Cinnamon’s Sexy History

I’ve really gotten into baking this winter. During the “snowstorm that wasn’t” over superbowl weekend I got to the grocery store a little late to prepare for being locked indoors due to the impending snowstorm of doom and found that all the sliced bread was gone. So I bought yeast and flour and I spent the uneventful snowpocalypse proofing dough and making various rolls and breads. It was awesome.

One of the better fruits of my baking labor (if I say so myself) was a cinnamon bread. Nothing too fancy: I simply rolled out the dough before baking and applied a generous heap of cinnamon and sugar before rolling it up in the loaf pan. Of course, it was the night of the superbowl, so there was WAY too much food and my bread didn’t get finished. Then it got forgotten. Then it got old. I was cleaning the kitchen today and saw it, still sitting there two weeks later, when I noticed there wasn’t any indication that it was that old.  No mold. That’s a little crazy when you figure the sandwich bread I bought AFTER that has already gone moldy and been thrown away… and  I know I didn’t add any preservatives to my dough. Except for the cinnamon of course.  Which got me thinking about cinnamon…



The word “Cinnamon” has been applied to a variety of different (but related) substances since it was first “discovered” in 2000 B.C.E. In the modern market, there are two different kinds of cinnamon: what is considered “true cinnamon” (Cinnamomum verum) and Cassia cinnamon (Cinnamomum cassia). True cinnamon is endemic to Sri Lanka and is sometimes referred to as Ceylon cinnamon. It is more sweet in flavor and is the more expensive of the two spices. Cassia is sometimes referred to as Chinese cinnamon because it was first imported from China although it is now widely cultivated throughout Asia. It is usually what is found in grocery stores when you purchase cinnamon and almost certainly what you are buying if the country of origin is Thailand, Vietnam, or China.  Continue reading

Chamomile and the Uterus

Chamomile by Fir0002/Flagstaffotos

Chamomile by Fir0002/Flagstaffotos

During these bitter cold winter days, there is nothing more rewarding than curling up with a good book and a cup of hot tea. But as more and more herbal teas become popular, have you ever stopped to consider the herbal history behind the soothing sips? Take for instance the classic cup of chamomile tea. The name “chamomile” actually refers to a few different plants in the Asteraceae family: German Chamomile (Matricaria chamimila),  Roman Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile) and Stinking Chamomile (Anthemis cotula) just to name a few. In modern applications (and most likely in your tea cupboard) German Chamomile is the most used although medicinally they have been lumped together throughout time.

Pedanius Dioscorides commented on more than one variety of chamomile in his influential text De Materia Medica. Published between 50 and 70 C.E, Dioscorides comments that chamomiles

taken as a drink of a decoction (or by bathing), they expel the menstrual flow, are abortifacients, expel stones (urinary, kidney), and induce urine (Dioscorides)

(A decoction is the extraction of plant chemicals through boiling, which varies slightly from the common modern method of tea which results in an infusion from steeping, although you could boil your herbs in your tea water to easily create a decoction. Very likely in this application, the difference is negligible.)

He also wrote specifically that Stinking Chamomile “is fit for bathing a hardened and inflamed womb” (Dioscorides). Continue reading

Virgins and Whores: Rosemary’s Herbal History

Rosemary has always had a but of a dual nature. In cooking is is noted for imparting it’s aromatic, slightly spicy tang to meats and veggies but can also be substituted for mint in sweet recipes. In aromatherapy is is suggested for use both as a calming scent and an invigorating one. And in the 17th century, Robert Herrick wrote this one sentence poem titled “The Rosemarie Branch”:

Grow for two ends, it matters not at all
Be’t for my Bridall, or my Buriall (Herrick 1876)

Rosemary in Flower photographed by Sarah Sexy Plants

Rosemary in Flower photographed by Sarah Sexy Plants

This poem, of course, alludes to the dual decorative purposes of rosemary at the time, both in wedding garlands and dressing the deceased at funerals. So it’s no wonder that Rosemary would be the first herb I’ve come across in my research with it’s own Virgin/Whore history.  Continue reading

Just mad about Saffron

Saffron has been known for centuries. As a dye it yields a deeply hued yellow color, prized by the fashionable Minoan women of Ancient Crete (2700 – 1450 BCE) (Willetts 1976) and later Egypt (Willard 2001). A fresco depicting saffron was found at the site of Akrotiri, a Greek city destroyed (and preserved) by volcanic ash in 1627 BCE. In the work, two finely dressed women are in a field of flowers, gathering the valuable parts that constitute saffron.

The Saffron Gatherers

Fresco of saffron gatherers from the bronze age excavations in Akrotiri on the greek island of Santorini, Greece.

To some, the robes and jewelry the women are wearing show that this painting was representative of a harvest festival. Others hypothesize that the saffron was an offering to the goddess Eileithyia, whom Homer referred to as “Mogostokos” – the goddess of the birth pains. Regardless, by the time of ancient Greece, saffron was well known and, judging by the fields depicted in the fresco, cultivated. But saffron isn’t celebrated for its longevity, nor for its ties to pregnancy (even though I think that’s worth exploring and will do so later on in this post). No, to most, saffron is known as a potent aphrodisiac. Continue reading

Holy Fire, Witches, and Doctors: ergot poisoning throughout history

 Engraved illustration by Howard Pyle, 1893

Engraved illustration by Howard Pyle, 1893

It’s January 1692 in the brand new colony of Massachusetts. It’s cold. It’s boring. And there isn’t much to eat. We all know the story that comes next: two girls fall ill, afflicted by strange bursts of screaming, terror, and contortionist fits. Soon other girls begin to exhibit the same symptoms.  Doctors can’t find anything physically wrong with them so the only logical explanation available is witchcraft. And suddenly over 140 neighbors of this small town were jailed, 20 of them actually executed for their crime of being witches.

There are many theories about what actually happened that year in Salem. Some are cynical: the girls started the whole hysterical panic by playing a game for some attention, or as a way to make themselves feel powerful in a society that didn’t value them, or as a way to “get even” with those members of the community they felt had wronged them. Others are psychological: the religious fervor of this community was so great that of course the devil would send witches to torment them. Their belief was so strong in this absolute truth that they exhibited psychosomatic symptoms because they simply felt that they were truly bewitched. But I think the most enticing theory is drugs. Specifically the naturally occurring precursor to LSD (Caporael, 1976). Continue reading