The University Record, November 12, 2001

Matthaei class offers the spice of life

By Joanne Nesbit
News and Information Services

David Michener, assistant curator at Matthaei Botanical Gardens, enjoyed his Adult Education Class on spices as much as his students. The class learned about early misconceptions and the abuse of what Michener refers to as ‘botanical confections.’ (Photo by Paul Jaronski, U-M Photo Services)
Students in David Michener’s “Spice of Life” class at the Matthaei Botanical Gardens ground and tasted their way through spices of the Classic-era European cultures, Medieval Europe and even those of the New World.

Whether it be Roman, Medieval or Modern, the adult-education class discussed some authentic recipes including a savory dish of chicken with fruit that starts its ingredient list with “several chickens.”

Should you have eel on this week’s grocery list, then a festive dish calls for eel chunks to be skewered for grilling with a bay leaf positioned between each piece of eel.

“I wouldn’t eat eels no matter how good the spices,” one student remarked.

Roman-Era spices and seasonings include basil, bay, borage, chamomile, coriander, dill, fennel, garlic, iris, mint, mustard, myrtle, onion, oregano, parsley, rose, rosemary, rue, saffron, sage and thyme.

Flavorings of Late Medieval Europe include anise seed, black pepper, cardamon, caraway seed, cassia buds, celery, chervil, cloves, cinnamon, coriander seed, cumin seed, dill seed, fennel, galangal, ginger, “Grains of Paradise,” horseradish, hyssop, long pepper, mace, marjoram, nigella seed, nutmeg, parsley, poppy seed, rue, saffron, sage, savory, tansy and thyme.

“Tasting the freshly ground spices has evoked long-forgotten childhood memories for several students,” Michener says. “And though most of the spices are almost unrecognizable to many of us—both whole and when ground—we had a lot of fun determining exactly what part of the plant was in front of us.”

Besides Michener’s classes, recipes from times past using spices can be found in the U-M Press’ book, Neapolitan Recipe Collection: Cuoco Napoletano, where recipes are taken from the aristocratic and bourgeois social life in the late Middle Ages and include how to cook eggs on the coals, how to make two pigeons of one and at least two ways to prepare garden warblers.

And the University’s library system has a number of cookbooks dating from 1591 with such titles as Booke of Cookerie Otherwise Called the Good Huswives Handmaid. A myriad of titles can be found via MIRLYN.

Another campus source for cookbooks emphasizing spices and other condiments is the Clements Library where Jan Langone serves as the curator of American culinary history. There the holdings include not only a collection of classic American cookbooks, but the first American cookbook (Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery—1796), the first Black authored household manual, and the earliest Jewish American cookbook.