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Let’s Spice Things Up – Spices Used in Colonial America and the Early Republic.


“Variety is the spice of life.”  “Let’s spice things up.”  “Travel is the spice of life.”  From these common sayings it is obvious that spices have played a key role in the European world, and English-speaking society for quite some time.  But before we begin, we need to talk about what is a “spice” and what is an herb.

Herbs are typically considered the leafy part of the plant, such as basil, rosemary, thyme, parsley, cilantro, and oregano.  Spices, on the other hand, typically come from the root, stem, seed, fruit, flower or bark of a plant or tree.  In the past, we have posted an article on the herbs that you might find in a Colonial or Early American garden, so they will not be addressed in this article.  Because of this, in today’s article we are just going to examine the types of spices that appear in cookbooks published here in America, which, based upon their appearance in those cookbooks, we must assume were being imported at this period.


The Spice Trade

Ancient Indonesian sailors who established routes from Southeast Asia to Sri Lanka and India (and later China) by 1500 BC.  These goods were then transported by land towards the Mediterranean and the Greco-Roman world by Indian and Persian traders.  Arab traders eventually took over conveying goods via the Levant and Venetian merchants to Europe.  From the 8th until the 15th century, maritime republics (Republic of Venice, Republic of Pisa, Republic of Genoa, Duchy of Amalfi, Duchy of Gaeta, Republic of Ancona, and Republic of Ragusa) held a monopoly on European trade with the Middle East.  This trade, involving spices, incense, herbs, drugs, and opium, made these Mediterranean city-states extremely wealthy.  Spices were among the most expensive and in-demand products of the Middle Ages, used in medicine as well as in the kitchen.

Medevial Italian Spice Merchants
Medevial Italian Spice Merchants

Spices were sold directly to merchants from the north, shipped up the Po Valley on barges, and carried over the Alps to Germany and France by mule.  Venetian galleys also sailed to London and Bruges through the Strait of Gibraltar.  The British East India Company (EIC) was established in 1600.  The company was given a royal monopoly over all trade east of The Cape of Good Hope, the southern tip of Africa.  The EIC challenged the Dutch East India Company's monopoly on the spice trade by establishing its own trading posts and forts in the region.  With the success of the EIC, and people returning from service in the East having developed a taste for a cuisine containing spices, spices began to become a part of everyday British cuisine and London became a spice mecca.

As spices became more available, they became fixtures of everyday cooking, though they were still costly.  Samuel Pepys records multiple instances of backstreet deals for nutmeg and cinnamon.  One of the first recipes for curry, written in English, was published in the 1747 edition of Hannah Glasse’s “The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy”:


TAKE two small Chickens, skin them and cut them as for a Fricasey, wash them clean , and stew them in about a Quart of Water, for about five Minutes, then strain off the Liquor and put the Chickens in a clean Dish ; take three large Onions, chop them small and fry them in about two Ounces of Butter, then put in the Chickens and fry them together till they are brown, take a quarter of an Ounce of Turmerick , a large Spoonful of Ginger and beaten Pepper together, and a little Salt to your Palate ; strew all these Ingredients over the Chickens whilst it is frying, then pour in the Liquor, and let it stew about half an Hour, then put in a quarter of a Pint of Cream ,and the Juice of two Lemons, and serve it up. The Ginger, Pepper, and Turmerick must be beat Very fine.


Spices in America

The English penchant for spices followed them across the ocean to North America as did the English cookbooks.  However, it was not until 1796 that someone dared to tackle the question of “what is American food?”.  That is when Ameila Simmons cookbook, American Cookery, was first published in Hartford, Conn.  Before American Cookery, colonial cooks only had access to cookbooks that were reprints of popular British works, like The Complete Housewife by Eliza Smith, which was first published in London in 1727.  American Cookery is considered important to American history because it honors European cooking traditions while also introducing new American recipes and approaches.


So, What Spices Were used in Colonial America and the Early Republic?

In order to answer this question, we surveyed the recipes in six (6) cookbooks written and published in the United States: American Cookery (1796), New England Cookery (1808), American Domestic Cookery (1823), The American Frugal Housewife (1833), The Virginia Housewife (1836), and The Kentucky Housewife (1839).  While our survey may not be totally comprehensive , it does reflect many spices used in European cooking in North America during this period.


