Gary Paul Nabhan Talks about His “Spice Odyssey”

Gary Paul Nabhan takes us on a vivid and far-ranging journey across time and space in his new book, Cumin, Camels, and Caravans. In this conversation with editor Blake Edgar, Nabhan discusses the historical convergences that inspired him to write the book, his thoughts on the locavore movement, and the spices that remind him of home.

Gary Paul Nabhan
Gary Paul Nabhan

Blake Edgar: There have been several culinary histories published about spices and about trade along the Silk Road. What inspired you to write about this subject?
Gary Paul Nabhan: A colleague of mine, ethnobotanist and food historian Gene Anderson, found a remarkable coincidence: an Arab/Persian lamb and garbanzo bean stew recipe that he and colleagues recorded in their Mongolian medicinal cookbook, Soup for the Qan, also made its way half way around the world to Hispanic communities in Northern New Mexico. Only one ingredient, mastic (which was unavailable in New Mexico at the time), was different. Was it independent invention or cultural diffusion? It turns out that Crypto-Muslims and Crypto-Jews escaping the Spanish Inquisition could have been responsible for its transmission to New Mexico. That one coincidence set me on this “spice odyssey.”

What is most novel and distinctive about Cumin, Camels, and Caravans compared to other books about spices?
I cannot serve as the final judge of its distinctiveness, but I have two hunches: it is the first spice book that sees spice trade from the perspective of Semitic people’s global contributions. These people include not only Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews but also Arabs, Phoenicians, Nabateans, and others from Yemen and Oman. Second, it follows their historic influences across what I call the “draw bridge” to the New World after 1492, where descendants of Semitic peoples rapidly captured control of trade in chiles, chocolate, vanilla, allspice, and achiote back to the Old World.

You told me that this was the hardest book that you’ve undertaken. What made it more challenging?
Well, I traveled to fourteen countries, many of them in extremely hot, dry deserts, where I had to find a way to obtain and contextualize information from perhaps thirty language groups. I also had to integrate ethnobotany, culinary history, political economy, linguistics, phytochemistry and historical geography. No small task for a graying old geezer from the stinkin’ hot deserts of the Southwest.

Is there a single spice that best represents the story you tell of cultural collaboration or culinary imperialism?
Cumin made it into the title for its ubiquity in ethnic cuisines, but chile peppers were perhaps the most traceable. I’ve been part of a larger team of scholars working on their origins and diffusions across the world using linguistic, ecological, genetic, and archaeological evidence. We have recently published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that pioneers a methodology that gets the most parsimonious fit out of data from so many disciplines and sources.

You propose in this book that globalization has a much deeper pre-Columbian history than conventionally believed. What kinds of evidence did you find in your research to support this conclusion?
The origins and diffusion of the very economic and social processes we identify as fundamental to globalization were all put into place well before Columbus. Although many Europeans did not reach the New World before 1492, the culinary colonialism of the Americas were simply a belated extension of what had followed the same patterns as Semitic peoples influenced the cuisines and market structures of sub-Sahara Africa, China, the East Indies, Western Europe, and elsewhere.

Your research took you to the Middle East, North Africa, East Asia and the Americas following different spice routes. Was there a particular encounter or experience that illustrates how your personal journey intersects with the historical and cultural panorama you describe?
Oh, the most remarkable moment for me was meeting frankincense traders in Oman of the Nabhan clan (Banu Nebhani), and finding an heirloom variety of date named after my family near the World Heritage Site at Bahla Fort in Oman. My kin have been involved in spice trade in many places, over many centuries, even on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn!

You are known for being a proponent of eating locally and of restoring unique traditional foodways. So it’s interesting that you’ve written a book about the globalization of key ingredients and their cosmopolitan journey into cuisines around the world. Has that experience altered your understanding of cuisine?
We will never understand the true value of sourcing much of our food from local farming and foraging sources unless we deeply understand the perils and consequences of culinary imperialism and globalization. If I had simply stayed in the same frame of reference I had felt comfortable with over the last two decades—as many locavores choose to do—I would never have really fathomed what is at stake when we increasingly “outsource” more of our foods from other lands and cultures with no sense of how it impacts them on the ground. In any case, stepping outside the box is the dance I most like to do—to throw myself off balance, and my readers as well. That may be the only way most of us grow.

Do you have a favorite recipe among the thirteen included in the text?
I give project editor Dore Brown and my step-daughter Deja Walker most of the credit for shoring up the recipes, but the most fascinating one for me is the transformation of Old World zoolbia fritters in an orange and saffron sauce into the stripped down buñuelos and sopapillas of the U.S. Southwest. That hits home.

What spices in your cabinet do you reach for most frequently?
When I want to call up and divine messages from my ancestors, I reach for the zaatar, ras al hanout and baharat spice mixtures of the Levant. They taste like home. When I want to remember my grandfathers, I splash my face with rosewater from the Damascus rose.