22. The History of American Spice with THoA Podcast

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On this episode, I sit down with Greta Hardin, host of the The History of American Food podcast. Greta is our conductor as we learn more about the evolution of spices in America.

THOA Podcast

 The Flaky Foodie 


Please note that the transcript is computer generated and may include grammar, punctuation and sytax errors.

Jess 0:01
Hi, it’s Jess and you’re watching to or listening to the flaky foodie podcast, the only show where the discussion is delicious. And there’s chatter that you want. On today’s episode, we have with us the incredible Miss Greta Hardin. She knows a lot about food and food history. And she has a wonderful podcast that I listened to, from time to time, the history of American food, and I absolutely love it. And today we’re going to talk about the history of spice in America. And I’m very excited to learn and to listen. So welcome Greta to the show. It’s been it’s phenomenal to have you here today.

Greta 0:41
I’m really excited to talk to you. I mean, I found your podcast and immediately wanted to invite you in to things I was doing. So I’m glad to come.

Jess 0:51
Just excitement all around today. So tell me a little bit about how you got into food history and science, because I’ll tell you, I love the little nuggets that she drops on her or that you drop on your Twitter page about food and food history. And the way you look at it is amazing. So kind of how did you get here.

Greta 1:11
I mean, all my life, I knew I was going to be a scientist, I was going to grow up and I was going to be a scientist. But I was very, very fascinated by history as well. And the stories that were there and how sometimes reading about history was either like entering another world. So it clicked in with sort of all of like the Sci Fi and the fantasy I enjoyed. And then also, there was all these these hints of like something’s missing, something’s not there. And so it was just, you know, just dig deeper and lit, lift up things and look at it. But somewhere along the way I realized and that science, especially chemistry, which is what I was teaching, most of the time is actually just this really weird, specialized culinary education,

Jess 1:58
food and science, especially baking and science go hand in hand. So

Greta 2:03
all all three of those things, you know, I just sort of combined them together. And my pandemic, baby was this Food History podcast, because like everybody else, I was listening to a lot. And I was like, there’s this one that I really wish I could hear. So like, I’ll just make it.

Jess 2:20
So for those who may go check out your podcast after is kind of divided into different time periods. Do you care to kind of talk about that a little bit more?

Greta 2:30
Sure. Um, I mean, I sort of looked at like, how one thing that happened to me while I was quarantined? Was I was cooking food from literally all over the globe. I’m like, How can I find my own little house just like the picking and choosing food from here, there and everywhere, by just you know, driving up to this street to this like one section of Seattle that has food from around the globe? How did that happen? So I just started diving in. And I’m like, okay, so we basically started on a diet of chips stores, which is nasty,

Jess 3:08
hard tech.

Greta 3:12
And sort of figured out well, like how did we get from there to say like Korean barbecue tacos? Yeah. How did that happen? That’s a big leap

Jess 3:20
there. From no vegetables and maybe getting scurvy on the ship, to all these fresh fruits and vegetables and things.

Greta 3:30
Yeah. And so just just tracing that history and figuring out how it all happened. It was like this great adventure. I could go on. And make friends with my librarians along the way. Definitely. Library library Stan over here because this would not be possible without it.

Jess 3:48
Yes. So you’re going to kind of serve as our conductor on this train ride as we kind of traveled through the history of spice in America. So what’s kind of our first stop our first station? How did spice get here? What was kind of the first milestone in history.

Greta 4:08
So the first spice definitely came over with the first you know, 10 boats to drop colonists off in the colonies, whether it was Jamestown, or in Plymouth or some of the other non British base colonies, everybody even if they didn’t have spice, they really really enjoyed it. cloves and nutmeg and mais, they were all a huge deal back in England. And you know, just were an important part of how people if not prepared food on a daily basis, how they prepared and made note of celebration food. It was a show of power. It was a show of wealth, and if you just don’t have that many objects in your diet, having something that tastes really amazing, like spice was an important part. And you so

Jess 5:00
I’m sorry, you mentioned that it was used as currency as well, how did how did that work?

Greta 5:04
So at the time, you know, in those first, you know, colonial 50 years, there just wasn’t a lot of coin over here, there wasn’t, there wasn’t paper money at all. But there just weren’t a lot of coins. And so you had to come up with things that held their value. And everybody knew kind of how much nutmeg was. Everybody wanted some cloves, everybody wanted some cinnamon, everybody wanted some raisins. And these were sort of like known quantities of a somewhat known value. So you could trade so many nutmegs for a cow, or, you know, so many reasons to help people put up your house.