Black Pepper (Piper nigrum) – Is a flowering vine, cultivated for its fruit, the peppercorn.  Peppercorns and the ground pepper derived from them may be described simply as pepper, or more precisely as black pepper (cooked and dried unripe fruit), green pepper (dried unripe fruit), or white pepper (ripe fruit seeds).

Black Pepper (Piper nigrum)
Black Pepper (Piper nigrum)

Black pepper is native to South Asia and Southeast Asia.  It has been known to Indian cooking since at least 2000 BC.  Pepper was so valuable that it was often used as collateral or even currency and the taste for pepper was passed on to those who saw Rome fall.  Alaric, king of the Visigoths, included 3,000 pounds of pepper as part of the ransom he demanded from Rome when he besieged the city in the fifth century.

Its exorbitant price during the Middle Ages – and the monopoly on the trade held by Venice – was one of the inducements that led the Portuguese to seek a sea route to India.  The Portuguese monopolized the spice trade for 150 years to the point where Portuguese even became the lingua franca of the then known world.  The spice trade made Portugal rich.

In the 17th century, the Portuguese lost most of their valuable Indian Ocean trade to the Dutch and the English, who, taking advantage of the Spanish rule over Portugal during the Iberian Union (1580–1640), occupied by force most Portuguese interests in the area.  The pepper ports of Malabar began to trade increasingly with the Dutch in the period 1661–1663.  As pepper supplies into Europe increased, the price of pepper declined (though the total value of the import trade generally did not).  Pepper, which in the early Middle Ages had been an item exclusively for the rich, started to become more of an everyday seasoning among those of more average means.

Carraway Seed (Carum cavi) – The word 'caraway' refers to its origin in the province Caria in Asia Minor.  Caraway may have been Europe's oldest condiment.  Evidence found in lake dwellings in Switzerland suggests it dates back at least 5,000 years.  The Romans get credit for spreading the seeds throughout Europe in their conquering travels, and it was cultivated in Europe from Sicily to Scandinavia since the Middle Ages.

Carraway Seed (Carum cavi)
Carraway Seed (Carum cavi)

Caraway seeds have been used medicinally since ancient times, and were used by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans to treat a variety of ailments.  References found in German medical books dating back to the 12th century cite it as a stomach tonic as well as a remedy for flatulence and colic.

In the kitchen, caraway seeds have been used to season meat dishes, cheese, pickling, vegetable dishes such as sauerkraut and coleslaw, and potato dishes like potato salad.  In baking, besides in rye bread, caraway turns up in biscuits and cakes, including some versions of Irish soda bread and British seed cake, where it is folded into the poundcake-like batter.  Caraway seeds can also be used in North African harissa paste, north Indian curries, and the Arabic spice mixture tabil.

Caraway seed was a common ingredient in English baked goods such as seed cakes and cookies.  An example of this use from American Cookery (1796) follows:


Rub one pound of sugar, half an ounce allspice into four quarts flour, into which pour one pound butter, melted in one pint milk, nine eggs, one gill emptins, (carroway seed and currants, or raisins if you please) make into two loaves, bake one and a half hour.

Cayanne Pepper - Cayenne peppers are a type of Capsicum annuum, which also includes bell peppers, jalapeños, and pimientos.  They originated in French Guiana, north of Brazil, and are named after the native Tupi word for the chili.  It was cultivated in Mexico 7,000 years ago and in Peru 4,000 years ago.  Spanish explorers discovered the peppers in the 15th century and brought them back to Europe with Christopher Columbus.  The seed’s long viability quickly spread around the world throughout the tropics and subtropics by Spanish and Portuguese explorers.  The spice was introduced to England from India  By the 1500s, cayenne pepper was a highly prized spice globally, rivaling peppercorn. 

Cayanne Pepper (Capsicum annuum)
Cayanne Pepper (Capsicum annuum)

Cayenne peppers have been used for centuries as a folk remedy for a variety of ailments, including arthritis, indigestion, heart disease, respiratory ailments, toothaches, and digestive issues.

Cinnamon - Cinnamon is a spice obtained from the inner bark of several tree species from the genus Cinnamomum.  Only a few Cinnamomum species are grown commercially for spice.  Cinnamomum verum (alternatively C. zeylanicum), known as "Ceylon cinnamon" after its origins in Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), is considered to be "true cinnamon", but most cinnamon in international commerce is derived from four other species, usually and more correctly referred to as "cassia": C. burmanni (Indonesian cinnamon or Padang cassia), C. cassia (Chinese cinnamon or Chinese cassia), C. loureiroi (Saigon cinnamon or Vietnamese cassia), and the less common C. citriodorum (Malabar cinnamon).

Cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum)
Cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum)

Cinnamon was imported to Egypt as early as 2000 BC, but those who reported that it had come from China had confused it with Cinnamomum cassia, a related species.  Cinnamon was so highly prized among ancient nations that it was regarded as a gift fit for monarchs and even for a deity; an inscription records the gift of cinnamon and cassia to the temple of Apollo at Miletus.  Its source was kept a trade secret in the Mediterranean world for centuries by those in the spice trade, to protect their monopoly as suppliers.

Through the Middle Ages, the source of cinnamon remained a mystery to the Western world.  From reading Latin writers who quoted Herodotus, Europeans had learned that cinnamon came up the Red Sea to the trading ports of Egypt, but where it came from was less than clear.  When the Sieur de Joinville accompanied his king, Louis IX of France to Egypt on the Seventh Crusade in 1248, he reported—and believed—what he had been told: that cinnamon was fished up in nets at the source of the Nile out at the edge of the world.

Indonesian rafts transported cinnamon directly from the Moluccas to East Africa, where local traders then carried it north to Alexandria in Egypt.  Venetian traders from Italy held a monopoly on the spice trade in Europe, distributing cinnamon from Alexandria.  The disruption of this trade by the rise of other Mediterranean powers, such as the Mamluk sultans and the Ottoman Empire, was one of many factors that led Europeans to search more widely for other routes to Asia.

During the 1500s, Ferdinand Magellan, while searching for spices on behalf of Spain; found Cinnamomum mindanaense, which was closely related to C. zeylanicum, the cinnamon found in Sri Lanka, in the Philippines.  This cinnamon eventually competed with Sri Lankan cinnamon, which was controlled by the Portuguese.  In 1638, Dutch traders established a trading post in Sri Lanka, took control of the manufactories by 1640, and expelled the remaining Portuguese by 1658.  A Dutch Captain reported,

"The shores of the island are full of it, and it is the best in all the OrientWhen one is downwind of the island, one can still smell cinnamon eight leagues out to sea."

The Dutch East India Company continued to overhaul the methods of harvesting in the wild and eventually began to cultivate its own trees.  In 1767, Lord Brown of the British East India Company established the Anjarakkandy Cinnamon Estate near Anjarakkandy in the Kannur district of Kerala, India.  It later became Asia's largest cinnamon estate.  The British took control of Ceylon from the Dutch in 1796.

Cloves (Syzygium aromaticum) - Cloves are native to the Moluccas, or Spice Islands, of Indonesia, where they have grown for thousands of years without human intervention.  Archaeological evidence suggests that cloves reached India by 1700 BC, and we can find additional clues about the history of cloves by studying their integration into the cuisine and cultures of other countries in Asia where we find cloves have widespread traditional use in China and Japan, where they are used to make incense and perfume.

Cloves (Syzygium aromaticum)
Cloves (Syzygium aromaticum)

By the first century AD, traders had learned to sail westward across the Indian Ocean on the steady monsoon winds, carrying cloves and other spices from Southeast Asia to North Africa.  From there, overland routes brought spices to the Mediterranean Sea, where they could be distributed to markets throughout the Roman Empire.  When Rome lost control of North Africa in the seventh century, a new trading route was established through the Middle East to what is now Turkey.

Trade along that route flourished for 800 years, until it was interrupted by the rise of the Ottoman Turks.  Without an overland connection to the Indian Ocean, Europe lost its supply of precious Asian spices.  As the nations of Middle-Ages Europe became desperate to reestablish the spice trade, they launched expeditions to chart new maritime routes, beginning the Age of Discovery.

As the world’s powerful nations began to expand and colonize territories overseas, the Spice Islands were the prize they coveted most.  Through a series of bloody conflicts, the Dutch seized and controlled the Spice Islands for 350 years.  In their quest to monopolize the supply of cloves forever, the Dutch established plantations to the south on the well-fortified island of Ambon.  Once those plantations were able to adequately supply global markets, Dutch soldiers began burning all clove trees in their native range of North Maluku.  However, by the early 1800’s, the French established a smuggling operation to transport clove tree seedlings to the islands of Zanzibar and Pemba.

