The Origins of Salt, Pepper & Other Popular Spices

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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.

Turn Your LEGO Bricks Into a Drone With the Flybrix Drone Kit

Flyxbrix/FatBrain
Flyxbrix/FatBrain

Now more than ever, it’s important to have a good hobby. Of course, a lot of people—maybe even you—have been obsessed with learning TikTok dances and baking sourdough bread for the last few months, but those hobbies can wear out their welcome pretty fast. So if you or someone you love is looking for something that’s a little more intellectually stimulating, you need to check out the Flybrix LEGO drone kit from Fat Brain Toys.

What is a Flybrix LEGO Drone Kit?

The Flybrix drone kit lets you build your own drones out of LEGO bricks and fly them around your house using your smartphone as a remote control (via Bluetooth). The kit itself comes with absolutely everything you need to start flying almost immediately, including a bag of 56-plus LEGO bricks, a LEGO figure pilot, eight quick-connect motors, eight propellers, a propeller wrench, a pre-programmed Flybrix flight board PCB, a USB data cord, a LiPo battery, and a USB LiPo battery charger. All you’ll have to do is download the Flybrix Configuration Software, the Bluetooth Flight Control App, and access online instructions and tutorials.

Experiment with your own designs.

The Flybrix LEGO drone kit is specifically designed to promote exploration and experimentation. All the components are tough and can totally withstand a few crash landings, so you can build and rebuild your own drones until you come up with the perfect design. Then you can do it all again. Try different motor arrangements, add your own LEGO bricks, experiment with different shapes—this kit is a wannabe engineer’s dream.

For the more advanced STEM learners out there, Flybrix lets you experiment with coding and block-based coding. It uses an arduino-based hackable circuit board, and the Flybrix app has advanced features that let you try your hand at software design.

Who is the Flybrix LEGO Drone Kit for?

Flybrix is a really fun way to introduce a number of core STEM concepts, which makes it ideal for kids—and technically, that’s who it was designed for. But because engineering and coding can get a little complicated, the recommended age for independent experimentation is 13 and up. However, kids younger than 13 can certainly work on Flybrix drones with the help of their parents. In fact, it actually makes a fantastic family hobby.

Ready to start building your own LEGO drones? Click here to order your Flybrix kit today for $198.

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When Al Capone Ran a Soup Kitchen During the Great Depression

Al Capone: Public Enemy #1, soup kitchen proprietor
Al Capone: Public Enemy #1, soup kitchen proprietor
The Paris Bureau of The New York Times, National Archives and Records Administration // Public Domain

Four years after gangster Al Capone took over Chicago’s leading crime syndicate, he had raked in over $40 million—around $550 million today. The money came from illegally selling booze during Prohibition; bottles were distributed to more than 10,000 speakeasies and brothels in a vast bootlegging network across the Midwest.

Capone’s alcohol distribution was unlawful, but to many Americans, the man’s work was heroic. He claimed he was just a businessman giving the people what they wanted—and what the people wanted more than anything in the 1920s was liquor.

But Capone’s role as an Italian-American Robin Hood didn’t stop there. As he orchestrated criminal activities behind the scenes, Capone simultaneously launched a program to provide milk to Chicago school children and donated huge sums to local charities.

It was the stock market crash on October 29, 1929, however, that spurred Capone to his greatest work of philanthropy. Almost overnight, the American economy collapsed into the Great Depression. Banks failed, businesses shuttered, and millions were suddenly unemployed and hungry. Hundreds of soup kitchens popped up around the country. One of them belonged to Al Capone.

No Questions Asked

Men line up at Al Capone's soup kitchen during the Great Depression
Men line up at Al Capone's soup kitchen during the Great Depression.
The Paris Bureau of The New York Times, National Archives and Records Administration // Public Domain

When Al Capone’s soup kitchen opened at 935 South State Street, in Chicago’s South Loop neighborhood, in mid-November 1930, hundreds of thousands of Chicagoans were out of work. By the following year, 624,000 people—or 50 percent of the Chicago workforce—were out of a job.

Capone’s charity had no name, just a sign over the door that advertised “Free Soup, Coffee & Doughnuts for the Unemployed.” Inside, women in white aprons served an average of 2200 people a day with a smile and no questions asked. Breakfast was hot coffee and sweet rolls. Both lunch and dinner consisted of soup and bread. Every 24 hours, diners devoured 350 loaves of bread and 100 dozen rolls. They washed down their meals with 30 pounds of coffee sweetened with 50 pounds of sugar. The whole operation cost $300 per day.

The soup kitchen didn’t advertise its connection to Capone, but the mobster-benefactor’s name was connected to it in stories printed in local newspapers like the Chicago Tribune and The Rock Island Argus. Those who were down on their luck, though, apparently had few qualms about eating from the hand of Chicago’s worst crime boss. Often the line to get in to the kitchen was so long that it wound past the door of the city’s police headquarters, where Capone was considered Public Enemy #1, according to Harper’s Magazine. The line was particularly lengthy when Capone’s soup kitchen hosted a Thanksgiving meal of cranberry sauce and beef stew for 5000 hungry Chicagoans. (Why beef and not turkey? After 1000 turkeys were stolen from a nearby department store, Capone feared he’d be blamed for the theft and made a last-minute menu change.)

Capone's Ulterior Motives

Capone’s efforts to feed Chicago during the darkest days of the Great Depression weren’t entirely altruistic. It wasn’t even originally his idea, but that of his friend and political ally Daniel Serritella, who was elected to the Illinois state senate in 1930. Nor did Capone invest much of his own money into the operation. Instead, Deirdre Bair writes in Capone: His Life, Legacy and Legend, he bribed and extorted other businesses to stock the pantry. In just one example, during Seritella's 1932 trial for conspiring with grocers to cheat customers [PDF], the court discovered that a load of ducks that had been donated to Christmas baskets for the poor ended up in Capone’s soup kitchen instead.

Perhaps more than anything, Capone opened his soup kitchen to get the public back on his side after he was implicated in the 1929 Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre. In that murder spree, Capone's associates were believed to have assassinated seven men, five of whom hailed from the rival North Side Gang, inside a Chicago parking garage—though no one was ever prosecuted. Harper’s writer Mary Borden distilled Capone's double-dealing when she described him as “an ambidextrous giant who kills with one hand and feeds with the other.”

Capone’s soup kitchen closed abruptly in April 1932. The proprietors claimed that the kitchen was no longer needed because the economy was picking up, even though the number of unemployed across the country had increased by 4 million between 1931 and 1932. The diners who had attended the kitchen daily were forced to move on to another one.

Two months later, Capone was indicted on 22 counts of income tax evasion; the charges that eventually landed him in San Francisco’s Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary. Though Capone vowed to reopen his soup kitchen during his trial, its doors stayed shut. By the time he was released from prison in 1939, a raging case of syphilis had rendered Capone mentally and physically incapable of managing his own life, let alone that of Chicago’s once-dominant crime syndicate and the soup kitchen that softened his gangster image.

Capone died in 1947, but his larger-than-life legacy lives on. His soup kitchen wasn’t so lucky. The building became a flophouse, and in 1955, Chicago authorities deemed it a fire hazard and shut it down permanently. Today, only a parking lot remains at the site of Chicago’s most notorious food pantry.