Title: Tastes of Paradise: A Social History of Spices, Stimulants, and Intoxicants
Author: Wolfgang Schivelbusch
Genre: non-fiction, food and culture, food history, history, European history
**This review has been adapted from a reflective essay I wrote for my Modern World Civilization class**
Spices and stimulants that are commonplace to twenty-first century Westerners were considered luxury items in medieval times and the early modern era: pepper, chocolate, tea, coffee, tobacco, and opium. I was surprised to read in Tastes of Paradise about the various controversies surrounding most of these items- who would have thought that chocolate and coffee had negative connotations and superstitions surrounding them? Even politics and the overall culture of a country played a part in who was able to enjoy these delicious bits of happiness.
Spices were used in medieval times in medicinal preparations and as social clues to denote a household’s rank in the social hierarchy: “The higher the rank of a household, the greater its use of spices” (4). In addition to being consumed in great quantities, spices were given as gifts between members of the nobility and sometimes used in lieu of cash payments (7). The long journey from India to Europe increased spices’ monetary value and added to spices’ allure as “emissaries from a fabled world” (6), especially in a time where very few Europeans traveled outside of their native homeland. The nobility and elite of Europe also used spices as a way to separate themselves from their common subjects- the poor souls who could not afford the expense of spices and whose status in the social hierarchy could not be “tasted” or shown to others (7).
The use of spices by the European elite paralleled the elite’s new focus on “style”- clothes, home furnishings, etc.- all of which were supplied through Arabic traders throughout the Orient. The author compares the early modern era dependence on Arabic spice trading with the modern Western world’s dependence on Arab oil in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (9)- which brought to my mind the quote: “the more things change, the more they stay the same. Eventually the middle class in Europe expanded along with the demand for spices as the expanding middle class tried to emulate their wealthier contemporaries (10-11). High demand, high tariffs, and high prices along with increased understanding of sailing technology prompted European explorers (and their wealthy investors) to search for a direct sea route to India (10-11). By cutting out the Arabic traders/middlemen, Europeans hoped to decrease the prices of spices while keeping up with demand on the Continent: “Whoever controlled pepper would essentially control the purse-strings of a continent” (11-12).
Views on alcohol in Europe swung from one extreme to the other from medieval time to the age of encounter. In medieval times alcohol, especially beer, was consumed daily “as the main source of nourishment for most central European and northern Europeans (22). Daily consumption started with beer soup for breakfast and continued throughout the day. Alcoholic beverages were also heavily consumed during special occasions and holidays. The common consumption of alcohol mixed with obligatory social drinking rites meant that intoxication was rampant. Intoxication was considered normalized behavior until the Protestant Reformation redefined man’s relationship with God and, by extension, alcohol (31).
While Protestant attitudes towards alcohol were changing, coffee was becoming readily available as a substitute for alcohol. While alcohol numbed one to the miseries of life, the caffeine in coffee encouraged sobriety (35), increased efficiency and energy (39), and was believed to curb sexual libido (37): “It marked the start of the working day, formally putting an end to the night’s rest, and making its drinkers alert and cheerful for the day ahead” (63). Energy and efficiency were core virtues of the Protestant work ethic, thus, coffee became a popular non-alcoholic beverage in the Protestant-dominant countries of England and Germany.
While chocolate is a beloved ingredient around the world now, chocolate was imported from the New World into predominantly Catholic countries such as Italy and Spain. Chocolate was originally used by the Spanish clergy as a “fasting drink” (91) during religious holidays but it soon became a status symbol of the aristocracy (91). When chocolate entered the world of the aristocracy it was a rich, sumptuous breakfast beverage that “created an intermediary state between lying down and sitting up” (91). Chocolate was the antithesis to coffee: it relaxed the body, was high in calories, and believed to be an aphrodisiac (perhaps that is why chocolate is a traditional Valentine’s Day gift?) (92). The status of chocolate declined in the nineteenth century as its popularity rose among the middle class: “The former status drink of the ancient régime had sunk to world of women and children. What formerly symbolized power and glory was now in the hands of those excluded from power and responsibility in middle-class society” (93).