Fortunes were made in the East Indian and Spice Island trade, since precious spices brought huge rewards to successful importers.  The glittering wealth of the Portuguese and Spanish courts, of Italian port cities, Dutch trading firms, German bankers and British speculators was followed by the extraordinarily successful entry in 1672 of the United States into the spice trade.  In 1797, Captain Jonathan Carnes sailed into Salem, Massachusetts from Indonesia with a large load of pepper, which made Salem the center of the spice trade in North America.  Elihu Yale, a former clerk for the British East India Company in Madras, India, started his own spice business and made a fortune that he later used to establish Yale University.  Interestingly, Yale is in Connecticut, which was nicknamed the Nutmeg State, since enterprising merchants were able to sell fake nutmegs made of wood to unsuspecting purchasers who valued the spice.

Coriander (Coriandrum sativum) – This herb is also known as Cilantro.  All parts of the plant are edible, but the fresh leaves and the dried seeds are the parts most traditionally used in cooking.  Most people perceive coriander leaves as having a tart, lemon/lime taste, but some individuals perceive the leaves to have a soapy, pungent, or rotten taste.

Fifteen desiccated mericarps (seeds) were found in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B level (six to eight thousand years ago) of the Nahal Hemar Cave, and eleven from ~8,000–7,500 years ago in Pre-Pottery Neolithic C in Atlit-Yam, both in Israel.  About 500 milliliters (17 US fl oz) of coriander mericarps were recovered from the tomb of Tutankhamen, and because this plant does not grow wild in Egypt, this find is often interpreted as proof that coriander was cultivated by the ancient Egyptians.  Additionally, an Egyptian text dated around 1550 BC, mentioned uses of coriander.

Coriander (Coriandrum sativum)
Coriander (Coriandrum sativum)

Coriander seems to have been cultivated in Greece since at least the second millennium BC.  The plant was brought to Italy by the Romans from Egypt.  The ancient Greeks and Romans embraced the herb and introduced it to other parts of Europe.  It made its way to the Indian subcontinent, where it became a staple in Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi cuisines, adding its distinctive flavor to various dishes.  During the Middle Ages, coriander gained prominence in European cuisine.  It was widely used in both sweet and savory dishes and was an essential ingredient in the production of beer and spirits.  The aromatic properties of coriander made it a popular choice for masking unpleasant flavors in preserved foods.  As European explorers set sail to discover new lands, they brought along coriander seeds as a source of sustenance.  This resulted in the spice finding its way to the Americas, Africa, and Asia.  The herb quickly adapted to these new environments, establishing itself as an integral part of local cuisines.

Cumin Seed (Cuminum cyminum) - Cumin seed is a tiny, dried fruit that comes from a small Umbelliferae plant belonging to the same plant family as celery, parsley, carrots, dill, and caraway.  Likely originating in Central Asia, Southwestern Asia, or the Eastern Mediterranean, cumin has been in use as a spice for thousands of years.

Cumin Seed (Cuminum cyminum)
Cumin Seed (Cuminum cyminum)

This plant is native to the Mediterranean region and Egypt.  Cumin was made popular by the Greeks and Romans.  In early times, it was tied to superstitions, utilized in home remedies, and was employed in religious and political ceremonies.  Seeds excavated in Syria were dated to the second millennium BC.  Cumin was a significant spice for the Minoans in ancient Crete.  Ideograms for cumin appear in Linear A archive tablets documenting Minoan palace stores during the Late Minoan period.  The ancient Greeks kept cumin at the dining table in its own container (much as pepper is frequently kept today), and this practice continues in Morocco.  Cumin was often used (and bartered for) as a household spice and Black Pepper substitute in ancient Rome.

In 13th-century England, landlords would accept a pound of cumin and a pound of pepper as rent for a year, and the household of King Henry III would buy 20 pounds at a time.  Cumin was a symbol of love and fidelity in medieval Europe.  People would fill their pockets with cumin to attend weddings, and soldiers' wives would send their husbands off to war with cumin bread.  Cumin peaked in popularity in Europe and Britain in the Middle Ages, and slowly lost prevalence in that market.  However, it remained popular in the Middle East and North Africa.  Cumin’s use in Spain can be traced back to 857 CE in al-Andalus when Abbasid (Arab) culinary traditions were transferred to Iberia.  Cumin was introduced to the Americas by Spanish and Portuguese colonists.

