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How nutmeg made its way from 15th-century infamy to the Thanksgiving table

Now a Thanksgiving staple, nutmeg used to be worth its weight in gold. The spice, originally grown only on the island of Banda Rhun, was so attractive to the Dutch East India Company that it traded its ownership of land that is now New York City for sole control of its trade. Why was our favorite eggnog garnish so valuable to 15th-century explorers? Special correspondent Mike Cerre has the answer.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we know, staples of Thanksgiving cooking include turkey and pumpkin pie, and, given the holiday season, nutmeg.

    That spice and where it is grown is linked to New York City in a profound way you may not have known. Let’s call it a well-seasoned history lesson.

    Special correspondent Mike Cerre explains.

  • John Beaver:

    We sell nutmeg for $1 a piece. You can get three for $2.50. You don’t need to mortgage the farm to acquire some nutmeg.

  • Mike Cerre:

    Here at the Oaktown Spice Shop in Oakland California, owner John Beaver and customers like Dave Wilson appreciate how valuable nutmeg once was.

  • Dave Wilson:

    Nutmeg was worth more than its weight in gold. It was extremely expensive because it only came from such a tiny place.

  • Mike Cerre:

    That tiny place was one of the Spice Islands in the Banda Sea in between Eastern Indonesia. Columbus was trying to find a shortcut to get there when he accidentally discovered the Americas.

  • John Beaver:

    Back in the 15th century, it was the race for spice. And all the European colonial powers were trying to find the origins of spice.

  • Mike Cerre:

    The infamous Dutch East India Company, one of the first IPOs, was formed so the Dutch could monopolize the nutmeg trade.

    And they did for more than two centuries, through a brutal and often genocidal domination of the local Bandanese, and a bloody colonial standoff with the British. The Dutch ultimately traded their rights to Manhattan Island, also known as New Amsterdam, to the British for their Island of Banda Run, the only place in the world where nutmeg was grown at the time.

    A play commemorating the bittersweet anniversary of that trade 350 years ago was performed both in New York and Indonesia this summer. Ron Jenkins, a professor at Wesleyan University, based it on his field research of the nutmeg trade.

    U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia Joseph Donovan, a New Yorker himself, participated in the local celebrations in Banda last month, despite the fact the local Bandanese had no say in the historic deal for control of their islands.

  • Des Alwia:

    After all, it was signed by the English and the Dutch in 1657. You know, now I want to cancel all these agreements, you know?

  • Mike Cerre:

    Des Alwi, the self-proclaimed king of Banda, was still dreamed big, of unwinding the deal, when I met him the late ’80s, before he died.

    It took me three days and three flights to get to these legendary spice islands, whose time and place in history have long since been forgotten.

    The once-rare nutmeg trees, with their bounty of fruit, covered nuts that can be ground into spice, were eventually smuggled off the islands. Nutmeg is now grown in India, Africa and the Caribbean.

  • John Beaver:

    So, we have the nut, nutmeg. Going to crack it open. It’s like a walnut. When you grate it, it reveals this really nice pattern on the inside. So, it’s sweet and pungent, with a little bit of, like, musky quality to it.

    There’s a lot of interest in nutmeg during the holidays. You find it in, like, mashed potatoes or you could find in maybe spinach dishes at the holidays. But, also, your pumpkin pie would have it, or a little garnish on top of your eggnog.

  • Mike Cerre:

    Spices were originally used for medicinal purposes as much as they were for cooking during the Middle Ages and Renaissance eras.

  • Dave Wilson:

    It was the snake oil all of the time. It was considered an aphrodisiac. It was considered a calmative. It was considered a purgative. Everything that you could imagine that was a bodily function, nutmeg was used for that.

  • Mike Cerre:

    If it can cure holiday indigestion and overindulgence, nutmeg might again be worth its weight in gold.

    For the PBS NewsHour, Mike Cerre in Oakland, California.

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