Wonderland Podcast with Steven Johnson: Episode 7

In Pursuit of Condiments

Or, how the spice trade changed our palates

9 min read

From the thrilling story of the Pepper Wreck and its salvage to the strange tale of a 12-year-old slave who solved the riddle that changed the global footprint of the vanilla trade forever, a look at how playful spices remade the map of the world with special guests Filipe Vieira de Castro and Patricia Rain.

Hosted by Steven Johnson
Produced by Kristen Taylor
Audio engineering & music editing by Jason Oberholtzer
Theme music by Steven Johnson

Listen to the previous episode: Clever Like a Fox (Or, What Happens Inside Our Brains When We Play?)
Listen to the next episode: “
Party in the Front (Or, How We Incorporate Play into Work)

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TV VOICEOVER: If you love great cheese flavor, it’s time you tried the snack that’s famous for it. Nacho cheese-flavored Doritos brand tortilla chips.

STEVEN JOHNSON: The history of play and delight can usually be detected in the most banal of artifacts, if you know where to look. Take, for example, one of the most derided items on a modern supermarket shelf, the humble Doritos chip. Have you ever actually read the ingredients list on a package of Doritos? It’s pretty insane. Whole corn, buttermilk, Romano cheese, onion powder, partially-hydrogenated soy bean and cotton seed oil, corn flour, tomato powder, spices, sugar, garlic powder, red and green pepper powder, non-fat milk solids, and that’s just a fraction of the list. In fact, a few years ago, The Onion ran a parody story with the headline, “Doritos celebrates 1000000th ingredient.”

But there’s actually something profound lurking in that absurd list of ingredients. Every Dorito chip is a reminder of how globally-intertwined our food networks have become. We think of Frito-Lay products as the ultimate highway convenience store non-food, but in a way they are true citizens of the world. Corn was originally domesticated as maize in Mexico. Soy beans first took root as an ancient East Asian crop, sunflowers were mostly native to North America, cheddar cheese was first crafted in England, while Romano comes from Italy. No one knows for sure where onions first originated, but they are likely as old as agriculture itself, and while we think of tomatoes as staples of the cuisines of Spain and Italy, the tomato plant first grew in the Andes of South America. Planets’ worth of flavors converge every time you savor the tangy sharp taste of that Dorito chip. How did this globalized palate first come into being? The answer to that question is right there on the Doritos packaging, in the most enigmatic item on the entire list. Spices.

I’m Steven Johnson, and this is “Wonderland”. “Wonderland” is brought to you by Microsoft, and by Riverhead Books, publisher of my new book, Wonderland: How Play Made Modern World.

Now, you probably recall something from your high school history textbook about the importance of the spice trade in driving the age of exploration, but the story of spice is far older and far stranger than most people realize. It’s really the first example of a desire that emerged entirely for playful, frivolous purposes, changing the map of the world. We don’t need spices for their nutritional value. We just find them interesting on the tongue, and those strange new flavors propelled human beings around the globe like nothing that had ever come before them, creating, for the very first time in the history of our species, a marketplace where one community’s, workers, and consumers could be engaged in complex forms of trade and interdependence with another community on the other side of the planet.

Now, risking one’s life and vast amounts of money to sail across an uncharted globe, all in the pursuit of condiments, seems almost comical to us now, but the truth is we have a global economy today because of the spice trade, and no spice did more to transform the planet than the one that now graces every dining room table. So ubiquitous that it is often distributed for free. Pepper.

FELIPE CASTRO: We started digging silt, it was not a lot of silt, it was about one meter, three feet of silt, and once we got to the top of the structure, between the frames, there was a grayish layer that was impregnated with peppercorns, and after a few inches it was just peppercorns.

STEVEN JOHNSON: That’s nautical archaeologist Felipe Castro, and he’s got a story about a boat. In September of 1606, a Portuguese cargo ship named the Nossa Senhora dos Mártires arrived at the mouth of the Tagus River, not far from Lisbon. The ship was returning from a nine-month voyage, its hull filled with a small fortune of goods brought back from India.