Ginger (Zingiber officinale) - The first written record of ginger comes from the Analects, written by the Disciples of Confucius in China.  In it, Confucius was said to eat ginger with every meal.  In 406, the monk Faxian wrote that ginger was grown in pots and carried by Chinese ships to prevent scurvy. 

Ginger (Zingiber officinale)
Ginger (Zingiber officinale)

Ginger was introduced to the Mediterranean by the Arabs and described by writers like Pliny the Elder (24–79).  In 150, Ptolemy noted that ginger was produced in Ceylon (Sri Lanka).  Ginger was imported into the Roman Empire as part of extremely expensive herbal remedies for the kidneys that only the wealthy could afford.  Raw and preserved ginger was imported into Europe in increased quantity during the Middle Ages after European tastes shifted favorably towards its culinary properties; during this time, ginger was described in the official pharmacopeias of several countries.  In 14th century England, a pound of ginger cost as much as a sheep.

Archaeological evidence of ginger in northwest Europe comes from the wreck of the Danish-Norwegian flagship, Gribshunden.  The ship sank off the southern coast of Sweden in the summer of 1495 while conveying King Hans to a summit with the Swedish Council.  Among the luxuries carried on the ship were ginger, cloves, saffron, and pepper.  By 1707, most of the Ginger, which was shipped to Europe and their colonies, originated in the West Indies.  As a result, ginger has been associated with American cooking since colonial times.  It is reported that, during the American Revolution, soldiers were sometimes given ginger in their food rations.

Wild Ginger (Asarum caudatum) - Native to North America, both Native Americans and early European settlers used wild ginger.  Native Americans used the roots to treat a variety of ailments, including colds, headaches, urinary disorders, and scarlet fever.  Early settlers ground the dried roots into a powder to use as a spice, and also cooked them in sugar water to make candied ginger.  The leftover liquid could be boiled down into a syrup to use on pancakes and other foods.

Wild Ginger (Asarum caudatum)
Wild Ginger (Asarum caudatum)

Jamacia Pepper (Allspice) – Jamacia Pepper, also known as Allspice, Myrtle Pepper, Pimenta, or Pimento, is the dried unripe berry of Pimenta dioica, a mid-canopy tree native to the Greater Antilles, southern Mexico, and Central America.  Christopher Columbus became aware of allspice on his second voyage to the New World .  Columbus was seeking peppers and other common spices of the day, such as cinnamon and cloves, but he had never seen real pepper plants, so when he found Allspice in Jamaica in the beginning of 16th century, he gave it the name of Jamaica Pepper and the spice soon became part of European diets.  The name allspice was coined as early as 1621 by the English, who valued it as a spice that combined the flavors of cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove.

Jamaica Pepper (Pimenta dioica)
Jamaica Pepper (Pimenta dioica)

Even though it had a rich smell and a tasty flavor, allspice never had the same caché in Europe as cinnamon or pepper.  The English started taking the spice by ship to England in 1737, but by that time the want for spices had been taken over by other kinds of products such as sugar and coffee.  It was still popular in England though, where it came to be known as the English Spice.  It has been said that in the Napoleonic war of 1812, Russian soldiers put the spice in their boots to keep their feet warm.

Initially, it was found only on the island of Jamaica, where birds readily spread the seeds.  To protect the pimenta trade, Jamaican growers guarded against export of the plant.  Many attempts at growing the pimenta from seeds were reported, but all failed.  Eventually, passage through the avian digestive tract, whether due to the acidity or the elevated temperature, was found to be essential for germinating the seeds, and successful germination elsewhere was enabled.

Long Pepper (Piper longum) - Long pepper, also known as pippali, Bengal pepper, and Indonesian pepper, is a cone-shaped spice that originated in South Asia.  It reached Greece in the sixth or fifth century BCE, though Hippocrates discussed it as a medicament rather than a spice.  Among the Greeks and Romans and prior to the Columbian exchange, long pepper was an important and well-known spice.  The ancient history of black pepper is often interlinked with (and confused with) that of long pepper.

