SpicesHave you ever wondered about holiday spices?  How are they important?  And what are they used for?  Can we live without them?  Not if you love pumpkin pie, you can’t!

Trading in spices goes back before recorded history.  Early written records and letters are full of references to illustrate the importance of spices to our early ancestors.  For thousands of years spices were a rare and costly ingredient, brought from mysterious lands on tiny ships that plowed their way through pirate infested waters, usually by Arab traders.  It was a dangerous voyage, and many ships sailed never to return.

In Europe of the 13th century demand was so high for spices, that a bag of peppercorns could pay a king’s ransom.  All spices came from the orient and had to be brought through Cairo, Egypt.  From there they were transported to Alexandria, where they were bought and shipped by European traders from Venice and Genoa Italy.  The great wealth of these traders helped spark the Age of the Renaissance.

In 1271, a young Venetian named Marco Polo set out on a long journey of adventure and discovery.  He was gone for so many years, that his family believed that he was dead.  One day he came home, and he brought with him stories of lands far to the east, where spices were grown.  That ended the mystery of the Orient, and the race was on to become the top nation to control the Spice Trade.

Portugal, Spain, England, and Holland found themselves locked in a race to become the controlling power of the spice-producing lands.  This battle changed the face of the known world.  The competition inspired voyages of discovery, including the discovery of America, by Christopher Columbus, who believed that he was stepping onto the shores of India, not a new land.

Many wars, in Europe, were fought over this spice trade.  Kingdoms rose and fell.  Ironically, the largest dealer in the spice trade today is the United States of America.  Because America is inhabited by people who come from all over the world, the very spices that launched our discovery are often the center of our American cooking, especially during the holiday season.  During Thanksgiving, Chanukah, Christmas and Kwanza spices and native herbs flavor everything from turkey and gravy to apple and pumpkin pies.

Here are some of the spices that are popular in American Holiday cooking:

Cinnamon.  What would pumpkin pie be without cinnamon?  Prized from antiquity, this pungent brown powder is our most favorite holiday spice.  We add it to pies, apple sauce, cookies, and cakes.  After all, what would a spice cake be without cinnamon?

Cloves.  In the early days of the spice trade the heady fragrance of cloves changed the course of history.  Bloody wars were fought for control of the lands where clove trees grew.  Cloves were used in medicine, chewing gum, and perfumes.  Cloves also have antiseptic qualities, and they are an essential ingredient in canning and pickling.  Ground cloves are delicious in baked goods, puddings, fruit desserts and pie fillings.  Go easy with cloves, using just a pinch, if you are not familiar with the flavor.  Then adjust the seasoning as your palate becomes more accustomed to the taste.

Ginger.  This wonderful spice is used in every pumpkin pie recipe known to man.  Ginger is a pungent, aromatic spice with a bit of a bite, which says, “a little goes a long way.”  If you love ginger ale, gingerbread, ginger snaps, apple or pumpkin pie, then you know the worth of ginger.  Ginger is also a staple in many Asian dishes, as well as African and Indian.  It gives an interesting flavor to pot roasts, stews and chicken; and it may also be added to bean, onion, and potato soups, for a piquant taste.

Nutmeg.  Nutmeg is the seed of an apricot-like plant, which marries well with cinnamon and ginger.  It is used to flavor pies, cakes, fruit dishes, and it is the main spice used in egg-nog.  Available as both ground and whole (whole seed must be ground before using), nutmeg can be used to flavor baked goods, rice and custard puddings, doughnuts, and pumpkin pie.  Try nutmeg in your creamed chicken sauces, and your guests will think that you are a gourmet chef.  Nutmeg in small quantities can help to bring out the natural flavor in most of your foods.

Allspice.  The only spice that is native to the Americas, allspice has a flavor that resembles cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg.  An evergreen of the myrtle family, allspice is grown in Jamaica, Mexico, Guatemala, Brazil, and the Leeward Islands.   Ground allspice is a delicious addition to mincemeat, pumpkin pie, fruit cake, and cookies.  It also enhances the flavor of pot roast, beef stew, meat loaf, and baked ham.  Allspice is also wonderful, in addition to cinnamon, in french toast.

These heavenly spices, with their delightful flavors and aromas are the stuff that holiday memories are made of.  They call to mind the kitchens of yesteryear, as much as they bless our kitchens of today.  So, go ahead.  Try these flavors in your own cooking and baking, and make a memory that will last a lifetime.