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Flavoring culture / Le goût pour la cannelle

How the universally recognized spice cassia-cinnamonum gains and loses prestige throughout history
Charles Feldman and Kathleen Bauer


From the earliest of times cinnamon has helped to bind groups together by imparting tradition and belonging. Yet on the other hand, cinnamon has evoked social difference through attributes of status, prestige and exclusivity. We have sought to find answers to fundamental research questions considering attributes affecting the popularity of this spice. Modern and historical text, recipes and some interview data were used to investigate this narrow topic. The authors attribute cinnamon’s historical prominence to uniquely intertwined properties of symbolic meaning, health benefits, sweet smell and taste. However, in recent history the spice has lost much of its ability to promote exclusivity or prestige. The collected information informs the understanding of the many ways food ingredients function to connect lives.

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1Cinnamomum cassia, the variety most often used in the United States, and Cinnamomum zeylanicum, or Ceylon cinnamon, often referred to as true cinnamon, (or canel as both spices are sometimes called) are processed from the inner bark of tropical trees related to the laurel family. True cinnamon is a milder and slightly sweeter variety generally preferred by Europeans and Latin Americans. In fact, Europeans looking for cassia need to shop in specialty stores such as are found in Chinese markets. The main producers of Ceylon cinnamon are Sri Lanka, India, Madagascar, Brazil and the Caribbean. The US Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act allows the term cinnamon to be used for Ceylon Cinnamon, Chinese cassia and Indonesian cassia. However, in other parts of the world the two terms may not be interchangeable. Cassia and cinnamon are widely used in the United States and come from China, Vietnam, Central America and Indonesia.

2Cinnamon is sold as a powder, bark, bud and oil. The bark is scraped off the tree, usually during the rainy season since it is easier to handle, and allowed to dry into a quill (cinnamon stick). Cassia usually dries into a scroll. The quills or scrolls are cut into shorter lengths or ground into a powder. The various forms of cinnamon are used as food additives, condiments and flavoring agents. Oils come from cinnamon and cassia waste products, usually the outer bark, and may be used in candles and cosmetics. Throughout this paper the word cinnamon will be used to collectively describe both spices except when information directly relates to cassia.

3From the earliest to modern times, cinnamon has provided a number of benefits to its consumers. This spice has helped to bind groups together by imparting tradition and belonging through a culinary bridge to the past. Yet on the other hand, cinnamon has served to evoke status, prestige and exclusivity. Cinnamon has also been known for having positive pharmacological effects. Its healing properties were known to ancient shamans, and have come to the notice of modern day medical and nutrition practitioners. In addition, this most prolific spice is used across cultures in many culinary preparations. The spice is popularly thought of to be a recognized flavoring in Indian; Mexican; Middle Eastern; Lebanese; North African, particularly Moroccan; and Chinese cuisines1. Cinnamon gives savory highlights to meat dishes and sweetness to pastries and desserts. Recipes for foods spiced with cinnamon can be found globally, in almost any culture.

4Cinnamon was chosen for how it informs on taste, culture and health. We are hard-pressed to find another spice that expresses broad dimensions of prestige, cultural and medicinal value. Black pepper has status attributes but ambiguous health benefits. Since the earliest of times, black pepper was one of the most valuable substances exported from India and the East Indies. It has the potential to purge the respiratory system and encourage perspiration. However, this spice can be detrimental to the stomach and bladder. If both sugar and salt are considered spices, their history as culinary flavorings is relatively short and health benefits are certainly questionable. Sugar most likely originated in the Orient and was used initially for medicinal purposes. Its primary modern health benefit is as a metabolic fuel. Sugar’s culinary value, however, only began to accrue in European diets of the medieval period. Salt, since the earliest of times has been used as a preservative. It is essential for the maintenance of fluids and electrolytes in the body, but in large quantities has been shown to adversely affect blood pressure and calcium metabolism. Spices such as turmeric, cardamom, saffron and asafetida have cultural, economic and possible health values, but the attributes do not weigh as heavily as the cinnamon example. Turmeric and cardamom were used extensively in early Greek and Roman cuisine. These spices were used to a lesser extent in the Middle Ages. Saffron was used mostly as a dye or aromatic in early Europe. Being extremely expensive, consumption of this spice was very limited. Asafetida, known for medicinal and culinary properties by early Indians, Greeks and Romans, dropped out of western cookbooks in the medieval period, reappearing in the 16th century2. Since early times ginger and garlic have been praised for their pharmacological benefits. Ginger was always known for its ability to assuage digestive discomfort. We now know garlic lowers cholesterol and blood pressure. However, garlic, sempre é cibo rusticano (always a peasant food – Wright,1999: 511.) to historical Italians, was not an exotic ingredient. Ginger moved in and out of economic prominence, only for moments reaching the prestigious heights of cinnamon (Laurioux, 1985: 50-51). There have been other ingredients having opulent value historically in western cookery, but they are not universally used in modern cookery practice, examples being: galingale, rue, lovage, costmary, hazelwort, hyssop, spikenard, fenugreek, malabathrum, and grains of paradise – just to name a few (Dalby 2000; Laurioux, 1985; Bedard, 2003: 41-42. Lawson, 1998: 176-209).

Cinnamon history

5The historical chronicles of cinnamon-spiced meals, typically applying to aristocratic classes, no doubt whetted the historical reader’s palette with temptations of excess. While we do not know if these texts were meant for documentation, instruction or boastful exaggeration, the exuberant citations of cinnamon and other spices no longer evoke positive flavor appeal. The modern recipe-reader might even be put off at the thought of consuming one of these medieval spice-laced brews. Examples of such include a 14th century recipe for a pype (barrel) of spiced wine calling for four pounds of cinnamon, abbreviated as follows:

…take iii lb. of gyngyuer, iiii lb. canel, i quarter of greynes, a half unce of notemugges, & half a quarter of clowis, I unce of spikenard, I unce of long pepper.

…take 3 pounds of ginger, 4 pounds of cinnamon, 1 quarter pound of greynes [related to cardamom], a half ounce of nutmeg and a quarter ounce of cloves (BL MS Royal 17 A iii (6) - (Hieatt & Butler, 1985: 149).

6Another historical example of a heavily spiced cinnamon concoction is a Dutch recipe for pepper-sauce from the second half of the 15th century. The recipe as follows calls for a quarter pound of cinnamon as a predominant spice (and hence, flavor) but curiously no pepper as the title implies:

Om een pepersaus te maken. Neem éénvierde pond kaneel, fijngestampt, éénachtste pond gember, één ons kruidnagels, 1/2 ons galanga (laos) en drie quaerten (inhoudsmaat) azijn.

To make a pepper sauce. Take one quarter of a pound of cinnamon, crushed, one eighth of a pound of ginger, one ounce cloves, 1/2 ounce galanga and three quarters (liquid measure) of vinegar (Wel ende edelike spijse I.32 – Muusers, 2006).

7Today cinnamon is no longer an exclusive ingredient used in excessive quantities, nor is it a particular marker for regional or ethnic cuisine. However the spice maintains positive flavor attributes, widespread popularity and medicinal value.

Taste and recognition

8As such, we have sought to find answers to three fundamental research questions. We believe these to be important considerations for any discussion of food and culture: 1) How do culinary ingredients like cinnamon gain prominence? Are they chosen for flavor, recognized cultural meanings, medicinal properties, or a combination of attributes? 2) How has cinnamon been able to offer the values of inclusion or recognition to so many? 3) Why does an ingredient like cinnamon lose prestige or recognition as a prominent culinary ingredient? 4) Are there any similarities or differences in the use of cinnamon across ancient and modern time periods? In the following discussion, we will show how taste, exclusivity, mystification and health issues have influenced historical and modern consumption of cinnamon.

9Taste, that is cognitive taste as opposed to innate flavor proclivities, is relative to the culture, time and context surrounding the taster. The way cinnamon has been used has changed across time and cultures. It has been utilized for embalming in early Egypt. The spice is mentioned in the Old and New Testaments as an expression of spirituality (cf Exodus 30:23-26; Revelation 18:13; Ravindran, et al.: 4; Dalby: 39). Cinnamon was used in Chinese meal preparations from the 2nd century BC through the 10th century AD (in texts of the Chou, Han and T’ang dynasties before its use dropped out of the historically recorded Chinese literature)(Chang, 1977: 23-52, esp. 31, 33, 52n3, 53-83; Schafer, 1977: 85-140, esp.112, 131). In ancient Greek and Roman times, cinnamon had great value as it was used as an ointment, aromatic or in conspicuous displays of spirituality or power. However, the spice apparently was not used in ancient Roman culinary preparations. Aside from Dioscorides 1st century pharmacological notations (discussed later) cinnamon is not mentioned by Cato in his second century BC recipes; by Celsus in his early first century medical-culinary concoctions; in the De re coquinaria, a fourth century culinary compilation of ancient Roman recipes; or in the fifth century culinary-medicinal writings of Anthimus ambassador of Theodoric, king of the Ostrogoths in Italy. Hence it seems cinnamon for the Romans, had no culinary taste all3.

10From these inauspicious beginnings cinnamon has become one of the most widely used culinary spices in the world. Although we cannot be sure when cinnamon was first used for western cookery purposes, the 7th and 8th centuries seem to be the transition point when cinnamon or canel (as both cinnamon and cassia were called at the time) moved from perfumery, spiritual and medical purposes to being an addition to the European culinary palette. The charter of 716 by King Chilperic mentions two pounds, being purchased annually perhaps for culinary use, in Corbie, a monastery in northern France. Around the same time, the spice was used in central and oriental Europe, especially in the preparation of baked goods and meats. Cinnamon was used for cooking in the near east perhaps a little earlier. At some indeterminable point the spice was incorporated into eastern garum masala or curry preparations (Lauriox, 1985: 62-5; Hieatt, 2002: 19-45; Achaya, 1994: 49; Revel, 1982: 13, 141 & 167). Europeans then carried their unprecedented taste for cinnamon to the corners of the world. One recorded comment by Garcia da Orta, a 16th century Portuguese physician stationed in Goa, attested to cinnamon’s pleasing properties, says he:

One cannot eat any spice with pleasure except cinnamon. It is true that the Germans and Flemings eat pepper, and here our negresses eat cloves, but Spaniards do not eat anything of the spices except cinnamon. I bear it in memory that the food smelt strongly of it, and not any other spice (Pearson, 1996: 1, 2).

11The movement of cinnamon in and out of culinary prominence is partly explained by its value for conspicuous consumption. Speaking generally, the use of spices has been a critical indicator of status in hierarchal European and Asian societies. The higher the ranking of an individual the more likely inordinate amounts were used. Tasting aside, symbolic acts of giving, displaying or wasting spices served aristocracy well. The symbolic worth of consuming or wasting expensive items affirmed the power of those who had the means to do so. Commodities having only fleeting existence would fit this criterion. Examples of this temporal decadence among ancient Roman elites include the purchase of snow in summer or large quantities of perfume as reported by Pliny and also Seneca. Snow cools for only a moment and then quickly melts. Perfume is described as an even more absurd decadence, “the most superfluous of all forms of luxury,” according to Pliny, use up their scent all at once4. Historically, cinnamon seems to also fit nicely in this category. Excluding potential health properties, cinnamon by itself does not sustain life and is generally not addictive. Granted, cinnamon has a sweet taste but it can not really be held or worn. It loses its display value after consumption, and with one puff powdered cinnamon gets dispersed to the wind. Many can confess periods in life when they went for days or months or years consuming this spice, but not feeling the least bit deprived. However, common sense tells us (and history reminds) luxuries (like cinnamon was) inspire greater thrills than necessities. Spices grown locally, like garlic though flavorful garnered little excitement, as they were readily available to all. However, cinnamon certainly fit the bill as a precious substance: it was expensive, foreign, shrouded in mystery and historically out of reach for under-classes. Cinnamon’s potential for aristocratic decadence becomes apparent when one considers many chronicled acts of associated extravagance. Keeping in mind many modern-day recipes most often call for a “pinch,” of the spice, some historical characters were willing to spend outrageous prices to consume astonishing amounts. The following comparisons are staggering: In 1256 the visiting royalty of Scotland celebrated the Feast of Assumption in Woodstock along with 50 lbs of cinnamon (Turner, 2004: 46). John the Good, the 14th century king of France, recorded a purchase of 16 pounds 12-ounces of cassia “buds” at five times the price of cinnamon (Laurioux, 1985: 53). In addition, the desire to consume cinnamon traversed historical fears about danger and death. Many died or risked their lives throughout history in exploration for the spice or in wars to control its distribution5.

12One possible reason for the high demand of cinnamon was its association with mystical properties. To the people of the first and early second millennia, spices came from a fantastic world; their aroma was redolent of paradise. In a recent article, Stephan Halikowski Smith argues an historical European penchant to mystify eastern spices through effusive imagery and marvelous tales. From the early Greek period through the Renaissance, tales of the origins, habitat and methods of spice cultivation, particularly cinnamon, relieved general monotony by conjuring up wonderment. Burning essences and images of fragrant heavenly spice groves effected strong religious connotations or connections to the gods (Smith, 2001:119-136). Our historical informants said some remarkable things specifically about the collection of cinnamon. The gap between what was not commonly known about the spice and what was real left much room for the historical imagination. Herodotus in the 5th century BC (by way of Pliny) tells us cinnamon is collected in shallow lakes defended by shrieking bat-like creatures (HN XII.XLII. 85-86)6. Aristotle a century later, heard about strange birds collecting the spice to build their nests. Local tribesmen would shoot lead-weighted arrows into the nests, making them fall to the ground for gathering (IX.XIII.1-10 616a). Around the same time Theophrastus recalled a fable about cinnamon groves defended by deadly-snakes (IX. V.1-3).7 Ovid, writing at the turn of the 1st century BC, held that the phoenix lives and dies among the odors of cinnamon and other spices (Metamorphoses XV. 395-400)8 Around the same time Phaedrus spun a fable where a king’s cinnamon-scented breath is compared to the incensed alters of the gods (IV.15. 1-2)9. Contemporary scholar Andrew Dalby (2000) relays to us a story about the spice from the 11th century Arab “Summary of Marvels.” It lists cinnamon coming from the fabled land of the Waqwaq bird. Wondrous stories persisted through Jean sire de Joinville, the 13th century biographer of Louis IX of France. He says spices including cinnamon fall from trees growing from an earthly paradise. People collect them with nets laid down where the Nile River enters Egypt (XL 187)10. Smith (2001) brings to our attention the 16th century the French scribe Andre Thevet, who as part of his Cosmographie Universelle produced a plate depicting cinnamon trees of fantastic proportions (121). These tales added exotic value to the spice, which in turn may have increased demand and price. Burning of spices, like cinnamon, were used for improving the odor of the home, and also as a votive message to the gods (Potter, 2002:180). In our modern society cinnamon continues to inspire mystical, spiritual and magical quests. For example, a Pagan/Wicca website claims “cinnamon has many magickal [sic] uses. It is most powerful when used in spells for love or passion, but can also be used for money and prosperity as well as health related rituals” (Paajanen, 2006). To affect these spells, the spice is ingested or used as an aromatic.

13Smell and taste are clearly linked, as Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1826) has pointed out in his 19th century culinary treatise (21-32). Taste links to perceptions of self and group distinction, as noted by Bourdieu (1984: 173) and so does smell, as modern classicist David Potter (2002) contends. The smell of cinnamon has also been used to define spirituality, goodness or decadence, power and prestige, and gender difference. Cinnamon has properties that could announce through olfactory means those who could afford to possess an expensive substance. For example, Nero ostensibly burned a year’s supply of sweet-smelling cinnamon in his wife’s funeral pyre as an aromatic display of extravagant power. On the other hand, some early Christian ascetics associated the smell of cinnamon in particular with notions on filth and decadent temptations11. Comparatively, smells of ruddy spices like garlic might have announced the presence of peasantry (90-110)12.

14Modern aromatherapy supporters continue to tout the beneficial aromatic properties of cinnamon. The NAHA (National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy) defines aromatherapy as “the art and science of utilizing naturally extracted aromatic essences (essential oils) from plants to balance, harmonize and promote the health of body, mind and spirit”(2006:1). Followers believe the aromas and the chemical constituents of the essential oils produce healthful emotional and physiological reactions when used during massages, added to bath water or diffused into the air. In particular, the essential oil of cinnamon is considered a physical and emotional stimulant capable of increasing mental cognitive processing. Related to this claim, research by Will Esgro at Wheeling Jesuit University in the US, found cinnamon increased ratings of alertness and decreased ratings of fatigue in a study simulating driving conditions in which cinnamon odor was compared to a non-odor condition. In a previous study by a research team at the same university, computer mental task activities improved when research participants were given the spice in chewing gum or as an odorant (Esgro, 2006). Other claims for the aromatic properties of cinnamon, which have not received modern scientific examination, include beneficial effects on sexual desire, circulation and digestion. We do know shamans, doctors and pharmacologists have recommended cinnamon for a host of health issues throughout recorded history (Esgro, 2006). Gender differences have also divided spiced cuisine since the earliest times. We think, although we do not know, many historical men preferred eating a naked, flame-roasted steak rather than a “dainty” edible made with sweet-smelling cinnamon. However, there is evidence of certain ancient Romans considered a desire for exotically spiced foods to be an effeminate trait (Horace Sat. III.305)13.

Cinnamon and health: Then and now

15In general, the historical use of spices in cooking was related to medical and dietetic notions. This was codified in ancient eastern texts and, for many centuries thereafter in medical prescriptions. Every food had an analogous dietetic virtue in the historical dietetic theory of humors of foods with hot, cold, wet and dry properties. An example of one such effect of this theory was the association of spices in general, and cinnamon to be specific, with hot and dry properties: good for use in the winter months or to counteract foods (like meat) having cold viscous properties (Laurioux, 1985: 51; Flandrin, 1996: 313-327; Scully, 2002: 47-66). Dioscorides of Anazarba (in Sicily) in the 1st century AD praised the many therapeutic properties of cinnamon. It is remarkable that over a millennium later Dioscorides thoughts on the subject, below, are validated through the written inflections and affirmation of John Goodyer’s (1968) 17th century translation:

…Now all Cinnamon hath a warming, vreticall, mollifying, & concocting faculty. It driues [drives] out also the menstrual, & the foetus, being drank with myrrh, or else layd to. It is good also against beasts that cast out their poyson & against deadly poysons, & it doth cleanse away, heate & attenuate the matters that did darken the apples of ye eyes, and it is Diureticall, & being anointed on with honey it takes away the Lentigo [brown patches], and the Sunburning. It is also good for coughs, & falling downe of rheumes [swollen joints], the Dropsies, the diseases of the kidnies, the Difficultates vrinae [urine]. It is also mixed with precious ointments, & in generall it is profitable for many thinges (I.12).

16Aldebrandin of Siena (in 1256) in his Regimen corpus also echoes many of Discorides’ virtuous observations of cinnamon. For example, Aldebrandin says: it [cinnamon] is good for purging phlegm (F19b. 26-32); and the body as a whole, in particular stomach maladies and (F29b.5-15). Aldebrandin also includes a section on its general virtues and provides guidelines on how to select cinnamon. In sum, he says: “Its good for countering cold secretions” (F67d.13-21, 1-6)14.

17Cinnamon was also known to give equilibrium to otherwise unhealthy preparations of food. For example Platina, a 15th century Italian, doctors up a concoction called Relish for Dried Plums by calling for “maxime vero cinnamon(be sure to put in as much cinnamon as possible – XIII.5 - Milham, 1998). One might assume the heating property of the cinnamon balanced the otherwise cold attribute of the plums. In his Regimen sanitas, Maino dé Maineri a physician of the 14th century, several times mentions the virtues of spices and sauces in a healthy diet. If a food is cold and viscous, he calls for a hot and dry sauce. An example given is salsa camellina (Cameline Sauce) containing cinnamon and grains of paradise as the primary ingredients (Thorndike, 1934: 183-190). Many areas of the world such as Greece, China, India, Tibet and Japan have used the ground bark of cinnamon in traditional, folk and modern remedies as an antiseptic, astringent, curative, or a stimulant (Krishnamoorthy & Rema, 2003:311-326). There have been a variety of medicinal claims, many of which are directed at the gastrointestinal tract. Cinnamon has been prescribed to alleviate stomach cramps, nausea, ulcers, toothache, indigestion, and relief from flatulence. One common recommendation is to use half a coffee spoon of cinnamon in a cup of tea as a remedy for diarrhea (Toussaint-Samat, 1997:487). It has been also used for impotence, menopausal symptoms, amenorrhea, nausea, infections, and to improve appetite and energy.

18Although many of the historical claims regarding medicinal value of cinnamon have not received modern scrutiny by researchers, there are a number of intriguing recent findings, especially related to blood sugar levels. Animal studies and a pilot study with people who have diabetes have shown benefits of just a half a teaspoon of cassia a day on blood sugar and blood lipid (triglycerides and cholesterol) levels (Khan et al., 2003: 3215-3218). Test tube research indicates that chemicals in cinnamon enhance the body’s ability to use insulin (Anderson, et al, 2004: 65-70). In addition, a study of cinnamon antioxidant activity found cinnamon was as good or better when compared to known excellent antioxidants such as vitamin C and carotene (Anderson et al., 2003:1). A widely used Ayurvedic energizing and immune enhancing tonic, chyawanaprash, contains a number of ingredients including cinnamon. An Ayurveda recipe for an energy boosting drink includes 4-5 whole dates, 1 cup whole glass of organic milk, and 1 pinch cinnamon powder (Ayruveda, 2006:1).

19The question remains whether cinnamon gained culinary repute in the kitchen for medicinal purposes or purely as a flavoring, or are taste and health interrelated. Seasonings are of great value to the maintenance of a healthy diet, according to Maineri because they increase the pleasing properties of the food, hence making it more digestible (Thorndike, 1934: 118). On this, the 19th century French gastronome Brillat-Savarin (1826) gives us a thought to savor: It may be laid down as a general premise, he says, that nutritious substances are hostile neither to taste nor smell (12). Cinnamon, as it has been generally acknowledged has sweet smell and taste, seems to fit nicely into Brillat-Savarin’s alimentary maxim. Cinnamon’s ability to offer heath, or well-being benefits to consumers in combination with pleasing taste certainly affected its historical popularity.

Changes in prestige

20Without question, historically cinnamon was a strong marker for elite recognition in Europe and also Asia and the colonized Americas. However, exclusive of unrecorded Chinese regional uses, cinnamon’s ability to establish cultural or national distinction throughout later history has been muted by its universality. By the 17th century cinnamon along with many other spices disappeared from French and then European aristocratic cookery, supplanted by local herbs, cream, and oils which were becoming more and more usual (Revel, 1982: 172-210). The demise of cinnamon from elite European tables after the 18th century mirrors the decline of pepper. Black pepper (Piper nigrum, the sine qua non of the ancient Roman meal - Pliny HN XII.XIV.29) dropped from prominence during the medieval period. Laurioux (1985) attributes this situation to the popularization of the spice: it became common (58). Through increased availability and then internationalization, cinnamon too may have lost its original defining attributes: the symbolic association of exotic and exclusive properties.

21To provide perspective on the difference of how cinnamon from ancient to modern times, we interviewed Moroccan, Indonesian, Sri Lankan and Mexican chefs who prepared culinary fare from regions cited earlier in this paper as being especially known for cinnamon production. We also reviewed various modern culture-specific recipe books featuring cinnamon. Our preliminary interview data did not seem particularly revealing. The chefs all concurred that chili peppers were a strongly recognized property of the food preparations of their culture. However, as an individual flavoring, cinnamon did not particularly classify the foods they cook as being part of their ethnic or nationalist cuisine. For example, our Sri Lankan informants understood cinnamon to be a prime commodity of their homeland, but not the most important ingredient in any of their recipes. So too, the Moroccan and Indonesian chefs reported cinnamon to be part of spice combinations, rather than an individual flavor. The Mexican chefs we interviewed relegated the spice to certain beverages and desserts. While important to these accoutrements (ostensibly to provide “sweetness”), cinnamon is not featured prominently in their versions of Mexican cuisine. None of our informants could provide a single recipe featuring cinnamon as “the” prominent ingredient. Nor could they recall any events, stories, remedies or folk tales related to the spice. Thus continuation of the interview process was deemed fruitless. However, the overall lack of hard interview data on the prominence of cinnamon, initially frustrating, became part of our formative theory: Through universality a spice loses its ability to distinguish class and cultural dimensions. This argument is supported by a review of current recipe books. While we make no claim these books represent actual food use in any culture, we considered the reviewed modern cookbooks to project the popular image of what the given foodway. This informs both cultural participants and others of common accepted perceptions of food styles, taste, and flavors. The examples of recipes below were selected as representative popular cookbook literature we examined.

22Paula Wolfert’s (1987) standard collection of Moroccan recipes lists cinnamon as the first spice in the “Ten Most important Spices” section. Prominent recipe examples given by Wolfert to demonstrate cinnamon use include Berber harira soup, bisteeya and kdras (20-21). Surprisingly no mention is made of cinnamon in the twelve tagine (fragrant meat dish) recipes (278-89), even though cinnamon is a commonly recognized as part of this preparation (Davidson, 1999: 186). A closer look at the book reveals a harira (vegetable and meat) recipe requiring ½ teaspoon of cinnamon to be used in conjunction with 1 cup chopped onion; 1 cup chopped parsley, 1 tablespoon chopped celery leaves, 1 teaspoon pepper, 1 teaspoon turmeric, 1 teaspoon salted butter, 2 tablespoons coriander leaves, lemon wedges, salt and semolina flour (among other ingredients - 58-59). Clearly the cinnamon message, if you will, gets lost in this collage of flavorings.

23Of the three bisteeya recipes, one calls for 2 large cinnamon sticks and ¼ teaspoon of ground cinnamon to be added to a succession of strong flavorings including 5 cloves of garlic and varying amounts of onion, turmeric, ginger parsley and lemons (115). In the second recipe for bisteeya the flavors of ground and stick cinnamon are more pronounced: only balanced by orange flower water, salt and almond extract. The third recipe is a slight variation of the second (118).

24Out of three kdras (a spicy sauce dish) recipes given (for chicken only), 1 requires a large cinnamon stick to be combined with varying amounts of almonds, saffron, ginger, onions, parsley and lemon juice (198). The second recipe is a variation of the first (with rice instead of chick peas) but requires the cook to “omit the cinnamon stick” (200). Another lists pepper, ginger, saffron, parsley and turmeric as ingredients, but no cinnamon (201).

25Rich Bayless’ (1987) “authentic” Mexican cookbook lists cinnamon among thirty-odd essential ingredients (324-354). It is worth noting cinnamon’s one-paragraph description pales in comparison to the eleven pages dedicated to chili peppers. However, aside from desserts and drinks, there is nary a mention of cinnamon in the remaining recipes. Even in the drink and dessert recipes one could hardly categorize cinnamon as the dominant flavoring. Rather, it used sparingly as a garnish (287); in combination as a flavoring with vanilla and sugar (288, 300, 309), with rum and lime (296), or with aniseeds and molasses (316).

26We also examined a number of Asian recipes. Mridula Baljekar (2005) in her book on Indian cuisine, for example, lists cinnamon among thirty-five or so essential Indian ingredients (188-92). She dedicated two sentences to the description of this spice in comparison to half a page on chili peppers. Baljekar notes cinnamon is valued in sweet and savory Indian dishes. A review of her one hundred and thirty recipes finds cinnamon particularly called for in a number of lamb preparations (i.e. 33, 53. 53); and also in a meatball (56), rice (174) and vermicelli dish (63). However, in all recipes cinnamon is found blended within a multitude of flavorings including: ginger, chilies, garlic, cloves, cardamom, rosemary, fenugreek, saffron, onions, pine nits, and lemon juice. A number of dessert items contain cinnamon, but again in combination with many other flavorings including allspice, sugar, nutmeg and cardamom. In her Thousand Recipe Chinese Cookbook, Gloria Bley Miller (1966) lists cinnamon in the Ingredient and Glossary sections as a spice (25) and as part of a Ginger or Five Spice mix (708-9; 853-4). Other than these references, cinnamon is barely noted as a separate ingredient throughout the thousand-odd recipes presented. Cinnamon is listed in the glossary of Jennifer Brennan’s (1984) Asian cookbook (502). The spice is also listed in an historical review of Indonesian (36), Korean (50), Thai (61) and Chinese (199) cuisines. However, throughout the remainder of the book, cinnamon is mostly relegated to supporting spice mixes (125, 127, 118, 119). In these instances cinnamon works in select combinations with other spices including cumin, cloves, cardamom, pepper, mace, chilies and anchovy paste. It would be a stretch to say cinnamon dominates as a flavor in this cookbook.

27Cassie Maroun-Paladin’s book on Lebanese cuisine features a number of recipes containing cinnamon. When listed here as an ingredient it is always part of a spice mixture. One could argue cinnamon distinguishes Lebanese lamb preparations (Hill, 2004: 119-21, n1). Still, in our review of Lebanese recipes, cinnamon works in consort with other spices. In Maroun-Paladin’s (2005) book cinnamon is used in lamb recipes in various combinations with garlic, allspice, nutmeg, black pepper, mint, thyme, cumin and onion (35, 64, 73, 79). Looking at the African and Middle Eastern recipes provided by Josephine Bacon and Jenni Fleetwood (2005), one sees a flurry of recipes containing cinnamon. A closer inspection reveals cinnamon only functions here as part of a palette of other spices. For example, one Berber recipe form Atlas Mountains is entitled “Cinnamon-scented Chick Pea and Lentil Soup” (63). Even with this recipe cinnamon seems drowned within a sea of other flavorings: onions, ginger, turmeric, saffron, coriander, parsley and pepper15. While cinnamon is listed first among “Spices” in May Bsisu’s (2005) book of over two hundred Arab preparations, only ten of the listed recipes contain the spice. Of these most are lamb recipes (211-18). They feature modest amounts of cinnamon countered by many other spices including: bay leaves, cardamom, allspice, cloves, ginger, chilies, garlic and pepper.

28In sum, our review of cinnamon as it is depicted in published modern recipe books indicates the spice rarely stands alone as a recognized flavor of a food preparation. We believe this finding can be a generalized as a statement of commonality for cookbooks now available to the lay reader. Again, the use of cinnamon in these recipe books should not be seen as representative of actual use. Still, in contrast to reports of historical applications, cinnamon’s modern ability to make food identifiable as from a given group –its “food voice”-- seems muted16.


29Culinary tastes can change over history and across cultures. A group’s preference for spice or spice combination is contingent on many issues. First and foremost, the spice needs to be available, at least to select consumers. A pretext of mystic or medicinal properties seems to add to its aura and allure. Obscure tales about spices add adventure to the eating experience. A sweet-smelling aroma may offer spiritual connection and could confer status or possible gender attributes to the user. However the issue of flavor or culinary taste is problematic. Cinnamon possibly gained repute for its medicinal, spiritual and potential for extravagance, before it was universally recognized as a sweet-tasting ingredient. Based on the historical reports of cinnamon culinary usage, it is hard to imagine how usage of voluminous amounts of the spice could impart a pleasing flavor. Rather, it seems more likely the spice was valued for prestigious display. Even so, the use of smaller amounts could afford a modicum of notoriety to a patron. We could think cinnamon at least afforded an illusion of medicinal therapy or comfort in ancient times. Modern medicine affirms pharmacological benefits, which certainly added to the allure. Cinnamon’s clearly apparent strong sweet smell, flavor and definitive taste no doubt contributed to its universal appeal. However, increasing availability of cinnamon correlates (at least historically) with a decrease in economic, status and opulent values. In addition, universal usage has now limited the ability of cinnamon to be used as a definitive marker for cultural or national recognition. In modern recipes the spice typically is presented unrecognizably within an amalgam of other flavors.

30We suggest another reason why cinnamon did not remain as a strong identifier of any particular foodway: elite, ethic or otherwise. Sweet-smelling and tasting ingredients like sugar, cinnamon or honey have universal appeal; as such, they do not clearly mark food preparations of particular cultures or nationalities. On the other hand pungent ingredients: fermented fish sauces to ancient (such as garum) and modern Thai cuisine (such as Nam Pla), chilies for Mexican and certain Asian foods, strong-smelling French cheeses, and garlic to the Italian meal, for examples, seem to be more strongly recognized properties of foodways17. The question, partly explored by Rachel Lauden and Jeffery Pilcher (1999) in chili and chocolate examples, is how ingredients define a cuisine. They mention Mole Poblano as a Mexican national dish containing cinnamon along with chocolate and other spices - mixed into “one harmonious whole.” No particular flavoring clearly identifies this preparation as Mexican. On the other hand Lauden and Pilcher find “outlandish spiciness,” achieved by the inclusion of chili peppers in certain Mexican dishes, helped differentiate Creole Mexican food from elite Spanish cuisine. Chili peppers, while functioning somewhere between aristocratic and peasant fare sustains symbolic worth as part of a perceived nationalistic Mexican cuisine (59-70).