The Columbian exchange brought tobacco and its new way of consumption (smoking) to Europe during the Era of Encounter. Originally tobacco use was referred to as “drinking smoke” or “drinking tobacco” since European cultures had no point of reference or name for this new recreational habit: “The analogy with drinking was thus first a conceptual aid for grasping an otherwise bewildering novelty” (97). The medical view of tobacco was similar to that of alcohol: it dulled the senses, thought to be an anti-erotic agent, and first-time use could be an unpleasant experience. Since smoking calmed the nerves, the rituals around smoking tobacco focused on preparing one’s mental activity and concentration.
As each smoking process (pipe, cigar, cigarette, etc.) grew in popularity, the actual time spent on smoking and its accompanying rituals decreased (111). Schivelbusch theorizes that the modes and amount of smoking in a society reveal that society’s “standards of tranquility and concentration” (115) and “demonstrates to what depth the culture is permeated by nervousness” (129). I thought this was an intriguing correlation. Often attributed to world events, social factors, or personality traits, anxiety seems to be at an all-time high in American society. What if American anxiety levels are so high because Americans are smoking less? If this is true, it is a terrible trade-off though- smoke now and be calm, die of lung cancer later.
Opium was a commonly prescribed painkiller in the nineteenth century and used for a variety of mild or easily treatable medical conditions. Opium was the drug of choice of for poets, artists, and writers since it infused their artwork and writings with a dreamlike quality. Society viewed the lone wolf tendencies and mindsets of these artists and writers as dangerous: “It was the asocial significance attributed by poets to opium and hashish which first caused them to lose their identity as ordinary household remedies” (210). Awareness of the negative consequences of addiction due to the post-war morphine addicts of the various nineteenth century wars stripped away the glamor and appeal of opium.
Another habit that was frowned upon by the upper and middle classes was the excessive consumption of distilled spirits (hard liquor). Of course, the definition of excessive consumption is subjective; what the upper and middle classes thought of as distasteful was the source of bonding among members of the lower working classes: “Drink and drunkenness carried no social stigma; on the contrary, they were almost a symbol of class identity” (149). The working classes consumed their alcohol in loud, public places while middle class drinking subscribed to a more moderate mindset: “The middle-class citizen drank moderately, and he drank in a private circle” (148). Excessive drinking was also a form of escapism for the lower working classes- industrialization increased the physical and mental energy expected of workers without an appropriate increase in pay or rest. Many urban workers had migrated from the countryside for economic opportunity only to find themselves living in squalid living conditions and without the financial and emotional support of their extended family network.
Like spices, liquor was originally used in medicinal preparations but it was also used in the military as part of a soldier’s rations before finding its way into civilian life during the Industrial Revolution. “Liquor… created new qualities of alcoholic inebriation, just as coffee created new qualities of sobriety. The polarity of these effects was reflected in the polarity of the two classes that adopted these drinks” (152). Liquor sped up the inebriation process which Schivelbusch parallels to the “processes of acceleration of the modern age” (153). Wine and beer were looked upon more favorably (by the upper classes) as acceptable forms of alcohol for the lower classes- these drinks kept the social and political bonds alive for the working masses without the constant and debilitating drunkenness (165).
After reading this book it is my opinion that coffee had the most positive effect on Europe and world history (personally, I am a chocoholic so this was hard to admit). Coffee consumption increases a person’s physical energy level and mental prowess (temporarily). Increased physical and mental energy was needed in the Industrial Revolution to increase efficiency, production, and consumption. Coffee also contributed to the field of journalism, discourse, and free thought- coffeehouses were the precursors to newspapers and were available to the common man, although, unfortunately, not to the common woman (57). Although coffee consumption eventually moved to the domestic sphere, newspapers, literature, and journalism stayed in the public sphere and contributed to the Western ideals of free speech and free thought.