November 24, 2010
Forget turkey. The flavor I most associate with Thanksgiving, and the holiday season in general, is nutmeg. I like the sound of the word. I like the spice’s warm, woody scent. I like the way it adds complexity to both sweet and savory dishes. And, unlike many foods people now associate with the Thanksgiving meal—yeah, sweet potatoes topped with marshmallows, I’m talking to you—nutmeg was actually around in the Pilgrims’ day.
At the time of what is generally accepted as the first Thanksgiving—in Plymouth in 1621— nutmeg was one of the most popular spices among Europeans. For those who could afford the pricey seasoning, it was used as commonly as black pepper is today. Fashionable people carried around their own personal nutmeg graters. And it was highly coveted: as Giles Milton describes in Nathaniel’s Nutmeg: Or the True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed the Course of History, around the time the Mayflower was making its voyage across the Atlantic, nutmeg was at the center of an international conflict on the other side of the world. Holland and England fought over control of the spice-producing islands of Southeast Asia, including the tiny nutmeg-covered Run. Never heard of it? You may have heard of another small island that the English took control of as an eventual consequence of the struggle: Manhattan. Despite the latter territory’s lack of spices, I think the British got the better deal.
Nutmeg and its sister spice, mace, both come from the nutmeg tree, a tropical evergreen native to islands in the Indian Ocean. The name nutmeg is derived from Old French and means “musky nut.” The spice comes from the ground seed of the nutmeg fruit (which is itself edible and sometimes used in Malaysian and Indonesian cooking). Mace, which has a spicier flavor and aroma akin to a cross between nutmeg and cloves, comes from the red membrane that surrounds the seed.
Nutmeg’s value wasn’t just culinary; it was believed to have medicinal properties, including as protection against the bubonic plague that periodically wiped out large chunks of the population. And it had (and has) another, less frequent use: as a psychoactive drug. The hallucinatory effects of large quantities of nutmeg have been documented, including by gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. But the high is reportedly unpleasant, causes a terrible hangover and takes an unusually long time to kick in (up to six hours after ingestion), which is probably why its popularity has been mostly confined to the prison population.
As for me, I’ll stick to sprinkling nutmeg in my pumpkin pie and eggnog—or on scrumptious-sounding holiday cocktails, like the ones in the latest issue of Saveur.
Read more articles about the holidays with our Smithsonian Holiday Guide here
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