Tasting the Taboo

Jack Turner, author of Spice: The history of a temptation, studied Classical Studies in the University of Melbourne and International Studies at Oxford. Tired of wearing a suit to work, he decided to travel and write. He talks about his fascination with the culture of food and sampling the forbidden.

Published: January 20, 2014 3:08:58 am

You studied Classical Studies in the University of Melbourne and International Studies at Oxford. What made you start writing and researching about food with Spice?
Food found me, rather than the other way round. When I was growing up, my parents used to grow vegetables and fruits at home. We were quite into food as a family, which at the time in Australia was rather stodgy. Then there was this huge wave of migration where a lot of people from Southeast Asia came to Australia bringing their food and culture with them and I was fascinated by all the flavours and smells. That was really the beginning of my interest in ethnic food. Then when I was doing Classical Studies, without even looking for them, I would find these mentions of spices and ingredients sprinkled in historical texts. For instance, I read a Greek poem from 700 BC in which the poet mentions cinnamon. In another case, I read about when the Anthropological Museum in Paris found peppercorns in the mummy of Ramses II (called ‘The Great’). Everyone talks about Europeans establishing the spice route, and from these and many other examples it was clear that spices were being traded much earlier and not just for culinary uses. They were being used as fragrances, aphrodisiacs and of course medicinally. People had written about the spice trade from the economic perspective which didn’t make much sense to me. They were important culturally and it was that aspect that really got me going. That’s what eventually led to Spice.
You’re now working on a book on absinthe. Can you tell us a little something about that?
That actually started as an article I had written about absinthe for the New Yorker. Absinthe has always had this rather sinister reputation in Europe with people believing it would drive you mad, as in the case of Van Gogh. So when I was fortunate enough to lay my hands on a couple of 100-year-old bottles of absinthe, we had it analysed. And while of course there was a very high concentration of alcohol, there was no sign of any toxic substances that could trigger insanity. So why did absinthe become taboo? It’s like with spices which used to have a sort of ‘dangerous’ tag. The psychology behind these taboos, why people thought of them the way they did, and really the whole culture behind them is what really fascinates me. So more than a food historian I consider myself a cultural historian. In any case I’m still researching absinthe and hope the book will be ready for publication by early next year.
Given your love of spices, you must come to India fairly often?
I came to India first as a backpacker in 1990 and have been in love with the country ever since. I think I’ve come back 10 times since, but I still feel I’ve seen maybe only 10 per cent of the country. So yes, I shall be back.
Jack Turner was a speaker at the Jaipur Literature Festival on Friday

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