Long Pepper (Piper longum)
Long Pepper (Piper longum)

Long pepper was a popular spice in ancient Greece and Rome, and later spread to greater Europe, where it was used in cooking and to make the mulled medicinal wine hippocras until the 1500s.  Due to the challenge of growing the plant outside its native home, and the subsequent higher price, long pepper gradually became less popular than black pepper.  Their flavor is like black pepper but with more complexity.  They are sweeter, not as hot, and have a citrusy bite like Szechuan peppercorns.  After Columbus brought back allspice and chili peppers from the Americas, the use of long peppers began to fade in European cuisine.

We can see that Long Pepper continued to be used well into the 19th century by the following recipe from The Virginia Housewife (1836):


One pound of ginger sliced and dried, one of horseradish scraped and dried, one ounce of long pepper, an ounce of mage, and one of nutmegs finely pounded; put all these ingredients in a pot, pour two gallons of strong vinegar on, and let it stand twelve months, stirring it very frequently.  When this vinegar is used for pickles, put two gallons more vinegar, with some mace and nutmegs, and keep it for another year.  When the prepared vinegar is poured from the ingredients, do it very carefully, that it may be quite clear.  Pickles keep much better when the vinegar is not boiled.  Should green pickles at any time lose their color, it may be restored by adding a little mor turmeric.  All pickles are best, when one or two years old.

Mace (Myristicaceae fragrans) - Mace is the spice made from the reddish seed covering (aril) of the nutmeg seed.  In the processing of mace, the crimson-colored aril is removed from the nutmeg seed that it envelops and is flattened out and dried for 10 to 14 days.  Its color changes to pale yellow, orange, or tan.  Whole dry mace consists of flat pieces—smooth, horn-like, and brittle, about 1½ in. long.  Its flavor is like that of nutmeg but more delicate.

Mace (Myristicaceae fragrans)
Mace (Myristicaceae fragrans)

Mace is native to the Moluccas Islands, or Spice Islands of Indonesia.  In the sixth century AD, nutmeg use spread to India, then further west to Constantinople.[20] By the 13th century, Arab traders had pinpointed the origin of nutmeg and mace to the Banda Islands but kept this location a secret from European traders.  In August 1511, Afonso de Albuquerque conquered Malacca, which at the time was the hub of Asian trade, on behalf of the king of Portugal.  To obtain a monopoly on the production and trade of nutmeg, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) waged a bloody battle for control of the Banda Islands and constructed a comprehensive nutmeg plantation system on the islands during the 17th century.  during the Napoleonic Wars, the British invaded and temporarily took control of the Banda Islands from the Dutch and transplanted nutmeg trees, complete with soil, to Sri Lanka, Penang, Bencoolen, and Singapore.

Here is a recipe for Shrewsbury Cakes featuring Mace from American Cookery (1796):


One pound butter, three quarters of a pound sugar, a little mace, four eggs mixed and beat with your hand, til very light, put the composition to one pound flour, roll into small cakes – bake with a light oven.

N.B. In all cases where spices are named, it is supposed that they be pounded fine and sifted; sugar must be dried and rolled fine; flouf, dryed in an oven; eggs well beat or whipped into a raging foam.

Mustard - Mustard seeds are the small round seeds of various mustard plants.  Among the most common for making mustard condiments are black mustard (Brassica nigra) originating from the Middle East and Asia Minor; brown Indian mustard (Brassica juncea) from the Himalayas; and white/yellow mustard (Brassica hirta) from the Mediterranean basin. 

Mustard Seed
Mustard Seed

Archaeological evidence suggests that the ancient Egyptians also flavored their food with mustard, as shown by mustard seeds being found in the tomb of Tutankhamun.  To create mustard condiments, “the Romans ground mustard seeds and mixed them with wine into a paste not much different from the prepared mustards we know today.” The use of the seed spread to Gaul, took root in Europe, and was there even before the commerce of spices traveled from Asia.  In Europe, the French monasteries cultivated and sold mustard as early as the ninth century, and the condiment was for sale in Paris by the thirteenth century.  Mustard appeared in Spain with the arrival of the Roman legions, then in India with Vasco de Gama.  Around AD 1000, Pope John XII loved mustard so much that he created a Vatican position for a mustard maker, grand moutardier du pape (mustard-maker to the pope), who came from the Dijon region.

By the 1770s, mustard took a modern turn when Maurice Grey and Antoine Poupon introduced it to the world as Grey Poupon Dijon mustard.  Their original store can still be seen in downtown Dijon in eastern France.  In the early 19th century, the British became the world’s first mustard millers – milling the heart of the mustard seed to a fine powder and they established mustard as an industrial food ingredient.

