A pinch of history here, a dash of fact there - the origin of seasonings always turns out perfect

A pinch of history here, a dash of fact there - the origin of seasonings always turns out perfect

Pepper

If you eat enough pepper you'll start to sweat, which explains why the ancients thought the stuff made an excellent medicine. The Chinese employed it as a treatment for malaria, cholera and dysentery, while Indian monks used it as a sort of PowerBar: they swallowed small amounts in hopes that it would help them survive their long treks through the rough countryside.

Later, pepper became so valuable that it served as a form of currency; it was used for centuries in Europe to pay rent and taxes. In one exceptional case, it was also used for ransom: Attila the Hun is said to have demanded 3,000 pounds of the stuff in 408; in exchange, he promised to lay off the city of Rome and stop sacking it.

Salt

It's probably been the most valuable food additive in history, mostly because it did such a good job of preserving foods in the centuries before refrigeration. Salt mines in Iran also testify to the stuff's ability to preserve people. Four "salt men" have been discovered there, eerily mummified by what they were digging for; two of them may date to 650 BC.

But the use of salt predates the Iranian salt men. In China, writings that are 4,700 years old testify to its value; the Peng-Tzao-Kan-Mu, the earliest know treatise of pharmacology, mentions more than 40 kinds of salt. And a tragic piece of Chinese folklore tells a story of how the phoenix, that majestic mythical bird, first brought salt to the attention of a lowly peasant - who was accidentally put to death by a temperamental emperor before anyone realized the value of what he found.

Cinnamon

Although it's originally from the hard-to-reach island of Ceylon (aka Sri Lanka), cinnamon has been a global sensation for millennia. It first appears in Chinese writings that date to 2800 BC (they called it kwai). Cinnamon was also used by the Egyptians in embalming, perhaps for the same reason it became a popular cooking spice - its warm aroma and antibacterial properties could hide the stench of food starting to go bad.

The Romans had attachments to cinnamon, too, both medical and sentimental. Pliny the Elder records the stuff as being worth about 15 times its weight in silver. And Emperor Nero, known for both his evil tendencies and his extravagance, sacrificed a year's supply of the stuff as an apologia for murdering his wife - although we're guessing Roman spice merchants failed to appreciate the gesture.

Adapted from In The Beginning (HarperCollins), available at leading bookstores. For a daily dose of quirky fun visit MentalFloss.com and check out TuitionGiveaway.com for details on the mental_floss "College Ain't Cheap $50,000 Tuition Giveaway." Deadline for entries is Jan. 31.