FELIPE CASTRO: And then they made it to Portugal, and so they were caught by one of these storms from southwest, and the ship could not lay at anchor outside Lisbon. Trying to get in, the pilots that were bringing the galleys in, to tow, could not make it against the wind, and the captain decided he could sail the ship into safety and he was doing very well, but apparently the wind fell suddenly at the very narrow part of the entrance of the harbor and the ship just shifted, drifted to the rocks, and was broken, broken against the rocks. A lot of people died, at least 200 people, and the ship broke down completely.

STEVEN JOHNSON: When the ship sank, its multimillion dollar cargo was emptied out onto the riverbed, only it wasn’t gold or silver or other valuable artifacts. The treasure that sunk to the bottom of the river was entirely in the form of pepper. In the days that followed the sinking, a black tide of peppercorns washed ashore on the banks of the Tagus, where they were eagerly scavenged up by local residents who flocked to the riverside to collect the spice.

Today, it’s known as “the Pepper Wreck,” and it’s a startling reminder of just how valuable this now ordinary spice was during its prime. During the Middle Ages, a pound of pepper was at many points worth more than a pound of gold. Several years ago, Felipe helped lead an expedition to raise the pepper wreck, and they discovered, to their amazement, that a huge quantity of the ship’s unlikely treasure was still intact beneath the sand.

FELIPE CASTRO: And we, we got lots of women socks, what you call, the pantyhoses, and hook them to our dredges and dredged out the pepper. We have a lot of pepper in Portugal, still we dredged it. Unfortunately it was not possible to get any DNA from them because it was just the outer shell of the peppercorns.

STEVEN JOHNSON: But the legacy of the spice trade was not just that people were willing to spend ridiculous amounts of money for pepper and cinnamon, but that it did as much to connect different cultures around the world as any force in history during that time.

FELIPE CASTRO: If you think about it, this is 1607, there’s just 100 years that Europeans are sailing around the world, so this is a big revolution. In the beginning of the 16th century, the ships change, and the, the worldviews change, and these are the most sophisticated machines that people have built so far. These were little floating cities with 400 people inside. They would go on drifting for six months with, and they were very diverse spaces, there were priests, there were soldiers, there were always more than a hundred slaves from all sorts of cultures, African, Asian, and so these ships are very interesting from very different viewpoints. They carry ideas, because we talk about European expansion, we always associate with war and slavery, but there are a lot of good things happened also, that anthropology, botany. These ships were full of people, full of dreams, and full of ideas.

STEVEN JOHNSON: After the craze for pepper subsided, another spice emerged in the middle of the 18th century to delight tastebuds across the world. On the gulf coast of Mexico in a region known as Veracruz, a vine with distinctive, pale yellow flowers grows in the tropical forests. The vine is technically a member of the orchid family, but it is unique among the more than 25,000 varieties of orchids in that it produces a crop. The vanilla bean.

Thanks in large part to their scarcity, by the middle of the 1700s, pods of vanilla were worth their weight in silver. And that scarcity resulted from a strange twist in evolution. The orchid species that produces the vast majority of vanilla consumed in world can only be fertilized in nature by one species of bee native to Mexico and parts of Central America. The reproductive organs of the plant are so carefully guarded that other bees and insects that haven’t co-evolved with the flower will almost never accidentally fertilize it just by bumbling around in search of nectar, and swiping some pollen in the process. In a sense, the plant evolved a kind of combination lock in the design of its petals that only one specific insect can get past. For centuries, the complexity of that system confounded humans as well.

PATRICIA RAIN: I’m Patricia Rain. I am known worldwide as “the Vanilla Queen,” because I have been working with growers ever since I wrote a book in 1985.

STEVEN JOHNSON: Working with growers, Patricia actually has firsthand knowledge of how finicky the vanilla plant is to fertilize.

PATRICIA RAIN: The vanilla orchid actually blooms only once a year for less than a day. And so during the pollinating season, if the orchids are only pollinated by bees, we get a very, very small crop. The reason is, the flower opens sometime between 05:00 and 07:00 in the morning. It starts to wilt as soon as it gets to be around 10:00, 10:30 in the morning, and it is dead by 01:30 or 02:00 in the afternoon. So unless it’s been pollinated, it’s not going to produce a bean.

