Spice Me Up for Christmas
Originally posted for Huffington Post on 12/23/2013
All right, fellow fruitcake fans, I know you’re out there. Start macerating your dried fruit for a potent holiday fruitcake. It’s time to spice up the season.
If the idea of anything other than a white Christmas seems strange, spend Christmas in the islands — they love it there, decorating lavishly, yet tropically, playing their own Christmas carols, more than we have by a mile, all with an exuberant, hopped-up Afro-Caribbean beat, a music known as soca parang. They’ve been playing soca Christmas music since October, and a day won’t pass without someone’s radio blasting, “Spice Me Up for Christmas.”
Maybe you put a dash of nutmeg on your cappuccino or your egg (or eggless) nog, or maybe there was a pinch of it in your Thanksgiving pumpkin pie. Maybe you don’t even think about it. They take spice seriously, even personally in the Caribbean. There was a time everyone did. Christopher Columbus and Vasco de Gama came to the new world searching for gold and spices. Back then, a pound of nutmeg cost as much as a cow. People used nutmeg in church as an aromatic portal to the divine and in bed as an aphrodisiac. Does it work? Well, a little is awfully nice, a lot can be dangerous. You can also use nutmeg oil — safely, chastely — to soothe aching muscles and joints and relieve the itch from mosquito bites.
In Grenada, nutmeg capital of the universe, it’s more than a winter dash or pinch, it’s part of their national identity. Known as the Spice Isle, Grenada, near the equator, is perpetually 78 degrees (something to ponder during a blizzard). Nutmeg trees, like almost everything else there, grows freakishly well. The fruit, which looks like an apricot, grows all year long and has two harvests. When it’s ripe, the fruit yields not one but two spices, the glossy brown nutmeg seed and mace, the lacy red corset that surrounds it.
Grenada harvests and processes nutmeg as it always has, by hand, and the whole island is proud to be a part of it. The so-called processing plants are run as co-ops and are open-air warehouse space housing upon row of huge wooden drying racks. They’re all filled with nutmeg, enough for all the cappuccinos in the world. The scent of nutmeg in the air is enough to make you swoony. Nutmeg sorters, some who’ve been working there for most of their lives, separate the dried nutmeg into grades, working so fast, the nutmegs click together like castanets. Much of the spice goes for export, but it’s everywhere on the island, too, growing from trees, the whole seeds set in bowls in people’s homes and sold in bags at the spice market, along with ginger, cinnamon, turmeric and all the spices that flourish here.
Nutmeg used to flourish more here. In 2004, Hurricane Ivan blew out many of the island’s stately nutmeg trees (and much of Grenada itself). They’ve planted a new generation of nutmeg trees, but the trees are slow to mature, taking ten years to yield fruit. In the interim, many nutmeg farms now also plant cocoa, which grows quickly with high yield and fetches a good price. Yet the nutmeg is still dearest to them. It’s even on their national flag.
And of course it’s in their kitchens. Gentler than ginger, bolder than cinnamon, nutmeg awakens your mouth with a quick blast then mellows to a nutty flavor. Caribbean cuisine makes far more use of nutmeg than a mere grating of it in eggnog. It’s an essential part of curries, custards, ice cream and black cake, the Christmas fruitcake even you would like. It’s lighter in body than the kind your auntie makes, but richer in spice. And booze.
Spice me up at Christmas? Yes, please. And the rest of the year, too.