The Practical Historian Has No Taste

If you had happened to live in 430 BC and you had developed a taste for cinnamon, you’d have to have been awfully wealthy and also pretty lucky, because in 430 BC, the process of obtaining cinnamon was pretty complicated.

According to that great ancient historian Herodotus, the only source of this most flavorful spice was an unknown land where the cinnamalogus bird harvested sticks from the cinnamon tree to build its nest high atop the sheer cliffs of Arabia.

Herodotus, the world’s first practical historian. Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

That’s where the Arabian cinnamon traders got their hands on it by luring the birds away from their cinnamon nests with tasty meaty morsels and knocking down the sticks with weighted arrows.

Now, I know you might think this sounds a little far-fetched, or perhaps you are skeptical because you’ve read my book Launching Sheep & Other Stories, which introduces Herodotus as history’s biggest liar, liar, pants on fire. But consider that the cinnamalogus bird and this curious harvesting method are also documented in the writings of Aristotle, Isidore of Seville, and Pliny the Elder, which, I think, clearly demonstrates that the human tendency to copy and share ridiculous rumors indiscriminately on the internet shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.

In defense of Pliny the Elder, he did at least express a little skepticism, suggesting that tall tales may sometimes evolve as a way to corner the market on some commodities. Cinnamon would probably have been worth the effort because it is among those sought-after spices that helped shape the modern world. Spice encouraged trade, which led to cultural exchange (and sometimes conflict), and eventually resulted in greater diversity in every corner of the earth. Because no matter what our differences may be, pretty much all humans like to experience flavor in their food.

For some reason I was picturing this bird as a lot more red and spicy and maybe with flames coming out of its wings or something. At least that’s how I would have drawn it if I’d made it up. Unknown artist, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

And that is something I have been made very aware of this past week when in the midst of surging numbers of Covid cases in my corner of the world, “the ‘Rona,” as it’s not so affectionately known around here, caught up with me. Fortunately, it wasn’t a bad case. I had a brief fight with fever followed by muscle aches, fatigue, and a runny nose. By day three, it had morphed into mostly congestion and as that cleared, I suddenly realized I still couldn’t taste and smell so well.

In the grand scheme of things, this is not a terrible symptom, but it is a little frustrating when some of your favorite foods just stop tasting the way you want them to. In fact, if my senses of taste and smell weren’t already improving a little bit, it probably wouldn’t be long before I found myself willing to coax a mythical bird from its nest, to then destroy that nest with weighted arrows. Or at least if I found someone who said that’s what they had to do in order to bring some spice back into my life, I might just believe it was worth it.

23 thoughts on “The Practical Historian Has No Taste

  1. Yes, I big you good health Sarah. Fascinating and humorous history of Cinnamon & Herodotus.
    This may be a bit personal and I understand if you don’t confide here. Had you been vaccinated? The only reason I ask is it seems a lot of people are getting COVID after already being vaccinated. I hope curiosity doesn’t kill this cat lol

    1. No worries. I am vaccinated, which I’m grateful for, because I have been hearing that those who aren’t tend to suffer a little more with it. I’m also grateful our dominant strain now seems to be effecting almost everyone a little more gently than previous strains sometimes did.

  2. I’m glad your case was mild and recovery relatively swift. I hope smell and taste come back soon! Before Covid, I was in Italy in a little town called Varenna on the shore of Lake Como. There was a garden there that had a cinnamon tree in it. I had not seen one before; nor had I known that there was a brisk trade in exotic trees and plants in the 16th and 17th centuries and that the exhibition gardens of the wealthy were full of them.

  3. I hope you continue to improve. both times I had it I didn’t have to experience the loss of taste and smell but friends of ours did and my son did. Praying for your swift recovery.

  4. It’s always a little easier to hear of an illness AFTER the fact. Glad you’re on the mend and that the infliction prompted such a creative response. If Herodotus’ cinnamalogus birds were good enough for Aristotle they’re good enough for me!

  5. Sorry to hear you’ve had Covid – hope your recovery is full and fast! Here in NZ we’re bracing for an onslaught of Omicron. Apropos Herodotus – I had to read him as part of an honours course in the philosophy of history. Fun and entertaining stuff, if a bit – well – creative.

    1. Thank you! I am pretty much 100% at this point. Taste and smell are mostly back to normal and I am maybe still a little short of breath at times, but otherwise well. Good luck with Omicron. It is difficult to avoid, but also doesn’t seem to hit most people nearly as badly as its predecessors. I think we are just at the end of our case peak here, so better days are coming.

  6. I’m really sorry to hear you caught the Rona, Sarah (that’s what we call it in our family, too) and I’m glad to read that you’re recovering. Take care of yourself, Tin x

  7. Oh, where to start! Firstly, I hope you fully recover your sense of smell and taste; I lost mine for over a year, and it got really annoying – I had to run things like oils by my husband; in the summer heat, I couldn’t tell if it had gone off or not.
    And I laughed out loud at your “liar, liar, pants on fire”! That, and the classic line, “The human tendency to copy and share ridiculous rumors indiscriminately on the internet shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.” Oh, how true it is. Gossiping and spinning yarn are likely as old as humankind.

    1. Oh, no. I’m sorry you had such a long struggle with your senses. It sure is a strange thing. My son’s lasted about two weeks. It ended up only being a few days for me before it started to come back and now it’s mostly normal.

      1. Good video. It explains pretty much what I’ve been reading. Actually, I’ve also seen that the whole loss of senses thing pops up much less often with Omicron. Lucky me, I guess. 🤷‍♀️ But I am grateful it didn’t last for very long.

I love comments! Please keep them PG, though. I blush easily.

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