Jess 5:38
So these spices were they they weren’t able to grow them in America. So it was all kind of reliance on the chips, kind of bringing it in a shipment of spices, I’m assuming?

Greta 5:51
Oh, yes, absolutely. In fact, the thing that knocked my socks off was realizing that so much that we take for granted and how global trade works, is so rooted in the sort of discovery of the spice trade when the Dutch and the French and the British all found the sort of the sources of spices, cloves, and nutmeg actually are from two tiny little islands in the Indian Ocean. Which is astounding. And so there was a lot of blood and treasure spilled either trying to keep the monopoly of that or to try to break the monopoly and, you know, grow clothes elsewhere, grow nutmeg elsewhere, and sort of expand this. I mean, these these things were so valuable. It was sort of the one way you could literally grow money on trees.

Jess 6:44
So I’m still picturing somebody selling a cow for six nutmegs are or how fascinating, so how to kind of Native Americans and the kind of interaction between those people who settled colonists who settled in America and Native Americans, did Native Americans bring different spices? Did the colonists kind of introduced Native Americans to different spices that they didn’t have? How did that work?

Greta 7:17
That’s a really interesting question. As far as foodstuffs, most of the colonists looked looked upon the bounty that was America, and like, basically, if it wasn’t an animal, they pretty much kind of didn’t bother with it. They really weren’t that interested in a lot of American plant foods to begin with. They imported a whole bunch of their own plant foods, corn being a really notable exception, because it was sort of like, okay, fine, I’ll read corn or I’ll die. But other than that, there’s just utter lack of curiosity unless it was something that they kind of recognized. And so the Native Americans definitely had their own spices. The one exception is SassaFrass. Somewhere along there, some of the earliest explorers notice that SassaFrass was being used as a tea as a poultice, as you know, a lot of different things in different customs. And somehow they decided SassaFrass was the wonder drug, it was sort of like kale and kombucha and I don’t know something else.

Jess 8:27
So they had their own little t shirt presses, you will get the Eat SassaFrass

Greta 8:36
there is this enormous 16th century drug trade between England and the Virginia colony in in SassaFrass. And it was supposed to, like, you know, help with fertility cure syphilis, I don’t know give you a better singing. You name it.

Jess 8:56
So we know SassaFrass most commonly in root beer. So how did that come to be the you know,

Greta 9:04
it was that was sort of like one of its leftover things. I mean, even today, people will still have SassaFrass tea and you can if you chew on the sticks, that kind of has a numbing thing, so it was good for people with toothaches. But its widest use for a long time is as a thickener in gumbo, the gumbo filet is SassaFrass powder. And so that sort of became its its biggest use along with SassaFrass tea and that was the way people sort of defended against scurvy because there’s a there’s a bunch of vitamin C and it’s, you know, just sort of a general general spring tonic. But as, as all these other uses for SassaFrass and Sassuolo were, were sort of faded out, you know, some of these old nostalgic things were were lifted just just to rim Okay,

Jess 9:51
so it was kind of after the big SassaFrass Gray’s just left over flavor okay. So after the call the Calvinists came over, you know, I had the clothes there nutmeg, what was kind of the next kind of step in the evolution of spice in America.

Greta 10:08
Um, so for a long time, we were really sort of stuck in this clove, nutmeg, bay leaves, onions. And then some herbs like thyme, parsley, you know, those sort of got stuck for a long time, however, you get sort of to the end of the 18th century, and Southern cuisine is starting to spread more into the rest of the country. And the chili pepper and the tomato finally, sort of like make their move. So the English colonists themselves weren’t particularly adventurous, and they, they were like, okay with onion soup or garlic suspicious. And we’re happy when Black Pepper showed up, but Black Pepper was expensive. And the heat of it could be replicated by dried ground chili peppers. And so you find dried red, red pepper, or long pepper sometimes in some cookbooks, when they finally started trading those chili peppers up and down the coast. So that was sort of the next thing that that invaded.

