Yankee Peddler Spice

The Nutmeg State” is not the official nickname of Connecticut (the “Constitution State” is the real nickname), but it the one that sticks in your mind because your first reaction is “Why nutmeg?”

Nutmeg fruits with red mace webbing.

Nutmeg comes from an evergreen tropical tree called Myristica frangans, which for many years grew only on the island of Banda in the Moluccas (Maluku) Islands between Celebes and Papua New Guinea, and the Portuguese kept the location secret. Nutmeg was a desirable spice in the Middle Ages in part because of its sweetness; sugar was not yet easily available. In the 17th century the Dutch discovered the source island of nutmeg (along with the rest of Indonesia) and, in effect, took it. The Dutch became prominent re-exporters of the spice. Connecticut, perhaps not coincidentally, was right next to the Dutch colony of New Holland in the Hudson Valley.

The “Yankee peddler” is a fixture in the constellation of early American characters. Traders would load up a cart and a horse would pull it all over the colonies and eventually the states, selling manufactured items and dry goods to people living off the beaten path, far from a store. As the population got larger and more dense, the routes of the Yankee peddlers became fewer and longer (to find the westward moving frontier), but spices from the Far East were probably still difficult for most people to get right into the 19th century.

Nutmeg fruits and ground spice.
Nutmeg fruits and ground spice.

There are two variations of the story of how Connecticut Yankees were joined to the spice from Banda. In one they are unscrupulousdi skin flints who made wooden nutmeg fruits to sell because it was cheaper than selling the real thing. This requires us to believe that these customers would associate the traders’ state of origin with the real item. Did they assume that all the real nutmeg was still back in Connecticut, being enjoyed by a lot of Connecticut residents?

The second variation would seem to be the more believable version (in that intentionally cheating someone when you intend to go back there on your next trading trip would seem to be a very dangerous business practice). In this telling the trader sells the whole nutmeg fruit to hapless customers who do not know how to get the flavor out of it and throw it away as a useless waste of money. They come to think of Connecticut peddlers as “those jerks who sold me that fake nutmeg”. In the second version, however, it is possible to imagine the trader returning and saying, “What? You threw it out? You’re supposed to grate it into powder! Here, I’ll sell the spice grater to you.”

The nutmeg per se is a hard ovoid kernel at the center of the M. fragans fruit. Other species in the genus have similar but inferior spice qualities and the less expensive varieties of nutmeg may be adulterated with these.

M. fragans is a dioecious tree, meaning that the male and female flowers are borne on entirely different plants. This makes male plants entirely useless as a source of nutmeg, so the usual method of propagation is grafting.

Vintage nutmeg tin
Vintage nutmeg tin

Many sources of information will describe the sources of nutmeg as being Indonesia and Grenada, but Myristica now has been planted throughout the East and West Indies. It is a full-sized tree, attaining heights of 60 feet, and it takes six to eight years before it begins producing usable fruit and it doesn’t become mature until it is 20 years old.

Another popular and much repeated fact is that Myristica is the only tree to produce two spices: nutmeg and mace. Mace is derived from a bright red webbing that is wrapped around the woody outer covering of the nutmeg fruit. It is much less widely used; its flavor is described as a combination of pepper and cinnamon. Mace is supposedly the dominant flavor in … doughnuts.