Thyme and Spice in Time and Space

By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken

One of the remarkably innovative activities that sets humans apart from our closest primate relatives is cooking our food and flavoring it with spices. According to some anthropologists, this behavior may have emerged while we were still nomadic hunters and gathers. To carry a kill to the next temporary home site, our ancestors probably wrapped the meat in leaves – and a distant relative with a fine palate realized that the meat wrapped in some leaves lasted longer and was tastier than meat wrapped in others. The former leaves became desirable and assigned a higher trading value than others. Similarly, specific flavorful roots, bulbs, berries, flowers and even pollen became prized first as enhancements for cooking and preserving and, after observation of beneficial effects, medicating.

Once humans settled down in farms, towns, and cities and developed writing and reading, one of the first uses of these newly emerged forms of communication was accounting in long-extinct languages for amounts of spices traded. Recipes using spices for preservation, including mummification, were shared; thyme was used as an ingredient over 5500 years ago in Egyptian unguents that were used to prepare bodies for the afterlife. As writing became a method of expressing religious beliefs and poetic expressions, literature produced millennia ago equated thyme and other spices with love, riches and the best of human life. The incredibly beautiful Song of Songs in the Hebrew Scriptures (aka Old Testament) mentions many spices including cinnamon and saffron.

The Song of Songs is said to have been written in the 9th century BCE, so we have evidence from that time period of the availability in the land of Israel of cinnamon native to Sri Lanka and India, and saffron from Crete, which must have made their way via the ships of ancient mariners to the Middle East. In fact, literature from China and other accounts from around Eurasia provide evidence that spices growing wild millennia ago in various parts of the known world were harvested and sold or bartered in distant lands. When given root in favorable climates far from their origin, they were cultivated and harvested for local use or became a currency of exchange.

There is also archeological evidence that in the Western hemisphere, including Mesoamerica, different species of plants from those in Eurasia were also harvested in the wild and began to be cultivated. Like the use of spices across the oceans, they were used to flavor foods, for preservation, including mummification, and for medicinal purposes. It is not surprising, then, that many millennia later, during the Age of Exploration and the Spanish invasion of Mexico and South America, one of the earliest cultural exchanges consisted of adopting Western spices in Europe and Eurasian spices in the New World.

The Spanish conquistadores were accustomed to a diet flavored with garlic, onions and, for the most wealthy, saffron. Imagine their surprise when neither garlic, large onions, nor crocus producing saffron were to be found to be growing in “New Spain,” and the small scallion-like onions were a far cry from the plump sweet vegetable growing in the Mediterranean. Instead, they found a plethora of other spices being used by indigenous civilizations. A wide variety of peppers unheard of in the Old World – ranging from sweet to extremely hot and spicy – were dried and ground and added to many dishes. Cacao, a new and addictive chocolate-tasting fruit, was used to flavor both food and drink. Tomatoes, which originated in the Andes in South America, had been brought north and were cultivated and formed the basis for many different salsas. Anise seeds added a depth to dishes and achiote seeds were “discovered” to impart a distinct flavor and an attractive deep red color to food. Herbs and flowers added while cooking included chipilin, epazote, mint, and pre-Columbian coriander (different from modern day cilantro), each contributing a delicious taste to a diet which, mainly prepared with corn, squash, and beans, could have been quite bland.

To the great delight of those living in Eurasia, tomato seeds were brought from the New World and cultivated in many parts of those continents. Today many Europeans would deny that tomatoes are not native to their countries and would claim they had always been part of their heritage. Similarly, European peppers were primarily sweet peppers, but, learning from their Mesoamerican hosts, Spanish cooks began drying and smoking a large sweet variety of red pepper and then grinding the peppers, producing what is today called Spanish paprika. And of course, chocolate produced from cacao became associated with countries far from the trees that bear the flavorful fruit (think of Switzerland).

In turn, 16th-century colonists began cultivating spices in the lands of the New World that had never grown there. Mexican thyme, which originated in Africa long before the Spanish invasion, was introduced. Cumin, originally cultivated in the Middle East, was introduced and became so ubiquitous that it almost seems synonymous with Mexican cooking – especially in US chain quasi-Mexican restaurants where it tends to be overused. Garlic and large white onions are staples in Mexican grocery stores and kitchens, although relatives of the original scallion-like onions are more flavorful and also still used.

While some of the exotic spices from distant lands could be grown in countries that took a liking to them, other plants have difficulty thriving outside their native land. Over a period of centuries, the spice trade became a highly lucrative enterprise and was dominated by large companies, such as the British East India Company, which was founded at the end of 1600 and continued to exercise a monopoly on some markets for 274 years. Around the time the Dutch East India Company, founded in 1602, folded, two brothers named Schilling, who had immigrated from Germany to San Francisco formed their own spice company. Shortly thereafter, Willoughby McCormick founded his spice company in Baltimore. McCormick bought out the Schilling brothers’ company in 1946. Today, McCormick is still a dominant force in the field, employing 10,000 people and selling $3.5 billion of spices annually.

As with other markets in the 21st century, spice production is global. However, the country that dominates spice production is India, providing almost 11 million tons between 2021 and 2022. We took a walk down a road in the Southern State of Kerala that was lined with shops displaying heaps of ginger and burlap bags of other spices; it was such a heady experience that we will never forget being there. India is such a prolific producer that Mexico actually imports red peppers from that part of the world. Other countries specialize in individual herbs and spices; cinnamon, so ubiquitous in Mexican cooking and baking, is often a product of Sri Lanka. But Mexico has to a small degree turned the tables; nutmeg, originally from the Banda Islands in Indonesia, is now grown in Mexico and exported primarily to the U.S. And although thyme can be grown in most places in the world, China is the world’s leading producer.

As humans emerged from hunter-gatherer groups and small agricultural units to span the globe and conquer time and space, so did thyme and other herbs and spices we so love. Perhaps when humans colonize other planets, thyme and spices will be among the first possessions brought across time and space.