31We hope this paper spurs more investigation on other spices. It is one thing to take notice of the therapeutic properties of a spice. However, it is also important to understand how this ingredient works within cultural boundaries. A complete understanding of these issues will benefit consumers and professionals in the health, nutrition and culinary communities.

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1 It is reportedly found in Middle Eastern lamb tagines, Lebanese lamb dishes, eastern curry preparations (garum masala) and as part of the Chinese “Five Spice” combination. See: Hill, 2004:199-121; Davidson, 1999: 186; Sortun, 2006:103; Passmore, 1991: 78.
2 Substantiated by Laurioux, 1985: 50-51 & 64-65; Adamson, 2002: xviii and present author’s review of the medieval manuscripts.
3 Hooper & Ash,1935; Spencer, 1960. The De re coquinaria is the oldest existing Roman culinary treatise. For the recipes see: Flower & Rosenbaum, 1958. For the recipes of Anthimus see: Grant, 1996.
4 For a discussion on conspicuous consumption and waste in ancient Rome see: Wallace-Handrill, 1990: 8.
5 The pursuit of spices inspired global exploration in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Many battles were fought between the English, Dutch and Portuguese to control cinnamon distribution in Sri Lanka. For history on wars and exploration see: Ravindran:1-13.
6 Trans. by H. Rackham,1960.
7 Aristotle trans. by Balme, 1991. Theophrastus trans. By A. Hort, 1961.
8 Ovid trans. by. Miller, 1999.
9 In this instance a cinnamon-smelling breath had a positive association with righteousness and good health. Babrius and Phaedrus trans. by Perry, 1965.
10 John of Joinville trans. by René Hague, 1955.
11 Cinnamon and “odors” have been listed as partly responsible in the biblical accounting of destruction of Babylon. See Revelation XVIII.13. Augustine in the 4th century also associated cinnamon with the decadence and demise of Babylon. See Turner, 2004: 217.
12 A good example of this in the 1st century AD Roman poem ascribed to Virgil: Moretum. In the poem Simylus, a poor rustic farmer, is identified by the slovenly way he prepares moretum, a pesto preparation.  After harvesting the garlic, Simylus curses the strong-smelling spice (100-110). Virgil trans. by Fairclough, 1965: 459. Interestingly, garlic is not mentioned in any of the haute cuisine recipes mentioned in the existing ancient roman culinary corpus: De re coquinaria. See Flower and Rosenbaum.
13 Interestingly, 1st century Roman emperor Vespasian preferred his officers to smell of garlic over perfume (Suetonious Vesp. VIII.3. Suetonius: Lives of the Caesars, trans. by Rolfe, 2006). See Gowers, 1993: 291. Pliny, an ascetic, tells us that perfumes having an earthy scent [one can assume this is more manly] are more pleasurable than [effeminate] sweet-smelling kinds made from spices like saffron (NH XIII.IV.21). Horace trans. by Fairclough, 1966.
14 Present author’s translation of Aldebrandin de Sienne, 1911. See: Flandrin, 1996: 313-327.
15 The Atlas mountains are in Morocco.
16 On Food Voice see: Deutsch, J. (2004). “About this Collection: Soap Box and the Food Voice. “Food Culture and Society 7 (1).
17 This assertion is partially validated by Rozin, 1982: 189-203. She notes how Szechuan peppers clearly identify west central Chinese cuisine (p. 196); and also, how the Maidu Indians of California induce an acid flavor to their salads but letting ants leave a sour secretion on the leaves (p. 199). The fermented fish sauce garum is consistently described by the ancients as mali vero (bad juice or putrid – Celsus:II.XXI.1, trans. Spencer, 1960); but it was the most identifiable ingredient of Roman cuisine. For ancient Roman recipes see Flower & Rosenbaum, 1958. Virtually all these recipes call for the inclusion of the fermented fish sauce garum.
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Electronic reference

Charles Feldman and Kathleen Bauer, « Flavoring culture / Le goût pour la cannelle », Anthropology of food [Online], Articles VARIA, Online since 15 December 2008, connection on 18 May 2021. URL :

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About the authors

Charles Feldman

Ph. D, Montclair State University,

Kathleen Bauer

Ph. D., R.D, Montclair State University,

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Anthropologie of food est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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