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Christopher Boffoli

The Secret Lives of Kitchen Spices

Original image
Christopher Boffoli

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


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.


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.”


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.


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.


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.


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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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]