The Business Standard: Spices are often credited for transforming the ancient world. What are your views on that?
Paul Freedman: Both in the ancient and the medieval world, spices were heavily used in cuisine. If you look at the surviving recipes, the food of Europe from that period resembles more what would now be perhaps the food of North Africa – a lot of spices, a large quantity, and blends.
In Rome, whereas the flavours were sharp and bitter in the past, in the middle ages they were sweeter as you would have sugar added to spices. The demand for spices was not only for gastronomical reasons, but also for the medicinal powers attributed to spices. They were good for you, partly to prevent disease, and partly to treat illness. So, this demand means that there was a fascination with where these spices came from; and eventually a concern.
The Romans had trade relations with the western coast of India from the red seaports in Egypt. But in the middle ages, with the rise of Islam, they had no (at least easy) direct contact with the sources of most of the spices they prized – which would be South Asia and Southeast Asia.
So the transformation, of course, is really at the end of the middle ages; first with the Portuguese Vasco da Gama voyage. That was the first all-water trip to India, and even though he lost a ship and half of his crew, it was very profitable because of all the pepper he brought back.
TBS: So, all these powerful empires of that time – the Portuguese, the Dutch, the British and the Islamic world – had been hunting spices across the globe. So, that sort of created a structure for international trade and globalisation?
PF: Globalisation, both in economic and cultural terms, is ancient. In the early 16th century, a Portuguese observer (Tome Pires) said that "Whoever is the Lord of Malacca has his hand on the throat of Venice."
In other words, it was the same kind of geopolitical things that we see now, you know, who has the oil, who has the kinds of metals needed for computer chips, who has strategic control over distant places. Venice depended on the spice trade, and the Straits of Malacca controlled things like cloves and nutmeg and an awful lot of pepper, which had to go through there. You can see the Portuguese Empire, which was mostly bases and not land, as Portugal is such a small country. So how were they going to be able to hold pieces of western India?
They carved out their base in Goa, they carved out a base in Indonesia (what is now East Timor), Macau, and Malacca, for a while. And these bases were designed to guarantee a monopoly on the trade of precious products, which were spices, but also things like camphor, aloe wood, or other rare and aromatic products.
TBS: So can we credit the spice trade for today's globalisation?
PF: I think globalisation is even older, and historians see the influence of civilisations on each other from even before. So, I would not say that spice trade is the first manifestation, but it accelerated and extended its reach. The arrival of the European in the new world – what used to be called the discovery of the New World – increased the range of globalisation radically.
What we have seen in modern globalisation of our time, is that the velocity and the complexity of the interdependence has grown.
And I would emphasise that the older globalisation is based on a kind of product that is not necessary. In other words, things like petroleum are essential for the contemporary world to survive. Many countries depend on imported grains or food products. But with spices, we are dealing with something that is not necessary to live. So it is not just strategic products that change history. It is what might seem like optional, or frivolous products, that have a cataclysmic effect.
TBS: What about colonialism? Is spice trade connected with colonialism? And if it is, how?
PF: It is, in the sense that I just mentioned of the Portuguese, who in the 16th century based a lot of their colonial empire on spices.
It is not for the Spanish, because the Spanish, although looking for spices, ended up in the Americas. What they found in America was not so much spices, but golden silver in Mexico and the Andes. And then they didn't discover but they brought in sugar, and they were followed by other colonial powers. And sugar, much more than spices, turned out to be the most profitable product of the early colonial empires of the 16th and 17th centuries. And so, absolutely, spices created the circumstances for the European colonial empires.
By the time those empires expanded, for example, when they took over Bengal, spices were no longer as important. Things like tea plantations became important or the export of cloth to India, the mahogany from Central America, and a whole range of products.
Spices became less important in Europe; they became less important in the European diet and lost their medicinal reputation. So the irony is that spices built the colonial empire foundations, but they didn't actually build the structure.
TBS: When exactly did spice trade lose its relevance in history? Or has it lost its prestige and appeal at all?
PF: There are two answers. As I said, European cuisine changed in the 17th and 18th centuries, and became less spicy than before. Europeans came to regard spices as a weird attribute of places like the Middle East, South Asia, or Mexico.
The flavours of the European and the American food do not really depend on spices. Spices were a kind of exiled to desserts, to sweet things. For example, cinnamon had been in a huge percentage of European recipes of the 14th and 15th centuries but were eliminated by the 18th century, except for some desserts. There was a change in taste and gastronomy that reduced the demand for spices.
The second answer is just that other products became more important. For example, nutmeg in the United States comes mostly from the island of Grenada in the West Indies. In the early part of this century, when a hurricane destroyed much of the nutmeg crop, it did not create the same kind of crisis that wheat crops' failure would in the world.
Or the financial crisis that took place in 2007-08, where the price of essential commodities like rice or wheat skyrocketed, and many people died of hunger or suffered tremendous malnutrition; nobody cared about nutmeg.
