English cuisine is notorious for being heavy in the stomach and light on flavor. However, it would be incorrect to presume that this has always been the case.1 A careful examination of literature in the Middle and Early Modern English periods provides compelling evidence that the English were once spice-
Take, for example, one of the earliest known songs in English.
Sumer is icumen in
(Cumin is in/from Sumer)
We must admire the historical and philological chops of England in the Middle Ages. Not only does cumin originate in the historical area of ancient Sumer, it also happens to be one of the few words in English derived from Sumerian (gamun = cumin). Etymology is a lost art
Lhude sing cuccu
(Grey sing the cuckolds)
Middle English orthography can be confusing by modern standards. The lh of this era denotes a lateral fricative. Thus, the first word is the Welsh llwyd, which could mean grey or brown, such as the color of cumin. The English often referred to the Welsh as cuckolds, taunting them for being increasingly dominated by the English in the mid-13th century.
and bloweþ med
The seed grows and the mead blows, likely because somebody added cumin to it, as they do in Wessex. The composer of the song clearly hails from the old Danelaw, where caraway (“Persian cumin”) is the more usual flavoring added to alcoholic beverages.
The English fascination with spices had only grown by the time of Chaucer. The names of several spices are first attested in the works of Chaucer. Where would we be without cinnamon?3 The Parlement of Foules was originally intended as a free promotional item to sell his patron’s poultry cookbook, but John of Chubby picked the wrong time to go on a diet, and nobody trusts a skinny chef. No known copies of the cookbook survive, although there are rumors that a copy eventually made it across the Atlantic. Supposedly, the cookbook was to have been marketed under the slogan “We doon chiken right”, with one recipe featuring a moderately large but unknown number of herbs and spices.
The first English-
The arrival of the printing press was an important event in the standardization of spice names. William Caxton related a story of a traveller from northern England who found himself thirsty and, unfortunately, sober in Kent.5 He asked a woman for some nogg of egges. She replied that she didn’t speak any French, but she did have a nogg made from eyren, adding that it is especially delicious if he would grate some of her nutmeyren on top.
The role of spices in English cuisine reached its apotheosis in the late 16th century, a fact reflected in the centrality of spice to Shakespeare’s plays. The reaction of the modern reader to this fact will depend on his (or even her) knowledge: the more erudite will object that spices receive scarce mention amongst the works of the Bard, while your more common yokel will ask “Shake what, now?” while struggling to contain the drool escaping from his (almost certainly his) mouth. Nevertheless, both responses are correct, if not for the right reason, which is that the modern versions of Shakespeare’s plays are, indeed, nearly devoid of references to herbs and spices, but the original versions were decidedly not. To understand why, it is necessary to delve into the history of the 17th century.
Founded in 1600, the British East India Company aimed to bring back a steady supply of the delicious spices that the taste-
The contents of the First Folio were created by Project Sesame, a team of writers removing all of the spice references from Shakespeare’s plays. John Fletcher, Thomas Middleton, and Ben Jonson hurriedly made emergency changes.7 Many of the changes required little more than choosing a new title, such as The Spice Merchant of Venice and Coriandrolanus. In some cases, more major plot changes were required. In Rosmarino and Juliet, Shakespeare, needing an excuse to drop Mercutio from the play halfway through, originally sent him off to culinary school with his famous line “Ask for me tomorrow and you will find me a sage man.” Mercutio’s disappearance became the result of a stabbing, which necessitated motivating a whole family feud. Survey says: Romeo and Juliet no longer tops anyone’s list of funniest Shakespeare comedies.8 Other plays were harder to fix. After much ado about Much Ado About Nutmeg, Team Sesame could agree on nothing as a replacement, ultimately deciding to go with some piddle that would be utterly forgettable as a modern rom-
The deaths of King James and Fletcher in 1625 brought an end to the project, with two plays still unconverted. To this day, we have no idea what happened in Clove’s Labour’s Won or Cardamomenio. As a final act, Team Sesame worked out a plan to have the new monarch, Charles I, be so terrible that Parliament would be forced to depose him and have an excuse to close all the theatres, severing the last continuous link to England’s spice-
Wander the dreary streets of England today and you will find no shortage of boiled foods and uninspiring mystery meats encased in unhealthy pastry. Yet some distant, inchoate memory of its flavorful past lingers amid this vast culinary desert. Occasional mirages would pop up and disappear just as quickly, as when the Rolling Stones sang about the herbed potatoes they had on holiday in their song “Thyme Is on My Side”. Flavor was briefly resuscitated in the aural oasis known as the Spice Girls. Even here, the mists of time have clouded the memory. Ginger is indeed a spice, and “Posh Spice” is slang for saffron among the crowd hanging out in the fish and chips shops in Ibiza, but the connection of the other three with recognizable spices is less clear. If you’re from one of the generations that think that salt and pepper are only for the adventurous, “Scary Spice” can refer to any of a large number of things served on the Curry Mile. “Baby Spice” is probably a reference to talc, which is not technically a spice, even if it accurately reflects the taste and texture of some British cuisine. “Sporty Spice”, actually a deodorant, is inedible at any blood alcohol level at which it is safe to operate a motor vehicle.10
We do not know how different English cuisine would be had the House of Stuart defeated the Dutch and controlled the spice; the melange of Indonesian dishes, exotically known as rijsttafel, might have been invented by the English.11 But even now, seasonings are being introduced to the British palate one immigrant restaurateur at a time. It is a clear illustration of the process of, as the Americans call it, “herbin’ renewal”.
1 We don’t count the fact that pre-
2 Reputed to sniff out leads unrelentingly, he earned the nickname “The Snooping Dogg”.
3 We would have to have a different word for when things get too intense with Angelica and Herb, that’s for sure!
4 Rare, since only three families had kept up their subscription payments.
5 Still not advised today.
6 Ironically poisoning them in the process.
7 Much to the dismay of later researchers attempting to verify the authorship of Shakespeare’s works.
8 Though Family Feud is regularly listed as one of America’s unfunniest tragedies.
9 Along with the link between Charles’s head and his body.
10 The scarcity of antiperspirants in Hereford is just a coincidence, we’re sure.
11 Although they probably would have called it something boring like “rice table”, after the least flavorful thing to eat.
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