Life and death: the secret story of nutmeg
Whether it’s sprinkled on eggnog, baked into spice cake or blended into a latte, nutmeg can evoke memories of holidays past. We tend to link this pungent spice to celebratory times.
But a lot of blood has been shed over this little brown seed. “Nutmeg has been one of the saddest stories of history,” explains culinary historian Michael Krondl. If you listen to my story you’ll hear the gruesome, grisly tale of how the Dutch tortured and massacred the people of the nutmeg-producing Banda Islands in Indonesia in an attempt to monopolize the nutmeg trade.
So, why was nutmeg so valuable? Well, Krondl likens it to the iPhone of the 1600s. It was fashionable among the wealthy. It was exotic and potent enough to induce hallucinations — or at least a nutmeg bender, as detailed in this account from The Atlantic.
“Nutmeg really does have chemical constituents that make you feel good,” explains culinary historian Kathleen Wall of the Plimoth Plantation. And traditionally, we turn to nutmeg (along with cloves and cinnamon) this time of year because these spices — as the settlers to the colonies believed — can help warm us up and even help us fight off head colds and stomachaches.
In the 1600s, “the Dutch and the British were kind of shadowing each other all over the globe,” explains Cornell historian Eric Tagliacozzo. They were competing for territory and control of the spice trade. In 1667, after years of battling, they sat down to hash out a treaty.
“Both had something that the other wanted,” explains Krondl. The British wanted to hold onto Manhattan, which they’d managed to gain control of a few years earlier. And the Dutch wanted the last nutmeg-producing island that the British controlled, as well as territory in South America that produced sugar.
In other words: The Dutch traded Manhattan, which wasn’t so important in those days, to get nutmeg and sugar….