The Taste Of Conquest, The Rise And Fall Of The Three Great Cities Of Spices By Michael Krondl

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The Taste of Conquest, The Rise and Fall of the Three Great Cities of Spices by Michael Krondl

Michael Krondl has flung his bark into bustling waters, crowded with historians and popular writers who have ventured to write about spices. New histories of the spice trade include books like Andrew Dalby's Dangerous Tastes: The Story of Spices (2000), Jack Turner's Spice: The History of a Temptation (2004), John Keay's The Spice Route: A History (2005), and Paul Freedman's Out of the East: Spices and the Medieval Imagination (2008). These all have their strengths, but Krondl's book is unique.

First, it is a fine example of how popular history writing can be rigorous and entertaining at the same time. There are passages of true wit here: “trying to figure out what fourteenth-century Europeans actually ate based on elite cookbooks is about as easy as extrapolating the typical American's diet from a Martha Stewart entertaining guide” (p. 82). Indeed. Second, Krondl manages to keep his head level in choppy seas, taking on many of the popular misconceptions about spices as well as some academic ones. Professional historians might take umbrage at his nitpicking in their direction, especially since he is drawing from the work of recent historians in doing so.

Nonetheless, he is almost always on target with his comments. For example, the bugbear that medieval diners ate food absolutely smothered in spice: they liked it a lot, but in no greater quantities than we might enjoy in an Indian restaurant today. He also sinks another widely held misconception, that spices were ridiculously expensive. Krondl compares their cost with other luxury items, showing that some spices, especially pepper, could be afforded by the middling ranks of society, much the same way extra virgin olive oil is enjoyed today. The typical comparison of spices with ...