One of the favorite spices of Thanksgiving and Christmas is nutmeg. And unlike the many foods commonly associated with the Thanksgiving feast, like sweet potatoes and marshmallows, nutmeg was actually there from the start. It was one of the most popular spices with Europeans at the time of what is generally accepted as the first Thanksgiving in 1621 in Plymouth.
This spice may seem humble and unassuming — something you add to a chicken dish or cake to give it a warm note — but nutmeg has quite a colorful and dark history that includes espionage, battles and lots of murders. It was also super pricey. According to thespruceeats.com, in the 14th century, half a kilogram of nutmeg cost as much as three sheep or a cow. In 1760, the price of nutmeg in London was 85 to 90 shillings per pound, a price kept artificially high by the Dutch. One of the reasons nutmeg was so valuable and costly is because it took five years for the seeds to grow. A check online shows that today the price for whole nuts can range from $4 for 3.5 ounces to $650 for 55 pounds.
Nutmeg was also highly coveted and revered by wealthy and fashionable people, so much so that they carried around their own nutmeg graters that were small enough to fit in a pocket so they could add a dash of it to anything at any time, which was usually punch and other beverages. These graters are now a valuable collectible.
Nutmeg did not start out as culinary, but was thought to be good for all sorts of other things. Herbalist John Gerard wrote in 1597 that nutmeg “is good against freckles in the face, quickneth the sight, strengthens the belly and feeble liver, taketh away the swelling of the spleen ... breaketh wind, and is good against all cold diseases of the body.”
It was also thought to possess mystical healing powers, and it can induce hallucinations. Dating back as far as the 12th century, nutmeg has been used in waves as a drug, snorted, smoked, and eaten in large quantities to produce a hallucinogenic high. It has been likened to feeling like a two-day hangover and being encased in mud. There have been many warnings issued about it even today.
A New York Times article from 2014 titled, “A Warning on Nutmeg,” said that people using it as a drug consume two tablespoonfuls before showing signs of intoxication. While there aren’t many recorded cases of nutmeg causing death, the article said it’s better to err on the side of caution when it comes to how much you use and measure it carefully.
According to nutmeggraters.com, a site that spotlights the forgotten history of nutmeg and the nutmeg grater, the only source of nutmeg and mace in the early centuries was Indonesia — specifically Banda Islands. Arabian spice caravans carefully guarded this source and were the ones to carry nutmeg to Eastern Europeans. In 1511, though, while sailing the high seas on a mission to find riches, the Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive at the Banda Islands. Portugual enjoyed the exclusive trade in nutmeg to Western Europe for a century, according to nutmeggraters.com.
In the seventeenth century, Dutch traders also arrived in Indonesia and used coercion to create a monopoly with cloves, nutmeg and mace and marketed their precious spices at monstrous profits to an eager public in Europe, the Orient and North America.
“A cut-throat competition for both the lucrative spice trade, and for possession of the spice plant itself, led to terrifying acts of piracy, murder and maritime smuggling. First the French, and then the English, successfully transplanted sapling nutmeg trees, initiating nutmeg plantations throughout the Indian Ocean and Caribbean. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Dutch spice monopoly faltered,” according to nutmeggraters.com.
Nutmeg graters become fashionable
There have been many different designs of nutmeg graters over the centuries. Some involve rubbing the nutmeg over a grating surface, while others involve turning a handle to cause the grating.
The earliest nutmeg graters in “modern times” originated in the early 1600s in England. Only the very wealthiest had them, as they were the ones who could afford nutmeg in the first place.
Pocket graters for gentlemen to include in their traveling tableware sets emerged in the mid-1600s. The first ones were just cylindrical silver graters, with a solid silver tube acting as a case to store them in. Later, elaborately decorative ones emerged made from silver, gold, ivory, brass, and enamel.
Nutmeg became popular among the 17th and 18th century upper class who started using it more for culinary purposes to flavor their alcoholic beverages, such as punch, wine and cider. Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery, published in 1747, had everything from eggs, lettuce and truffles to beans, fish, pudding and buns seasoned with nutmeg.
It was a status symbol of extreme wealth to have a nutmeg grater and it was fashionable for gentlemen to have a personal supply of the spice and a small grater tucked into a vest pocket, which also showed off their sophistication. When he wanted to flavor something, a gentleman would simply unscrew the two pieces of the grater and grate the seed against the steel teeth, shaking some of the spice into his food or drink — and likely impressing any ladies watching.
“Nutmeg graters first appeared in the mid-17th century, with greater refinement in dining and a wider ownership of silver for the table. They were either carried in the pocket or included in a travelling canteen that might also contain cutlery, a beaker and a corkscrew. The graters reached the height of their popularity in the next century. Cheaper, thinner gauge silver, new manufacturing techniques and greater prosperity led to an enormous growth in items of small personal silver. Nutmeg graters were then made in a variety of forms, from cylindrical, circular or oval boxes to more unusual designs such as hearts or shells, to express the owner’s taste and individuality … [Nutmeg] was an important ingredient of punch and hot mulled wine,” according to information at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, vam.ac.uk.
Depending on the style and material, antique nutmeg graters can be found today for under $100 to thousands of dollars for fancy ones made of silver.
The next time you sprinkle some nutmeg over your glass of eggnog, give a little toast to the humble spice with the colorful past.