The Dark Side of Spice

December 26, 2018

When I think of nutmeg, the sweet but slightly sharp, punchy taste that spiced up drinks, desserts and hot cereals in my childhood comes to mind. Not something I ever paid much attention to, it was always just there, like any other staple in any other West Indian household. This was until a recent trip to Grenada revealed how unbelievably diverse this spice is. A few days on the Spice Island showed me that nutmeg, along with its crimson red co-conspirator, mace, is used not only to flavour drinks and foods, but also to sweeten up gardens, cure several ailments, and pave walkways of country houses. The benefit list of nutmeg use is lengthy but eventually turns sharply into the scary world of overdoses, hallucinations, and psychoactivity. Surprised? I certainly was. And curious, of course, so I went looking to find out more…

I am used to nutmeg in food and drink, like this “nutmeg splash”, nutmeg salad dressing, nutmeg-infused chicken, and kuchela, a very spicy “salsa” of grated nutmeg fruit flesh fried in mustard oil and Indian spices. This lunch at the Belmont Plantation in Grenada was followed by some nutmeg ice cream and nutmeg tea.

What exactly is nutmeg?

Nutmeg is the brown seed of the fruit of the myristica fragrans tree, a plant indigenous to the Banda Islands of Indonesia and brought to Grenada in the 1800’s. A brilliant-red web of mace, a spice of similar taste and smell, wraps its shell and together they form the pit of a fleshy, yellow fruit. You know a nutmeg is ripe when the yellow fruit splits into a “smile”, revealing the brown and striking red within.

The yellow fleshy part of a ripe nutmeg opens to reveal the mace and nutmeg shell inside.
(Photo credit: Dwain Thomas, Belmont Plantation)

The danger within

So, what lays hidden beneath this smiling fruit that makes it so unexpectedly dangerous? What lurks in the dark corners of its sweet, woody flavours that beckons to scary, psychedelic “afterwards”? The chemical components of myristicin, and to a lesser extent, safrole and elemicin. Myristicin and safrole are used to produce mind-altering drugs like methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MMDA), or ecstasy. If you know that ecstasy is favoured for the altered states of reality it produces in users, it’s easy to understand that myristicin inhibits certain nervous system functions and causes the nausea, increased heart rate, and dry mouth (among other things) users experience. Basically, it does this by interfering with the body’s electrical signals sent throughout to effect certain muscle movement.

Why get high?

Why then, would anyone want to get high on nutmeg? First, consider that you have to ingest large amounts of it — like 4-8 teaspoons –to start feeling any effects, and in these amounts the stuff does not go down easily (it’s been likened to swallowing chalkdust!). The high takes a good couple of hours to kick in and remains for anywhere from 12 hours to a few days! This “trip” via larger doses of nutmeg can feature any of the following: hallucinations, hyperactivity, incoherent speech, and seizures. This is in addition to paranoia, sluggish limbs, warmth in the limbs, difficulty urinating, and increased sensory awareness.  In a few rare cases, abusers have found themselves in a coma or on their deathbeds. Quite a price to pay for what some call “a really bad hangover”!

Ground and whole nutmeg and mace. Users need ingest only a small amount of ground nutmeg to start feeling minor effects.

Moderation, moderation, moderation

This became even more of an eye-opener for me after reading about early uses of nutmeg. In the Middle Ages women used it to induce abortions and encourage menstruation, while prisoners ingested it to numb the harshness of life behind bars. This is now easily understandable when you consider the spice’s potency! Even small doses beyond the sprinkle on a dessert can induce physical symptoms, which really drives home the point about consuming even natural products in moderation. What for me was once simply a dressing for cereal and eggnog has now become a respected force in my kitchen cupboard — one that secretly harbours a sinister netherworld beneath the sweet aromas, delightful savours, and fiery flashes of colour.

Myristica fragrans tree
(Photo credit: Dwain Thomas, Belmont Plantation)


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