threads of Spice is the long-running tension in Christian Europe between spice as the fragrance of the saints and spice as a (real or imagined) aphrodisiac. … Turner has a knack for talking about previous centuries in a way that resonates with our own times." Ruth Walker

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"[Turner] has succeeded in writing a book that is at once a social and cultural history, a culinary history and a delightful read." Michiko Kakutani

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"One of Turner’s outstanding qualities is that he avoids judgment of the medieval lifestyle, no matter how peculiar it may seem. Likewise, he encourages the 21st century reader to view history with an open mind." Gabriella Gershenson

San Jose Mercury News 3.5 of 5 Stars
"If I have one criticism of Turner’s book, it’s that it’s so Eurocentric. I’d like to know more about the effect of the spice trade on the lands where they originated." Charles Matthews

Seattle Times 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Turner is obviously a demon researcher, and his grasp of sources—especially ancient and medieval European ones—seems firm. But this can be too much of a good thing; the nonstop parade of spice facts sometimes lacks a clear narrative, and time and locale can jump back and forth like crazy." Adam Woog

Washington Post 2.5 of 5 Stars
"In principle there is no reason why [Spice’s] serial presentation—selected anecdotes about spices as flavorings, as medicines, as embalming agents, as magical agents and so on—should not serve the reader well. And this is entertaining, for a while. Yet because of it, the book takes on something of the quality of a trip to the zoo, where one moves from the aviary to the monkey cage, with each case standing on its own." Sidney W. Mintz

Critical Summary

Critics agree that Turner knows his spices. In this first book, he proves himself a skillful researcher, as comfortable with medieval resources as he is with electronic ones. For many, Turner’s wide knowledge and his flair for the anecdote—one section describes the use of spices to preserve Sir Thomas More’s head—make for a highly entertaining read. A few found troubling omissions in the work, and called for more emphasis on the modern spice trade or on non-European perspectives. And Turner’s refusal to stick to a chronological structure left some feeling a bit lost. However, a few detractors aside, Spice will likely prove as fascinating for modern readers as its subject was for explorers centuries before.

Supplemental Reading

Salt | Mark Kurlansky (2002): If you liked Spice, this single-subject history has to be right up your alley.