From the Notebooks of Susan Holloway Scott

Nutmeg, My Lord?

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Most of us self-diagnosed history nerds are familiar with snuff-boxes, and can easily imagine a 17th or 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 remoteBanda 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....



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