Jess 11:19
So or moved around. So it was the big chili pepper craze craze around what time period is this? It really

Greta 11:27
it really sort of gets going in the late 18th century. So right around the Revolutionary War, when you have a lot of enslaved people working in plant patient kitchens and sort of bringing their knowledge of plant foods into those kitchens. And then people coming down and visiting as you know, they’re figuring out okay, how are we going to put together this government? How are we going to do trade within our new country? And the like, wow, that only are eating vegetables. They’re awfully tasty. How are you doing? And so ground red peppers started to sort of move slowly up, but it was really used kind of the same way we use like black salt and pepper like black pepper today. Though, it wasn’t so much like we think of like chili having like sweetness and heat and these varieties of flavors. It was just sort of this, like low level heat that would sort of be added in and scattered in. Michael Twitty when he talks about kitchen pepper is sort of this this combination of like, maybe some cumin, maybe some fennel, maybe some chili pepper, or maybe some salt, maybe this, you know, every kitchen kind of had their own blend. And like a few people. Yeah, exactly like that. And so people started growing their own gardens, and they were able to really sort of establish the herbs from home. You know, what was going on here in America, all the herbs and spices available here. The colonists just were not curious. So I mean, ramps made because they were just basically onions. But you know, what spices were available in the US sort of as native species was not of interest to the earlier colonists.

Jess 13:15
That’s really interesting. I always thought it was kind of borrow here borrow there, but it was just kind of reserved for as you said meat and maybe corn.

Greta 13:25
Yeah. I mean, cranberries became a big thing. But they were sort of recognizable as berries. And then they are also they became a cash crop, but just sort of like hunting around and doing that exploratory work of like, is this tasty? Does this add anything that was not that because this was a Savage Land with savage things, and they, they wouldn’t sort of make more elevated, elegant, civilized cuisine.

Jess 13:54
So you have the chili pepper kind of coming in? What was kind of the next big explosion of spice

Greta 14:01
so the next big change that happened and it was oh my goodness, the people who ran society Hey, and this one, it was garlic. Oh,

Jess 14:12
thank you speaking my language. Things just got interesting. Okay. So, so tell me about the garlic

Greta 14:22
garlic sort of came in from a bunch of directions and it had to make a bunch of running starts at getting into American food. I mean, garlic was a huge player in South and Central America. The Caribbean was all about garlic they were happy about it their garlic was great because it stored even better than onions because you know, onions will eventually go bad. But garlic you can try and it’ll just behave itself. But when you had a Italians and Eastern Europeans and people from South and Central Asia when you had the Chinese coming in to build the railroads. I mean, we were basically being bombarded by garlic from the east coast on the West Coast. Everybody finally gave up and they’re like, you know, this is pretty good. But let’s not go crazy. So when you look at the cookbooks from the end of the 19th century and early 20th century, there’ll be like one teaspoon of garlic served. So

Jess 15:23
Wow. Yeah. They were definitely holding back on the garlic.

Greta 15:30
And so it was like, This is tasty, but you know, I mean, I was astounded. Somebody reminded me that in the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, you know, which came out, you know, in the middle of the 20th century, Jimmy Stewart’s wife sort of says something disparaging about, Oh, I bet you’re gonna go talk to the garlic. Oh, wow. Like it was still seen as this like, you know, dirty stinky foreigner. Oh, wow. Hmm. But, but when, especially when the Chinese came in to build the railroads and dig for gold in California, and from the West Coast, they brought, they brought ginger, they brought garlic, they brought, you know, a lot of sort of bitter greens that we really appreciate today, but we thought they were weird and funny tasting.

Jess 16:19
So you have garlic image, and all of these different nationalities ethnicities coming in from each side, and they brought garlic. Did they bring anything else? Or did it take a little while for it to catch on? Was garlic just like, Okay, that’s enough, we’ll just take the garlic,

Greta 16:35
I really think it was sort of like, oh, whoa, you know, we’ll just take the garlic, somewhere kind of between the turn of the 20th century and up to World War Two, we started to experiment in spice mixes. And if you sort of think about the the magic of the spice mix, so Kentucky Fried Chicken and the 11 herbs and spices. And like one of the secret ingredients in there is white pepper. You know, the French love to use white pepper, the Chinese use a lot of white pepper, but Americans unless we’re like cooking something special out of a Julia Child thing we’re like and so for really most of the 20th century, we sort of topped out on you know what individual spices we would have in our kitchens, but we did get fascinated with spice mixes and sort of so you have something called Beaumont which was sort of like a Creole seasoning you have the Cajun Spice mixes you start to get you know hot sauces a little bit especially in the second half of the 20th century when Cajun food and salsa start to explode. And it gets really exciting and it’s it’s really not until I would say the 1980s or the 1990s when Americans discover they love garlic finally and as a consequence of our meddling around in Southeast Asia we start to get a whole new appreciation for new herbs and spices and for fresh herbs because for a long time people were buying I kid you not dried parsley and dried chives

Jess 18:40
which we all know turns the cardboard kind of loses a lot of flavor we dry it

Greta 18:48
like there’s nothing there I mean a lot of things dried are fine I mean dried ginger dried and you know exact exactly dill is great but dried parsley but the spice mix and then you know sort of enter cilantro enter lemongrass and and then a whole new set of chili peppers coming at us from Southeast Asia you know really opened our eyes and then we realize wait there’s there’s not just paprika, there’s smoked paprika, there’s hot paprika, there’s you know we started just getting very excited by all of these varieties. So the end of the 20th century was when people started to realize that there was freshness and that there was variety. And I think from there with gone a little crazy.

