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Christopher Boffoli

The Secret Lives of Kitchen Spices

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Christopher Boffoli

There’s a warmonger, a cure-all, and a former currency in your cabinet. Do you know which is which?

CINNAMON STORKS

In ancient times, the origins of cinnamon were a mystery to the Western world, and Arab merchants wanted to keep it that way. To hike up the price, they spun an elaborate tale, claiming that giant birds collected cinnamon sticks from far-off lands and used them to build nests on cliffs. To get the precious sticks, traders laid out massive chunks of ox meat, which the birds grabbed and carried to their nests. But because the slabs were so large, the nests would collapse, allowing the clever merchants to collect their prize.

Europeans bought this story until the late 1400s when the Portuguese found the real source of cinnamon—lush groves in Sri Lanka. Once they’d figured it out, the Portuguese struck a deal with the Sri Lankans to monopolize the trade and built a fort there to protect their assets. They were displaced by the Dutch in 1658, who were subsequently displaced by the Brits in 1796. But by then, the trees had been exported worldwide, so there was little need to fight for a cinnamon fix.

THE POWER OF CUBEB COMPELS YOU

With notes of allspice and clove, cubeb comes from a plant that’s a close relative to black pepper, and it tastes somewhat similar. So it’s no surprise that cubeb was used as a cheap stand-in for its far more expensive cousin during the Middle Ages in Europe and through the 1800s in the U.S. Today, cubeb is rarely found outside Indonesian cuisine, but it’s a key ingredient in a ritual far more interesting than dinner: exorcisms.

In his 17th-century book Demoniality, Italian priest Ludovico Maria Sinistrari recalls that cubeb did wonders for a “young maiden of noble family, who was tempted by an Incubus that appeared to her both by day and by night.” He tossed a few kernels of cubeb into her bedroom, and “the Incubus came, but never dared enter.”

THE GREAT TEXAS SALT FIGHT

OK, we know it’s not technically a spice, but bear with us—this is good! First extracted from briny spring water in Romania in 6050 BCE, salt’s use as a food preservative allowed the local population to flourish. On the other hand, salt has also sparked more than its fair share of wars and revolutions, even on American soil. When Judge Charles Howard formed a “Salt Ring” in 1877 to gain control of the dry salt lakes near the base of the Guadalupe Mountains, the Mexican-Americans who’d been living there and collecting salt for free decided they didn’t want bland food imposed on them. So they rioted.

Twenty Texas Rangers swaggered in to clean up the mess, but they were no match for the rebels, who disarmed and ousted the Rangers, killing Howard in the process. At that point, the settlers were allowed to keep their salt, but the flats soon fell into disuse after railroads started bringing in cheaper salt from Kansas in 1881. Nonetheless, the Rangers are still bitter about the experience—it was the only time in history they were forced to surrender.

DEATH BY (FAKE) SAFFRON

The saffron you sprinkle on your paella is the most expensive spice in the world, fetching as much as $1,000 per pound. And for good reason: Saffron comes from the stigma of a sterile flower that no longer exists in the wild. The saffron we eat is the result of 3,000 years of breeding that began in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Stranger still, a pound of saffron requires 50,000–75,000 flowers—enough to cover a football field—and would take days to pick.

Throughout history, saffron has been lauded as a cure-all. In the fourth century BCE, Alexander the Great took saffron baths to soothe his battle wounds. During the 14th century CE it was a go-to treatment for outbreaks. Even today, recent studies show that saffron can help treat Alzheimer’s, breast cancer, depression, and an array of other ailments. No wonder counterfeiting has been such a problem over the years. In the 1300s, Germany enacted the Safranschou code, which made saffron tampering punishable by death. One convicted tamperer was roasted over a fire of his flavorless saffron.

24-KARAT PEPPER

Grow a Piper nigrum shrub, pick its red berries, boil them until they turn black, dry them in the sun, and you’ve got pepper—the most popular spice in history! Long before shakerfuls hit every diner in America, pepper originated in the mountains of India, where it was referred to as “black gold.” This was a misnomer—pepper was worth more than its weight in gold, and individual peppercorns were even accepted as currency at the time, and it wasn’t just India.