Nutmeg (Myristicaceae fragrans) - Nutmeg is the seed, or the ground spice derived from that seed, of several tree species of the genus Myristica.  For the history of nutmeg see the entry above for Mace which is a related spice.

Nutmeg (Myristicaceae fragrans)
Nutmeg (Myristicaceae fragrans)

Turmeric (Curcuma longa) - The use of turmeric dates back nearly 4000 years to the Vedic culture in India, where it was used as a culinary spice and had some religious significance.  Because of its brilliant yellow color, turmeric is also known as “Indian saffron.”  Turmeric has been in Europe for at least 500 years, arriving as early as the 13th century through Arab traders.  However, some scholars believe it may have been present in Europe in antiquity, as it was mentioned by the Greek physician Dioscorides (40 CE–90 CE).  Turmeric was also known and used in the Byzantine Empire and may have reached Constantinople by land in the 6th century along the Silk Roads.

Turmeric (Curcuma longa)
Turmeric (Curcuma longa)

By the 1400s, the spice was being imported into Europe in copious quantities; Joan Thirsk describes how by 1428, turmeric was a “now familiar” spice imported to Italy.  Turmeric root became a familiar sight in Britain.  In the 1730s the Scottish amateur botanist and illustrator Elizabeth Blackwell included ‘turmerick’ in her extraordinary A Curious Herbal – 500 illustrations of medicinal plants that she drew, engraved and coloured by hand, all done to fund her ne’er-do-well husband’s release from a London debtor’s prison.  She drew the turmeric roots from what was on sale ‘in ye shops.’  The flowers and leaves were copied from a specimen she acquired from Hortus Botanicus, the botanical garden in Leiden, the Netherlands, where indigenous Indian medicinal garden plots were recreated with specimens imported by the Dutch East India Company.

Other evidence exists of turmeric’s popularity in 18th century England.  The root was also used to color pickled melons, to make them seem like mangoes, allowing ‘participation in the Empire through food’ for those who had not travelled to India.  This use of turmeric in pickling followed the English to North America where it appears in recipes such as the following one from The Virginia Housewife”:


Put all the articles intended for the yellow pickle in a pot, and pour on them boiling salt and water – let them stand forty-eight hours, take advantage of a clear hot day, press the water from the articles, and lay them to dry in full sunshine, on a table covered with a thick soft cloth, with the corners pinned securely, that they may not blow up over the things – the cloth absorbs the moisture; and by turning them frequently on a dry place, they become white, and receive the color of the turmeric more readily – one day of clear sunshine is enough to prepare them for the first vinegar..   When dried, put them in a pot of plain cold vinegar, with a little turmeric in it – let them remain in it for two weeks to draw off the water from them and make them plump – then pt them in a clean pot, and pour on the vinegar, prepared by the directions for TO PREPARE VINEGAR FOR GREEN OR YELLOW PICKLE.  This is the most economical and best way of keeping them – mix the turmeric very smoothly, before you add it to your pickles.

We hope you enjoyed today's post “Spices Used in Colonial America and the Early Republic.”  We hope this will interest you in exploring the use of some of these spices and maybe even trying out one or two of the recipes we included.  Please join us again next month for another look into life in Colonial America and the Early United States.

Until then, while you are here on our website, we would also encourage you to join our blog community (Look for the button in the upper right-hand corner of this post).  This will allow us to inform you when we post new articles.  We also suggest that you return to our blog home page and sample our other articles on a wide variety of late-18th and early-19th century subjects; both military and civilian.

Finally, if you live in Virginia, Maryland, or North Carolina, we invite you to visit The Norfolk Towne Assembly’s home page to learn more about us, what we do, and how you can get involved in our historic dance, public education, and living history efforts.



Braudel, F. (1992).  Civilization and Capitalism, 15th - 18th Century, Vol III.  Berkeley: University of California Press.

Bryan, L. (1839).  The Kentucky Housewife.  Cincinnati: Shepard & Stearns.

Child, L. M. (1830).  The Frugal Housewife.  Boston: Carter & Hundee.

Donkin, R. A. (2003).  Between East and West: The Moluccas and the Traffic in Spices Up to the Arrival of Europeans.  Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society.

Emerson, L. (1808).  New England Cookery.  Montpelier: Josiah Parks.

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