Jess 19:43
Yes my spice cabinet is full of everything from everywhere from garam masala to Cajun blackened seasoning mix all the way to five spice so you know that’s Halloween cabinet and And that just shows how global our pantries have

Greta 20:04
become. And the interesting thing is, you know, you you do you look at your Cajun spice and you look at your curry mixture and you look at garam masala and you realize there’s some spices there that are in all of them like black pepper is almost an all of them and or chili peppers will be in most of the or you, you realize like wow star nice is in this one and that one and that one. And it becomes very interesting how these, it’s really just kind of a smaller handful has been combined and recombined and combined, again, into these different combinations. And, you know, there’s like infinity possibilities.

Jess 20:48
Do you have any other kind of spice related little history nuggets, just like you had about the nutmeg coming from two tiny islands?

Greta 21:01
Well, another fun one is so the island of Grenada was established as sort of the Caribbean home of nutmeg. In fact, their flag when they declared independence actually has this very interesting stylized nutmeg motif on it. It’s fun to look up. But cloves have a very close relative, all spice,

Jess 21:28
lot of Jamaican and people use all spice in the Caribbean.

Greta 21:33
And so I find it fascinating that there’s close all the way over the Indian Ocean. And practically on the literal other side of the world. You have is other spicy relative all spice again, all the way over there in the Caribbean, like how did that happen? So whatever people are kind of like, oh, it was Aliens who built the pyramid or aliens who built this other thing with rocks stacked up? On top? I’m like, no, no, everybody can figure out how to lift the hill. It’s something that it’s something that happens when you have enough time. But if aliens were going to metal, I’d say putting these few spices in these few tiny places, because you know, spices cause the world to meet itself to turn in on itself and to create the global trading network that we have now. Which is amazing, you know, for good or for ill, here we are. And you can kind of blame it on spice.

Jess 22:39
So can we talk a little bit about how the spice tray kind of opened up global trade as we know it and kind of expanded communications?

Greta 22:49
You know. So I started like, we’ve all heard of the Spice Islands. I mean, it’s it’s the brand name. But sort of realizing that the earliest records of sort of a global style spice trade actually happened with China, the east coast of Africa and the Indian subcontinent. And it was sort of the, the Islamic empire that really started the overland spice trade because, you know, they, you know, moved all over, they moved into India with the Mughal empire, they moved all the way across North Africa. And so it was just sort of these long tentacles of spice. And so that’s how, you know, Europe was like, hey, hey, what is this? This is cool. And that was partly what drove the Portuguese to start to figure out, well, how about if we don’t have to, like, walk the whole way? What if we could do it by boat? The only problem was there is this huge Africa in the way. And so it took them I don’t know, approximately 100 years from the time they started thinking about it to Vasco de Gama finally, getting all the way around. And you know, as dark and stinky and sour beer and uncomfortable as that was, it was still shorter, and less expensive, a way to move spice than it was overland by camel and donkey and human and heaven knows why. And that really flipped over the spice trade. You could bring back tons and tons of space and these boats and it just changed the world. And so when the Portuguese were doing it than the Dutch were doing it the Spanish weren’t doing it the French and doing it in English or doing it and of course, they couldn’t just all be happy for each other. They had to fight

Jess 24:45
everything everything was war.

Greta 24:48
Yeah. Oh, yeah. And but I do think it’s interesting. That was one of the first times a lot of Europeans you know, after the Middle Ages shut down, people stop Traveling to the Holy Land and doing crusades, and just a lot of mobility ended, for lots of reasons. But you know, these people were going to these far and distant lands and realizing there are people that looked different spoke different languages had different religions. I mean, their clothes were way nicer. But for a lot of people, it was this eye opening idea, like, wow, the world is a really a lot bigger than like my house, my valley and this king. And so a lot of adventurism really started up. And the age of exploration, I mean, T has a lot to answer for. Suddenly, people were drinking caffeine instead of alcohol for breakfast. And I swear that

Jess 25:43
I’ve never thought about that before. But yeah, you read about people drinking Mead for breakfast, and now we’ve moved to tea, which is caffeinated, never thought about that.

