No pumpkin spice latte, cookie, candle, or seasonal can of Spam (yes, really) would be the same without one of its key flavors: nutmeg, a warm, woody spice grated from the seed of a tropical fruit. But back in the 1600s, nutmeg wasn’t so common that you could put it in everything from coffee to soap. In fact, nutmeg once grew only in one place in the entire world: the Banda Islands, a Pacific archipelago too tiny to even appear on regular maps. To get their precious nutmeg, European sailors had to brave a three-year journey filled with the possibility of shipwreck, storms, scurvy, dysentery, starvation, and death—so it's not surprising that the spice was so valuable that the crew weren't allowed to have pockets in their clothing, in case they smuggled some ashore for themselves! But how did one heroic Brit, Nathaniel Courthope, end up changing the course of nutmeg history—and, with it, the fate of not just pumpkin spice lattes, but also the city of New York? Listen now for the spicy, swashbuckling tale behind the season's favorite flavor.
Historian Giles Milton is the author of a number of nonfiction history books, including Nathaniel's Nutmeg.
A Dutch map of the Banda Islands from 1599. Run is in the top left, labeled "Pulorin." (Image courtesy of Rijksmuseum Amsterdam.)