Sunday, May 16, 2010

Nutmeg, My Lord?

Sunday, May 16, 2010
Susan reporting:

Most of us self-diagnosed history nerds are familiar with snuff-boxes, and can easily imagine an 18th c. gentleman drawing such a box from his pocket to partake in his favorite sneezing vice. But from the late 17th c. to the early 19th c., a well-equipped male pocket might also include one of these little silver articles: a personal nutmeg grater.

While nutmeg is a common spice to 21st c. cooks (my local grocery sells a half-dozen whole nuts for about $8.00), in the past it was a considerable luxury, grown only on the remote Banda Islands in the South Pacific. Nutmeg was known in medieval Venice, but it wasn't until the early 16th c. that Portuguese and Dutch traders made it more widely available throughout western Europe. Still, the rarity of the little nuts and the peril of securing them made nutmeg a costly status-spice into the 19th century.

Perhaps nutmeg's rarity was the reason it was imbued with almost magical qualities. 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 protect against the plague.

But by the late 17th c., nutmeg was more often prized for its taste in cookery, and as an ingredient in the punches popular at the time. While punch today is usually a non-alcoholic kiddie-drink, 17th-18th c. punches could lay a grown man under the table in no time. Gentlemen prided themselves on having their own closely-guarded recipes. Customary ingredients included citrus fruits, sugar, and spices, mixed with prodigious amounts of alcohol: rum, brandy, cognac, canary, and just about any other liquor on hand. (Here's more about historical punch, plus several recipes if you're feeling brave.) The next groggy morning, a dusting of nutmeg could also enhance those other fashionable new drinks of chocolate and coffee.

It's no wonder, then, that every trendy fop and gentleman carried his own nutmeg in his pocket with him. Not only did this display his excellent palate, but it also showed that he was wealthy enough to buy both the nutmeg and one of these little sterling silver boxes, engraved with his initials, for stashing it. In a time of pretty gestures, taking out one's grater to spice one's meal or beverage would have been a charming nicety, and offering the same to one's neighbor (especially a lady) at the table would have been even nicer. Any flirtation that could combine the senses was considered particularly seductive, and a fragrant grating of red-brown nutmeg, redolent of the exotic, must have inflamed the ladies indeed.

The graters shown here are small, only an inch or two in length, just the size to hold a single nutmeg nut. The one top left is the earliest, from the late 17th c., while the other two are from the 18th c. Here's another early one that's cylindrical in design. As can be imagined, today nutmeg graters are popular with collectors of antique silver. The Georgian one, above, is currently for sale via the Internet, with an asking price of a little over a thousand dollars. Ah, true luxury never goes out of style....


Annette said...

Wonderful article. I'd no idea gentlemen carried such things. I must admit that whenever I think of 'historical' nutmegs, I think of Patrick O'Brien's splendid THE NUTMEG OF CONSOLATION, the nutmeg of the title being the name of one good Capt. Aubrey's vessels.

nightsmusic said...

Holy Crow! I had no idea how expensive they are now. I hadn't heard of them really prior to your post here, but I looked them up out of curiosity, and here's one that sold for $4800 US currency!

Lovely little things, but I think I'll pass on collecting these.

Miss Kirsten said...

I thought they grew nutmegs in Connecticut, so it was called the Nutmeg State?

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Annette, I'm a big fan of Patrick O'Brien's books, too, but I'd forgotten that particular Nutmeg. Thanks for the reminder.

Theo, what a great link! Wouldn't it be fun to be able to collect these? Oh, well, at least I have the nutmegs...*g*

Miss Kirsten, your comment made me think. I've heard Connecticut called the "Nutmeg State" as well. This seems to fall into the category of folk stories/urban myths. There doesn't seem to be any consistent reason for the nickname, or any serious documentation, either. Most explanations have the early Yankees as being so shrewd (i.e., scam artists) that they carved and sold wooden nutmegs to unsuspecting customers in the Southern colonies. To me, this seems to be more "folksy" than realistic -- you'd have to be awfully unsuspecting not to smell the difference -- but who knows?

Vanessa Kelly said...

Oh, how elegant! Thanks for this, Susan. Another cool nugget of history from TNHG!

Blackbird Crafts said...

In large amounts, nutmeg is said to have a narcotic effect. Maybe they could have added a dash to that snuff box, eh?
Another lovely entry.

Lady Burgley said...

The English of Jack Aubrey's day were the ones who eventually made nutmeg more widely available. Once they captured the islands where it was grown during the Napoleonic Wars, they took care to plant and cultivate more trees on Grenada and Zanzibar, ensuring they would control the nutmeg trade even if they lost control of the Banda Islands.
Those sterling graters are indeed beautiful little baubles. Lucky gentlemen to have them.

Anonymous said...

Connecticut was called the Nutmeg State because it was full of peddlers who sold them. For an example of a CT peddler who was not successful, read about Bronson Alcott.

BTW, a child's carriage is being sold at Christy's from the Spencer (think Diana's brother) attic sale.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Vanessa, thanks for the complement!

Lady Burgley, I thank you, too, for the Napoleonic war-era-fun fact. And likely Jack Aubrey would thank you, too, for remembering him.

Anonymous, I agree, there were plenty of peddlers in 19th c. CT (and thank goodness for posterity that Bronson Alcott failed as one!), and spices of all kinds would have been important wares. Where would the classic Yankee Indian pudding or pumpkin pie be without cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg? But there would have been plenty of other peddlers roaming throughout New England, in MA, VT, NH, and ME as well as CT at the same time, and their wagons would have carried far more than just nutmegs. Why single out CT, I wonder? I don't know the answer either way; just wondering. :)

Thanks for the note about the Christie's sale, too. What a sale that will be -- hardly an ordinary "yard sale." Here's the link to the press release:

Cynthia said...

I loved reading this entry about the nutmeg graters. I sent the link to my husband to read and he enjoyed it so much, he looked for more images to ooh and ahh over.

Best wishes!

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Glad you and your husband enjoyed it, Cynthia! I also followed your link to your own blog, and I'm guessing that your husband does NEED a silver nutmeg grater to go along with that gorgeous new 18th c. shirt. :)

Cynthia said...

Thanks so much! And yes, I think he would love to find a silver nutmeg grater -- it would be a perfect accessory! :D

Pica Pica said...

I saw a shop in London selling C18th nutmeg graters, including one monogrammed as the property of king George III - all I can say is pricey, pricey, pricey.

Unknown said...

I have one of these little nutmeg grinders. It is in the shape of a walnut. I would like to sell it. Can anyone help me find a way to sell mine? Thank you.

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