Greta 25:54
Or people would would drink you know, they would drink, you know, tea and smoke tobacco to wind down in the evening. And so, you know, they get inspired, and they’d write things down. Or they’d have a discussion with someone all around and

Jess 26:08
caffeine and nicotine. Oh,

Greta 26:13
absolutely. But think about it. If you have a conversation with a friend over, let’s say four cups of tea, versus a conversation with a friend over four mugs of beer. Which conversation are you going to remember?

Jess 26:28
Is that how philosophy get? Know You’re, you’re not you’re not Ah. So that just shows food is powerful changes the discussion, change changes the world in the spice tray this fascinating,

Greta 26:46
but yeah, the the connections that spices made the the trails that it’s left for good or for ill, no, the way it’s made the world both bigger and smaller, I think it’s you know, it’s changed how humanity sees the globe, and how we can reach each other and touch each other. But as another food journalist has said, it’s hard to make it too big of a food, it’s hard to make too big a fool of yourself,

Jess 27:14
if your mouth I love that. I feel like this should be printed and put on my wall or like over here. That’s I think that’s going to be my philosophy as well. I had a question too, about, you know, as England was kind of settling America, you know, you also have the French and the Spanish did they kind of interact and exchange spices?

Greta 27:45
In in sort of background ways. You know, this is this is a thing where cookbooks are kind of cookbooks are definitely history books, just not a lot of people think of them that way. And so you can see, you know, people exchanging recipes, but that would usually be this cook to that cook this wife to that wife. Or as you know, one family moved from, you know, from Santo Mang from Haiti, and brought their enslaved cooks and how staff with them, and they started talking with the other high society cooks in, say, South Carolina or New York. And then recipes would exchange that way, you know, these French cooks with these English cooks. I mean, they’re all working below stairs. But, you know, they all wanted, they all wanted good job reviews. So they’re always coming up with with new stuff. And so in public in mail discourse, no, there, there wouldn’t have been a lot of talk except maybe this tobacco brand and that tobacco brand. But below stairs, and in cookbooks and sort of female spaces. Yes, there was a lot of interchange going on

Jess 29:01
anything else in regards to spice that you would like to share with us today, anything that you could think of?

Greta 29:07
At this point, I just, you know, think we live in a very fortunate time. And to be able to exchange ideas and use spice and flavor as a way to sort of keep the congregate conversation going to make connections with each other. And to just, you know, make our world both bigger and smaller in the most delicious ways is really important.

Jess 29:29
Do you have any idea of our predictions about what kind of based on your study of the past about what do you think the future of American spies will be? Because now it just seems like wide open it’s like, where do we go from here?

Greta 29:45
My, my real hope would be that different regions sort of concentrate, okay, this is what grows your best and we can sort of develop a culture around it that that would be the coolest so I have just I have the There’s little hope in my heart that we sort of become regional again as cuisine because trying to do everything all the time everywhere. I feel like flattens everything out and the spec tacular things either disappear or fade into the background. Sort of the way gumbo went from something of, you know, wide variety of multiple influences and now there’s just kind of like this one kind of gumbo recipe you can find.

But who knows. But but that’s that’s sort of my my own personal wish.

Jess 30:36
It is a good one. So thank you so much, Greta, for being on the show today. You guys won’t see it. We have some technical difficulties, but when it got going, it got going. Good. So yes, definitely enjoy having on the show. If people want to check out your show, or just kind of follow you and find out more about your kind of history nuggets,

Greta 31:03
where would they go? So on Twitter, that’s where I’m most active. And usually when I’m researching and find strange spellings or oh my god, I can’t believe it stuff. That will be on Twitter at th o a food. Same handle on Instagram th o a food there. It’s more pictures finished dishes. Maybe someday more recipes. We’ll see moving for it. But I love getting questions, just sort of what people are wondering about sometimes I’ll send you a page from a book to answer your question. Yeah, come along for the journey and I promise you won’t get scurvy.

Jess 31:44
Even orange and you’ll be alright.

Greta 31:50
Okay, I

Jess 31:50
have been Jess. And this has been a flicky for the podcast treat this episode like gospel the gospel and tell someone about it. Eat something that’s absolutely delicious this week, and you can always tell me about it on any social media platform. I’m on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and a tiny little bit on tick tock. So yes, make sure you get in touch with me. And again, thank you so much Greta for being here. Have a great week, everybody.

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