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Spice: The History of a Temptation Paperback – August 9, 2005

4.2 out of 5 stars 63 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

There was a time, for a handful of peppercorns, you could have someone killed. Throw in a nutmeg or two, you could probably watch. There was a time when grown men sat around and thought of nothing but black pepper. How to get it. How to get more. How to control the entire trade in pepper from point of origin to purchase. In Spice: The History of a Temptation, classics scholar Jack Turner opens up the whole story of pepper and its kind like a ripe melon. He brings the exotic scents of the East deep into the history of Western culture.

Everyone knows a little bit of the story, how the desire to control the spice trade drove Western nations deep into the heart of the Age of Discovery, the Portuguese sponsoring Da Gama's push to India; the Spanish underwriting the many attempts of Columbus to get to India another way. The Western madness for spice was just about peaking in this time, and spice would all too soon become--gasp--common, much like the afterthought condiment it is for so many today. Who thinks twice about pepper any longer?

And yet, the history is long and glorious, and the window spice throws open on Western culture yields a glorious view. Jack Turner is a skilled tour guide and story teller. He starts his narrative with the 16th century quest for spice, then loops back into three mains sections of text: Palate, Body, and Spirit. Turner has mined classic and Medieval literature for any and every possible mention of spice and demonstrates how fixated the West became from the time of Augustus in Rome through to relatively modern times. He winds his narrative through the way spice was used in the foods of the wealthy (and puts to sleep the nostrum about rotting food), as a medicine, a sex aid, and as an aromatic channel to the gods of the time and place. He ably demonstrates the constant underlying tension surrounding spice--that it was both attractive and repellent, that it represented fabulous wealth and power for some and, for others, an abhorrence of the exotic East that exists to this day.

This is not an easy story to tell. But Turner makes it appear effortless. Pull a chair close to the fire, pour a draught of spiced wine, crack open Jack Turner's Spice and you'll read your way into the wee hours of the night. --Schuyler Ingle --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Spices helped draw Europeans into their age of expansion, but the Western world was far from ignorant of them before that time. Turner's lively and wide-ranging account begins with the voyages of discovery, but demonstrates that, even in ancient times, spices from distant India and Indonesia made their way west and fueled the European imagination. Romans and medieval Europeans alike used Asian pepper, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and mace to liven their palates, treat their maladies, enhance their sex lives and mediate between the human and the divine. While many of these applications were not particularly efficacious, spices retained their allure, with an overlay of exotic associations that remain today. Turner argues that the use of rare and costly spices by medieval and Renaissance elites amounted to conspicuous consumption. He has perhaps a little too much fun listing the ridiculous uses of spices in medieval medicine—since, as he notes in a few sparse asides, some spices do indeed have medicinal effects—and fails to get into the real experience of the people. His account of religious uses, on the other hand, paints a richer picture and gets closer to imagining the mystery that people found in these startlingly intense flavors and fragrances. It is this mystery and the idea that sensations themselves have a history that make the entire book fascinating.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; unknown edition (August 9, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375707050
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375707056
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.8 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (63 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #40,320 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By John D. Cofield TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on December 21, 2004
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a nice, well written history of spices and their effects on humanity. Much of the book deals with the spice races of the 1400s and 1500s and the impact on the world and on Europe's rising power. Other sections deal with spices and their roles in history, cooking, romance, politics, religion, and war. The book is not arranged chronologically but instead in broad categories devoted to spices' various uses.

Turner is scholarly but also witty and informal in his writing. You will learn a lot and also have a lot of fun while reading his book.
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Format: Hardcover
There are already several very detailed reviews here about this book, so I'll avoid repeating what they said. I'll just add my four-star rating by saying that this is a surprisingly interesting and easy to read book, given the fact that the main topic is not something one might expect to be particularly captivating. But Turner's excellent writing style, combined with an amazing amount of research spanning several topics from history to religion, makes this a thoroughly enjoyable book from front to back. The only reason I didn't give it a full five stars was that, if anything, it's a bit too long and spends too much time going into excrutiating detail on minor points. I think the author could have shortened this book by nearly a hundred pages and still achieved the full effect he intended. However, he certainly does present an exhaustive discussion of this topic and I am amazed at how much I learned. One final note: Perusing through the bibliography after I finished, I was utterly astonished at the volume of research the author did for this book. I cannot imagine how much time he spent putting together this delightful book, though I'm certainly thankful for his efforts.
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Format: Hardcover
Three thousand years after one of the greatest of Egypt's pharaohs, Ramses II, was embalmed and put into his tomb, he was discovered to have a couple of peppercorns up his nose. This was in some ways unsurprising. The Egyptians used all sorts of spices to preserve the body so that the soul might wander back into it. But regarded historically, this is an astonishing use of pepper; the peppercorns were not any African species, not anything Ramses's lands had grown. The only source at the time was the tropical south of India; there must have been a previously unsuspected direct or circuitous trade route between the regions. No details about the route can now be known, except that it was part of the lucrative spice trade that for centuries powered economies and exploration. In _Spice: The History of a Temptation_ (Knopf), Jack Turner includes the story of the first known consumer of pepper along with hundreds of other facts as a way of looking at a part of human history that was vital and has been influential into our own times, but is now merely curious. Spices are high on the list of goods that have made the modern world.

Spices were costly and mysterious, and people thought that they came from Paradise itself, the place in the East from which Adam and Eve had been banished. It was to gain spices that Columbus sailed, and spices he did bring back, but they were disappointments; that did not stop the continued search for them, and the resultant expansion of the world. Turner shows that spices were not really used to help make old meat palatable; fresh meat was cheaper than spices. But they were used to improve wine, a use that became unnecessary after bottle and cork technology came in the sixteenth century.
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Format: Paperback
Spice, The History of a Temptation by Jack Turner is a very well written history of the spice trade, written in the popular history mode. A tremendous amount of research must have gone into this work as it is absolutely filled with little gems of detail and wonderful small side stories. There are a number of other books out there that deal with this subject. A recent one, Dangerous Tastes by Andrew Dalby comes to mind, but the work being reviewed here, unlike so many of the others, including the aforementioned, is not an imposing tome which reads more like a doctorial dissertation, than a readable story. If I want sleep, I can always increase my exercise or simply take some sort of pill. I read books such as this for information and to be entertained. They go hand in hand. With Spice I got just what I wanted.

With this work the author has given us a very readable history of spices and the spice trade, starting from the beginning dating back to ancient Egypt and beyond. Of course the majority of the book is rather Eurocentric, but hey, that is where the author was educated, did his research and wrote the book. I suppose if you want a history such as this that is not Eurocentric, then you should probably find a non European author! Anyway, the author has discussed at length the impact spice has had upon world civilization. It was the prime motivator during the Age of Discovery and of course an undeniable pillar of Western Civilization along with quite a number of other civilizations throughout history. Today we have oil; in days gone by we had spice!

The author's organization of the book is different, but once you get use to it, it does make sense. At times he will bounce around just a bit, from country to country; from civilization to civilization.
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