The History of a Temptation

By Jack Turner. Knopf. 352 pp. $26.95

What counts as a spice? Wolfgang Schivelbusch, in his book Das Paradies, der Geschmack und die Vernunft (literally Paradise, Taste and Reason, but published in English translation as Tastes of Paradise, 1980), uses the term for what we laypersons commonly think of as spices (cloves, say, or nutmeg and mace). But his book is really about Genussmittel, a German word only badly translated as "semi-luxury" or "means of pleasure." The dozen pages he devotes to spices are enormously illuminating, but Schivelbusch then moves quickly to tea, coffee, chocolate and tobacco, and concludes by dealing with opium.

Jack Turner's Spice deals precisely with its subject. Though Turner, a scholar of international relations, thinks no single definition works, he cites the Oxford English Dictionary's: "One or other of various strongly flavored or aromatic substances of vegetable origin, obtained from tropical plants, commonly used as condiments or employment for other purposes on account of their fragrance and preservative qualities." Turner explains why an herb is not a spice and suggests that herbs "tend to grow in temperate climates, spices in the tropics." This all makes sense. Though we treat coriander seeds as a spice and coriander leaves (culantro, cilantro, Chinese parsley) as an herb, and though the saffron crocus is widely cultivated outside the tropics for its stigmata, such seeming exceptions do not invalidate the difference that enables Turner to indicate his field of inquiry.

He specifies his outlook as well, eschewing "the larger questions of cause and effect in favor of a more intimate, human focus. This book is written with a sense that history too often comes deodorized, and spices are a case in point. . . . their past has suffered from being too often corralled into economic or culinary divisions, the essential force of their attraction buried in a materialist morass of economic and political history."

Having foresworn materialist morasses, Turner demurely bares his own point of view: "Insofar as I have a thesis, it is that spices played a more important part in people's lives, and a more conspicuous and varied one, than we might be inclined to assume." He seems to be on safe ground. But having avoided thorny questions, he then enchants us with a paragraph on how spices did, in fact, change the world -- a claim he had not made earlier -- and poses his own riddle: "Yet it is easy to overlook the question from which the others derive: why the trade existed in the first place." His answer: "It all sprang from desire" -- an answer some readers may not find a revelation.

Turner's history is chronological only for particular places; each definitive episode mostly stands on its own. Turner aims to "tease out the more important continuities of spices' past and follow them down through time." Hence readers must be prepared to move from the spread of Islam after the death of Mohammed -- which cut Europe off from the clove islands for a time -- back to the peppercorns discovered in the nose of the mummy of Ramses II. In principle there is no reason why this serial presentation -- selected anecdotes about spices as flavorings, as medicines, as embalming agents, as magical agents and so on -- should not serve the reader well. And this is entertaining, for a while. Yet because of it, the book takes on something of the quality of a trip to the zoo, where one moves from the aviary to the monkey cage, with each case standing on its own.

Turner initially explores the European rivalries born of the search for a route to the Indies, focusing on Columbus, the pope, Magellan, da Gama and the disappointing lack of cloves and nutmeg in the New World. Other chapters explore issues relating to spices through interesting anecdotes. In one case, Turner recounts the death of Henry I after eating lamprey. Turner is not only trained in the classics but also clearly loves them. Classic and medieval subjects -- myths, literature, archaeology, religion, medicine -- dominate the text, and those drawn to these early eras will revel in them. Rome's lively interest in pepper (Piper nigrum) and other, more remote spices is fully documented. Though there is less evidence, the spice trade apparently declined after Rome fell, only to be revived by the Italian city states in the 9th century. But I, neither classicist nor medievalist, found the book so replete with detail as to be completely fatiguing. (Perhaps the afterword to the chapter titled "The spice of love" -- "How to Make a Small Penis Splendid" -- will wake up nodding readers.) Turner's epilogue chronicles the theft of cloves and other spices from the Dutch Moluccas and their subsequent diffusion to the tropical colonies of rival powers, which soon became new sources of supply, marking what the author calls the end of the spice age. By the 17th century, Turner tells us, sugar (described here as a novelty) and the capsicums from the New World were gaining global notice. Meanwhile the old magic of spices, once rare and costly products of a mythical paradise, had vanished. *

Sidney W. Mintz is research professor of anthropology at Johns Hopkins University and author of "Worker in the Cane," "Sweetness and Power" and "Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom."