The Origins of Salt, Pepper & Other Popular Spices


Let's take a look at the stories behind some of your favorite spices.

1. Pepper

If you eat enough pepper you'll start to sweat, which explains why the ancients thought the stuff made an excellent medical treatment. The Chinese employed it as a treatment for malaria, cholera, and dysentery, while Indian monks used it as a sort of PowerBar: they swallowed small amounts of the stuff in hopes that it would help them survive their long treks through the rough countryside. Later, pepper became so valuable that it served as a de facto form of currency; it was used for centuries in Europe to pay rent and taxes. In one exceptional case, it was also used for ransom: Attila the Hun is said to have demanded about 3,000 pounds of the stuff in 408 C.E.; in exchange, he promised to lay off the city of Rome and stop sacking it.

2. Salt

It's probably been the most valuable food additive in all of history, mostly because it did such a good job of preserving foods in the centuries before the refrigerator was invented. Salt mines in Chehr Abad, Iran, also testify to the stuff's ability to preserve people. Four "salt men" have been discovered there, eerily mummified by what they were digging for; two of them may date as far back as 650 B.C.E. But the use of salt far predates the Iranian salt men. In China, writings that are something like 4,700 years old testify to its value; the Peng-Tzao-Kan-Mu, the earliest known treatise pharmacology, mentions more than 40 kinds of salt. And a tragic piece of Chinese folklore that has probably been around since the time of the Peng-Tzao-Kan-Mu tells a story of how the phoenix, that majestic mythical bird, first brought salt to the attention of a lowly peasant—who was accidentally put to death by a temperamental emperor before anyone realized the value of what he had found.

3. Cinnamon

Although it's originally from the hard-to-reach island of Ceylon (a.k.a. Sri Lanka), cinnamon has been a global sensation for millennia. It first appears in Chinese writings that date to 2800 B.C.E. (they called it kwai). Cinnamon was also used by the Egyptians in embalming, perhaps, as with salt, for the same reason that it became a popular cooking spice—its warm aroma and antibacterial properties could hide the stench of food starting to go bad. The Romans had attachments to cinnamon, too, both medical and sentimental. Pliny the Elder records the stuff as being worth about fifteen times its weight in silver. And the Roman Emperor Nero, known for both his evil tendencies and his extravagance, sacrificed a year's supply of the stuff as an apologia for murdering his wife—although we're guessing Roman spice merchants failed to appreciate the gesture.

4. Nutmeg

Like cinnamon, this one's been a popular spice since the days of, yep, Pliny the Elder, who writes about a curious plant that bears two spices: Nutmeg is the plant's seed; mace is made from a fleshy covering around the seed. Nutmeg's distinctive scent (think eggnog) has made it consistently popular throughout the ages; Emperor Henry VI reportedly had workers blanket the streets of Rome with the aroma in celebration of his crowning. The vast majority of the world's nutmeg now comes from the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada—in fact, the local economy is based almost entirely on tourism and nutmeg exports, and the spice is the centerpiece of the country's flag—but that's not where the plant originated. In fact, nutmeg didn't even exist in Grenada until British sailors brought it there in the early 1800s; it's from the East Indies, not the West Indies. The British had good reason for introducing an invasive species, though: The combination of a blight, political upheaval, and Dutch merchants who burned nutmeg warehouses to keep the prices high had pretty much wiped out the world supply of nutmeg at that point.

5. Ginger

There's plenty of debate over whether Marco Polo brought back pasta from his trip to China, but one thing is certain: he did bring back ginger. Hugely popular in the Roman Empire, ginger suffered roughly the same fate as said empire; by Polo's days, it was barely known in the West. Polo and company reintroduced it as a rare luxury, and it stayed that way for centuries. In fact, Queen Elizabeth was a noted enthusiast, and some historians think she may have invented the gingerbread man.

6. Horseradish

Anything that tastes as strong as horseradish has got to have a history of use in medicine—and indeed, horseradish does; in the 3,500 years that humans have been eating it, they've used it to treat everything from rheumatism to tuberculosis, from lower back pain to low libido. Hippocrates wrote about it (along with the 400 other spicy medicines he recommended), and the oracle at Delphi was a big fan, too; he supposedly told Apollo that "the radish is worth its weight in lead, the beet its weight in silver, and the horseradish its weight in gold." Horseradish had a bit of a renaissance during, well, the Renaissance; as a food fad, it spread all over Europe and Scandinavia, and by the late 1600s, it was a British staple, eaten alongside beef and oysters and made into pungent cordials. Which is all fine and good (we like the stuff too), but why is it called horseradish? The answer has very little to do with horses. The Germans call the stuff "meerrettich," or "sea radish," since that's where it grows. English-speakers may have picked up the word and bastardized it to "mare-radish," which then became not-necessarily-a-female-horse radish. We, however, prefer the more descriptive name that some American settlers used for it; they charmingly (and accurately) called it "stingnose."

This piece was written by Ransom Riggs and excerpted from the mental_floss book In the Beginning: The Origins of Everything.

Big Questions
What Is Fair Trade?

What is fair trade?

Shannon Fisher:

Fair trade is a system of manufacturing and purchasing intended to:

1) level the economic playing field for underdeveloped nations; and

2) protect against human rights abuses in the Global South.

Fair trade farmers are guaranteed fair market prices for their crops, and farm workers are guaranteed a living wage, which means workers who farm fair trade products and ingredients are guaranteed to earn enough to support their families and comfortably live in their communities. There are rules against inhumane work practices. Fair trade farming organizations are monitored for a safe work environment, lack of discrimination, the freedom to organize, and strict adherence to child labor laws. Agrochemicals and GMOs are also forbidden. If these rules are not followed, a product will not receive fair trade certification.

The quality of life in many communities producing fair trade-certified goods is greatly improved. Sometimes, farming communities are given profit sharing from the companies that source their ingredients, and those profits go to improving the community as a whole—be it with a library, medical facilities, town infrastructure, or opening small businesses to support the residents. A major goal of fair trade is to help foster sustainable development around the globe. By helping farming communities in third-world countries, the economy of the entire region gets a boost.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

Live Smarter
A Simple Trick for Keeping Lemons Fresher for Longer

Lemons don't get much respect in the average refrigerator. After taking a slice or two to punch up drinks or add to a recipe, the remaining wedges can often be pushed out of view by incoming groceries and left to go to waste.

But the folks at Food52 have come up with a solution to get more use out of those lemons by keeping them fresher longer. Because citrus needs moisture in order to remain fresh, all you need to do is place your lemon in a bowl of water before putting it in the fridge.

Another idea: Put them in a sealed plastic bag and make sure you remove all the air to prevent mold growth. You'll get up to three months of freshness with this method. If your lemons are already cut into wedges, you can expect they'll last three to four days.

The "hack" also works for oranges and grapefruits. As for freezing, you can do that, too, but the resulting mushy fruit is probably best left for making juices.

[h/t Food52]


More from mental floss studios