In Dutch, the term “pepper expensive” is used to describe something extremely pricey, which explains why the country waged war against the Portuguese in the 1590s to get a piece of the trade. The spice remained costly for centuries. Even in 19th-century England, shady suppliers would dilute pepper, mixing in charcoal or floor sweepings to stretch its street value. Since then, however, pepper’s price has plummeted as it became more widely grown. As for the stuff you’re sprinkling on your scrambled eggs, don’t worry—it’s pure.

ENGLAND’S NUTMEG SWINDLE

Nutmeg wasn’t just valued for its sweet, nutty taste—Europeans once wore bags of it around their necks to ward off the Black Plague. (It’s possible it worked, since the spice repels fleas!) For centuries, the Banda islands of Indonesia were the only place nutmeg trees grew—a perfect opportunity for a monopoly, which the Dutch snapped up in the 1600s. After occupying the islands, the Dutch started a brisk business, making sure to douse any nutmegs they sold in lime so they couldn’t grow elsewhere.

The plan would have been airtight if it weren’t for the tiny Banda island Run, which continued trading with the English. Although Holland and England had signed a peace treaty in 1619, Holland decided to invade Run and took over the island in 1666. A year later, Holland appeased the British by trading the exotic island of Manhattan for Run. As historian Giles Milton quipped, although the war “robbed England of her nutmeg, it gave her the biggest of apples.”

This story originally appeared in mental_floss magazine.

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
A Chinese Museum Is Offering Cash to Whoever Can Decipher These 3000-Year-Old Inscriptions

During the 19th century, farmers in China’s Henan Province began discovering oracle bones—engraved ox scapulae and tortoise shells used by Shang Dynasty leaders for record-keeping and divination purposes—while plowing their fields. More bones were excavated in subsequent years, and their inscriptions were revealed to be the earliest known form of systematic writing in East Asia. But over the decades, scholars still haven’t come close to cracking half of the mysterious script’s roughly 5000 characters—which is why one Chinese museum is asking member of the public for help, in exchange for a generous cash reward.

As Atlas Obscura reports, the National Museum of Chinese Writing in Anyang, Henan Province has offered to pay citizen researchers about $15,000 for each unknown character translated, and $7500 if they provide a disputed character’s definitive meaning. Submissions must be supported with evidence, and reviewed by at least two language specialists.

The museum began farming out their oracle bone translation efforts in Fall 2016. The costly ongoing project has hit a stalemate, and scholars hope that the public’s collective smarts—combined with new advances in technology, including cloud computing and big data—will yield new information and save them research money.

As of today, more than 200,000 oracle bones have been discovered—around 50,000 of which bear text—so scholars still have a lot to learn about the Shang Dynasty. Many of the ancient script's characters are difficult to verify, as they represent places and people from long ago. However, decoding even just one character could lead to a substantial breakthrough, experts say: "If we interpret a noun or a verb, it can bring many scripts on oracle bones to life, and we can understand ancient history better,” Chinese history professor Zhu Yanmin told the South China Morning Post.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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6 Eponyms Named After the Wrong Person
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Salmonella species growing on agar.

Having something named after you is the ultimate accomplishment for any inventor, mathematician, scientist, or researcher. Unfortunately, the credit for an invention or discovery does not always go to the correct person—senior colleagues sometimes snatch the glory, fakers pull the wool over people's eyes, or the fickle general public just latches onto the wrong name.

1. SALMONELLA (OR SMITHELLA?)

In 1885, while investigating common livestock diseases at the Bureau of Animal Industry in Washington, D.C., pathologist Theobald Smith first isolated the salmonella bacteria in pigs suffering from hog cholera. Smith’s research finally identified the bacteria responsible for one of the most common causes of food poisoning in humans. Unfortunately, Smith’s limelight-grabbing supervisor, Daniel E. Salmon, insisted on taking sole credit for the discovery. As a result, the bacteria was named after him. Don’t feel too sorry for Theobald Smith, though: He soon emerged from Salmon’s shadow, going on to make the important discovery that ticks could be a vector in the spread of disease, among other achievements.

