The 17th to the 20th Century

Americans enter the spice trade.

Americans began their entry into the world spice race in 1672. Boston-born Elihu Yale, a former clerk of the British East India Company in Madras, India, began his own spice business. He made a fortune that he would one day use to start Yale University. In 1797 Captain Jonathan Carnes sailed into Salem, Massachusetts from Indonesia with a large load of pepper. He had traded directly with Asian natives rather than going through European-held monopolies. As a result, Salem, Massachusetts became the center of spice trade in North America. The first voyage produced a 700% profit, and trading was off and running. Nearly one thousand American ships made that around-the-world voyage over the next 90 years.

As their influence grew, Americans made many new contributions to the spice world. Texan settlers developed chili powder in 1835 as a simpler way to make Mexican dishes. In 1889 food researchers in Watsonville, California developed the techniques for dehydrating onions and garlic. In 1906 Eugene Durkee wrote the first standards for spice purity under the U.S. Pure Food and Drug Act.

World War II brought interest in international foods to America as soldiers brought home a love of the foods they had found in Europe and Asia. Use of oregano, “the pizza herb” grew 5200% in the decade after the war.

Asia still grows most of the spices that once ruled the trade, including cinnamon, pepper, nutmeg, cloves, and ginger. However, more and more spices are being planted in the Western Hemisphere along with a wide variety of herbs and aromatic seeds. Brazil is a major supplier of pepper. Grenada grows nutmeg. Jamaica grows ginger and allspice. Nicaragua, El Salvador, and the United States grow sesame seed. Europe and California produce many herbs, and Canada grows several aromatic seeds.

From the beginning of history the strongest nations have controlled the spice trade. The same is true today; the United States is now the world’s major spice buyer, followed by Germany, Japan, and France.