By Liz Williams
I have always thought that it was fascinating that spices drove the exploration of the world. These tiny, aromatic, and exotic bits of organic matter inflamed the senses, inspired greed and adventure, were the cause of political intrigue and economic upheaval, and changed religion and science. They were powerful.
Ironically some of these spices, like galangal, are not in everyday use in our kitchens. Other spices sit quietly on our shelves awaiting use in a carrot cake or a special meal. Spices have lost their power to inflame and inspire the imagination. It is hard to imagine today the loss of life and the fortunes made in their pursuit.
These are the major themes of Paul Freedman’s thoroughly readable, yet scholarly, Out of the East: Spices and the Medieval Imagination. Freedman gives us insight into issues and concerns of medieval European society that remind us that we are still immersed in the same issues and concerns of our human condition. Today we may be pursuing a cheaper source of labor in another land, establishing call centers in the land of spices, but we are still looking for more, cheaper and better. We still want the next new thing. It is comforting to see that food was trendy then, as it is now.
What is most interesting to me is that spices changed the known world. This was not exploration for the sake of knowledge, as say the space program purports to be. This was exploration designed to make fortunes and create political power by obtaining spice, the real world Dune. Freedman gives us the keys to medieval thought, commerce, politics and religion. It is a book that should be read with mulled wine. I was inspired to fix a lamb tagine. I wanted to clean out my spice cabinet and make sure that everything in it was fresh and powerful in honor of those who explored the world for me centuries ago.
This book will inspire you to think about the power of food. We take it for granted, but it is the stuff of imagination as well as life. Freedman reminds us of this important fact.
Meet Paul Freedman during the First Annual Food Symposium and Literary Feast, October 24, 2009 at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum. Click here for more information and tickets.