2. AMERICA (OR COLUMBIANA?)

An etching of Amerigo Vespucci
Henry Guttmann/Getty Images

Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci (1451–1512) claimed to have made numerous voyages to the New World, the first in 1497, before Columbus. Textual evidence suggests Vespucci did take part in a number of expeditions across the Atlantic, but generally does not support the idea that he set eyes on the New World before Columbus. Nevertheless, Vespucci’s accounts of his voyages—which today read as far-fetched—were hugely popular and translated into many languages. As a result, when German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller was drawing his map of the Novus Mundi (or New World) in 1507 he marked it with the name "America" in Vespucci’s honor. He later regretted the choice, omitting the name from future maps, but it was too late, and the name stuck.

3. BLOOMERS (OR MILLERS?)

A black and white image of young women wearing bloomers
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Dress reform became a big issue in mid-19th century America, when women were restricted by long, heavy skirts that dragged in the mud and made any sort of physical activity difficult. Women’s rights activist Elizabeth Smith Miller was inspired by traditional Turkish dress to begin wearing loose trousers gathered at the ankle underneath a shorter skirt. Miller’s new outfit immediately caused a splash, with some decrying it as scandalous and others inspired to adopt the garb.

Amelia Jenks Bloomer was editor of the women’s temperance journal The Lily, and she took to copying Miller’s style of dress. She was so impressed with the new freedom it gave her that she began promoting the “reform dress” in her magazine, printing patterns so others might make their own. Bloomer sported the dress when she spoke at events and soon the press began to associate the outfit with her, dubbing it “Bloomer’s costume.” The name stuck.

4. GUILLOTINE (OR LOUISETTE?)

Execution machines had been known prior to the French Revolution, but they were refined after Paris physician and politician Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin suggested they might be a more humane form of execution than the usual methods (hanging, burning alive, etc.). The first guillotine was actually designed by Dr. Antoine Louis, Secretary of the Academy of Surgery, and was known as a louisette. The quick and efficient machine was quickly adopted as the main method of execution in revolutionary France, and as the bodies piled up the public began to refer to it as la guillotine, for the man who first suggested its use. Guillotin was very distressed at the association, and when he died in 1814 his family asked the French government to change the name of the hated machine. The government refused and so the family changed their name instead to escape the dreadful association.

5. BECHDEL TEST (OR WALLACE TEST?)

Alison Bechdel
Alison Bechdel
Steve Jennings/Getty Images

The Bechdel Test is a tool to highlight gender inequality in film, television, and fiction. The idea is that in order to pass the test, the movie, show, or book in question must include at least one scene in which two women have a conversation that isn’t about a man. The test was popularized by the cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985 in her comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” and has since become known by her name. However, Bechdel asserts that the idea originated with her friend Lisa Wallace (and was also inspired by the writer Virginia Woolf), and she would prefer for it to be known as the Bechdel-Wallace test.

6. STIGLER’S LAW OF EPONYMY (OR MERTON’S LAW?)

Influential sociologist Robert K. Merton suggested the idea of the “Matthew Effect” in a 1968 paper noting that senior colleagues who are already famous tend to get the credit for their junior colleagues’ discoveries. (Merton named his phenomenon [PDF] after the parable of talents in the Gospel of Matthew, in which wise servants invest money their master has given them.)

Merton was a well-respected academic, and when he was due to retire in 1979, a book of essays celebrating his work was proposed. One person who contributed an essay was University of Chicago professor of statistics Stephen Stigler, who had corresponded with Merton about his ideas. Stigler decided to pen an essay that celebrated and proved Merton’s theory. As a result, he took Merton’s idea and created Stigler’s Law of Eponymy, which states that “No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer”—the joke being that Stigler himself was taking Merton’s own theory and naming it after himself. To further prove the rule, the “new” law has been adopted by the academic community, and a number of papers and articles have since been written on "Stigler’s Law."

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