STEVEN JOHNSON: The mystery of fertilizing the vanilla plant was eventually solved thanks to the ingenious horticultural explorations of a 12-year-old boy. His name was Edmond Albius. He was a slave who worked on a plantation on the island of Réunion off the coast of Africa. Albius had hit upon a method of fertilizing the plant, a delicate maneuver that involved opening up the lip of the flower with his thumb and using a stick to press two parts of the flower’s reproductive organs together.

As his master, and surrogate father, would later recall, “The clever boy had realized that the vanilla flower also had male and female elements, and had worked out for himself how to join them together.” Albius’s technique, which became known as “le geste d’Edmond,” soon spread across the island, and before long the plantations of Réunion were shipping cured vanilla pods by the ton. Within half a century of Albius’s discovery, the small island produced more vanilla than all of Mexico.

PATRICIA RAIN: Once Edmond Albius, a 12-year-old slave, put it together that vanilla orchids might need to be hand-pollinated, they were able to dramatically increase the volume of vanilla beans worldwide. That was the key to making it possible to have vanilla grown in Madagascar, Réunion, Indonesia, and other countries that have since come aboard growing vanilla.

STEVEN JOHNSON: Vanilla is now grown all over the world, creating a global market with complex chains of interdependence between growers, traders, and consumers.

PATRICIA RAIN: Right as we’re talking today, a major crisis, and shortage of vanilla beans, the beans are selling for upwards of $375, $400 a kilo at source.

STEVEN JOHNSON: And this kind of price turbulence means much more than just the price of a bottle of vanilla at your local grocery store, because of the way vanilla is regulated, or, more precisely, the way that it isn’t regulated.

PATRICIA RAIN: Vanilla is the only tropical commodity of value that is not traded on the international commodities market.

STEVEN JOHNSON: You see, vanilla doesn’t move at high enough quantities to be regulated on the standard commodities market.

PATRICIA RAIN: And as a result of that, it’s not required to have transparency. So it all is a very small, jealous, opaque market, and there are not protections for the farmers, which is a serious issue, and this is why this crazy, supply, demand, prices up, prices down, farmers deciding not to grow it, goes on at the level that it does.

STEVEN JOHNSON: The history of vanilla, from Edmond Albius on Réunion, to the market turbulence today, reminds us that the taste for spice has led to much human suffering, along with much pleasure and connectedness. All to take the rarest of tastes and turn them into commodities. A plant indigenous to Mexico, and controlled by the Spanish, is planted on an island in the Indian Ocean by the French, where it is first fertilized by a boy whose African ancestors had been brought to the island by French slave traders. And that seemingly trivial act somehow ends up shifting billions of dollars of economic activity from one part of the world to another, and turn a spice that was once pursued only by the elites of society into a flavor so ubiquitous that its name has become a synonym for the commonplace and the ordinary.

Like many forms of delight, the taste for spice propelled us far from our roots, not just geographically, but also existentially. It pushed us to expand what would seem to be deep-seated biological barriers to what we can experience as enjoyable. I mean, the taste of pepper actually triggers biochemical alarms in our tastebuds, designed by evolution to detect the presence of fire or dangerously high temperatures. And yet, somewhere along the way, we discovered that this strange new taste on the tongue, a taste that would send any child into howls of pain, could be savored by an adult, its pain somehow turned into pleasure.

Spices enlarged the map of possible desires, which in turn enlarged our mental map of the world itself. And this boundary-pushing, this constant reimagining of our needs and our appetites, will probably always be bound up complex chains of turmoil and displacement, if not outright exploitation. But that boundary pushing is what makes us different from most organisms. What makes us human, in part, is our ability to expand the limits of what it means to be human, to peer over the walls that define us as biological organisms, or as members of a single nation or culture. That exploratory need for new experiences and new desires and new tastes is, more often than not, the force behind that expansion. You might even call it the spice of life.



Listen to the previous episode: Clever Like a Fox (Or, What Happens Inside Our Brains When We Play?)
Listen to the next episode: “
Party in the Front (Or, How We Incorporate Play into Work)

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How We Get To Next was a magazine that explored the future of science, technology, and culture from 2014 to 2019. Wonderland is a ten-part podcast series from Steven Johnson about the past and future of play and innovation. Featuring conversations about creativity and invention with leading contemporary scientists, programmers, musicians, and more, the show is brought to you by Microsoft, and by Riverhead Books.

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