TBS. Tell us about you. You are one of the best contemporary historians of mediaeval social history, the study of mediaeval peasants and mediaeval cuisine. What do you find so fascinating about them? What is the connection?
PF: So I'll start with an anecdote. A couple of years ago I gave a paper at the annual meeting of the Mediaeval Academy of America – the largest group of mediaeval studies scholars. And the paper was on two cookbooks from Catalonia of the late middle ages.
A colleague in the audience, someone I know, asked me a question and then followed it up with – 'and by the way, whatever happened to the Paul Freedman, of The Origins of Peasant Servitude in Mediaeval Catalonia (a book by Paul Freedman)?' And without thinking about an answer, what I said was, 'Having dedicated 30 years of my career to the study of the peasantry, I thought I would devote the rest of my research lifetime to studying rich people. Hence, things like spices.'
Well, that is not true. But it is to the extent that I was interested in the peasants' social history in terms of their economic and social position. And also in terms of how they were regarded by their social superiors. Because they were not just marginal people. They were not like Jews or heretics, or gay people in the middle ages, who could be described as at the margins of society.
They are the majority of the population, and they were necessary. The upper classes could not survive without their labour. In working on peasants and the image of peasants, I was struck by how often the making fun of them took the form of satire on their habits, and the kinds of foods they eat.
And so that prompted me to think about, you know, if dairy products and porridges and things like garlic lack prestige, and are associated with peasants, what kinds of foods are prestigious? What types of foods do you serve to show that you are a member of the upper classes? Obviously meat, but above all, spices. So the connection between cuisine and social history is how people position themselves with regard to status.
TBS: At least three of your books – American Cuisine: And How It Got This Way, Food: The History of Taste, Ten Restaurants That Changed America – are about foods and how they impact the society and history. What do you find so special about the relation between food and history?
PF: It is a marker of class as I said. But it is also a way of looking at so much of the social stratification, the race for example, in the United States.
What do the African American people eat? Or what do immigrants from Mexico or the Asians eat? And there are things like assimilation or the pressures of assimilation.
There have been studies on immigrants' children – what it means for them to bring food to school? Or children pressuring the parents to Americanise more with regard to food, that food becomes a kind of symbol. For example, do you celebrate American holidays with American foods that are alien to your cuisine? Are you going to have this big, massive turkey for Thanksgiving for example?
Well, there was a study actually about Bengali immigrants by a scholar named Krishnendu Ray. And he describes step by step how these people react to food. Beginning with 'forget about Thanksgiving, we're having what we usually have.' The next step is 'okay, we will have Turkey, but we are going to make it in a fashion that is familiar to us'. And then the third phase is like 'the heck with it. I will have this as a kind of weird dish.'
If you start looking at food, you see identity – how people position themselves as Americans versus as immigrants. The differences between what men and women like, who becomes a vegetarian, why do young people embrace vegetarianism? And why do they not kind of always keep it?
It just reveals something about society. For example, if you concentrate on countries' leaders and the military, political, or religious leaders, you do not really understand society. You have to consider the vast majority of people who are not of the upper class. Food gives you a sense of something necessary to people, but it is the way they position themselves.
For example, I ask students from other countries who make up about 10 or 15 percent of students at Yale, what they miss from home? And when I mention food they just have this look in their eyes…
I had a student from Bangladesh last year. She said that she couldn't get used to the blandness of the food. And also, to eating it with forks and knives and spoons – that somehow without using your hand – it is not like you are tasting the food. She said, as if it is intravenous. So, I never realised how much of my personality or identity was wrapped up in food, home, and familiarity.
TBS:For sure food says a lot about the land and its people. We Bengalis, for example, call ourselves 'Mache Bhaate Bangali', roughly translating to we are a fish-eating people, thanks to the abundance of fishes here, as we are a riverine people. So, my question is, before the spice trade, or even before the mediaeval period, what would the Americans eat? What is the America signature food that tells us about the land?
PF: Well, it depends on where they lived. So certainly in the plains, the Native American food would be buffalo. But in the eastern area, where there were no buffalos, there were forests. Probably it would be corn and maize. That is the crop that grows well in this climate. And that would also be true for what is now Mexico and the South Western United States. Some of these Indian or Pueblo cultures, as they're called, the people who lived in these Adobe villages seem to have eaten almost exclusively corn.
So I would say corn, buffalo, and generally a lot of fish. It is not only the coast, but there are areas with lots of rivers inside and, you know, unpolluted rivers.
TBS: What are you working on currently? What will be your next book?
PF: Well, I have a book that will come out in the fall. That is short and cold 'why food matters'. It is in a series being published by Yale University Press on why different things matter – for example, why architecture matters, or why translation matters.
So why food matters? In some respects it matters because we cannot survive without it physiologically. But it deals with what we have been talking about why food is important culturally. This book is coming, probably September or October of this year.