Cost is always relative to how much you want something. The reason diamonds and gold are worth so much money is that it takes a lot of effort to find them, dig them out of the ground, and pound them into a shape worth putting on your finger to show how rich you are. But back in the day, to Central American tribes, gold was the stuff they found and dumped in a lake for fun.
It’s the same way with food. Foods that are so common you can barely sell them used to be worth so much that they weren’t just worth money: they were money! Even painfully common stuff like:
Salt’s already pretty important, because it’s one of the basic minerals of animal life. Ever wonder why “salty” is one of the basic tastes? Because your body wants you to get it. That’s why hospitals put you on a saline drip. Salt’s pretty amazing and handy stuff. Now, of course, we’ve got about a million ways to get salt. Packets of the stuff come free with your fast food. But back in the day, it was a lot harder to get salt, which, it being vital to life and all, made it a lot more valuable.
Just how valuable was salt? Well, the word “salary”, you know, what you get paid, comes from “salarium”, which means “an allowance to buy salt.” Yeah, it was so expensive, you got bonus pay just to buy the stuff.
Back in the day, salt wasn’t just a flavor sensation and a necessity of life; it was also pretty much the only way to keep your food from spoiling. People didn’t really care what salt tasted like so much, although they loved it, they just liked that it kept the meat from rotting. It was also a pain to find, as the only way to get it was by finding salt flats or boiling seawater. When Rome lost its salt flats, it was forced to build “salt roads” to access new ones.
Something to think about, next time you order fries.
Pepper, right now, is one of the most common spices on Earth. No matter where you go or what you’re eating, they’ve got pepper for it, pepper in it, and probably pepper in the sides, too. There’s probably some society that puts pepper on ice cream (we bet it’s the Japanese). But, as you might have guessed, pepper used to be worth a lot more.
How much more? Well, in the UK, they have this term in the law, “peppercorn” to refer to small payments of a couple of bucks. It’s a common legal term, it’s been in use for years. And, as you might have guessed, that was because one peppercorn was worth a few bucks, so they were pretty much interchangeable (we wonder what pocket lint was worth).
Partially this is because getting it was even harder than getting salt. Pepper only grows in tropical areas, like, say, India, so for the longest time, getting peppercorns shipped to temperate places like, say, Europe was ridiculously expensive. The other part was pepper was basically the old-timey version of Red Bull. You know how there are “pep squads?” That used to be short for pepper, because our ancestors, not exactly the brightest bulbs, thought the spice gave you energy.
Good thing they discovered coffee and tea, or those guys never would have gotten anything done. Oh, hey, speaking of…
We all know how much everybody loves tea, especially the British and your grandmother. And we also know that the British pretty much invaded India and China because they loved tea so freaking much. But what you probably don’t know is that in ancient China, a brick of tea was literally currency.
Not as in they exchanged it for currency, or it was worth so much that it was the same as currency, as in they made bricks of tea and stamped them with an actual value to use them as money. In fact, that stamped value was the lowest it was worth; the further you got away from central China, the more that brick of tea was worth. Until you got to Russia, where it just became really valuable stuff again.
We wonder if people would find it quite as valuable if they discovered that the tea was bound together with such charming and tasty substances as oxen blood and yak dung. There are two flavorings Celestial Seasonings probably isn’t introducing anytime soon.
It’s hard to view the stuff we sprinkle over lattes, oatmeal and cookies as having any sort of inherent value. Most people probably don’t even realize that what they’re grating or trying to eat a spoonful of is actually literally a stick: it’s a piece of wood. But, once again, shipping rears its ugly head.
For the longest time, the only place you could get cinnamon was Sri Lanka, which is a bit like saying you can get it, but not really. It didn’t help that the cinnamon merchants, who knew a good thing when they saw it, pretended that it was actually fished out of the mouth of the Nile, so people should really pay a lot for it. To get an idea of how ridiculous that is, that’s a bit like saying that cinnamon can only be harvested by unicorns in Atlantis today. This crazy notion was later replaced with the idea that cinnamon sticks were harvested by cinnamon birds and Arabs stole the sticks by means of some unexplained technique.
People believed this until about seven hundred years ago, proving our ancestors had about as much common sense as we do now.
Nonetheless, the stuff was everywhere even in ancient times: cinnamon is actually the first spice the Bible mentions by name, and Nero was seen as a colossal spendthrift for burning a year’s supply of the stuff at his wife’s funeral.
Today, cloves mostly exist to be added to cider, glued on hams, and to make cigarettes even more cancerous than they already are. And if you’ve been reading, you know the problem was they only grew in a few places and had to be shipped.
But to give you an idea of just how difficult that was, for two centuries, in Britain, cloves were interchangeable with gold. Yes, gold. The shiny yellow metal everybody loves so much and backs a whole bunch of currencies. That gold.
Why? Well, unlike most of the other stuff on this list, that people only thought were medicines, cloves actually did have a medical use: clove oil makes a great local anesthetic. If you were going to ye olde dentist to get ye olde toothe yanked out with ye olde big scary pair of pliers, you applied some clove oil to keep the pain down to a minimum.
So, yeah, in case you were wondering why we invented Novacaine, it probably had to do with how much cloves cost.
Author: Dan Seitz — Copyrighted © roadtickle.com