Guest Post: The power of a tiny nut called meg

These musings on comfort, food, and place come from my dear friend and anthropological confidante Jess Ham, who can be found here as well.

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Nutmeg is a curiously strong spice in the baked goods proffered by Ghanaian bakers. This has always baffled me a bit. My anthropological instinct is to suspect Euro/colonial influence. Could be. But Ghanaian baked goods are definitely renditions, and not replicates, of European baked goods; and besides, those European ‘originals’ that local bakers might be approximating or improving upon don’t really have such a strong nutmeg essence.

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Nutmeg, I learned from a tour of the spice gardens at the Aburi Botanical Gardens, grows in Ghana. It seems that nutmeg (as we commonly know and use the spice) is indigenous to Indonesia, so I can only guess the number of potential spice routes this tree took to get here, or who encouraged its arrival and propagation.

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When I turned to the internet to see what it had to say about nutmeg usage in Ghana, I learned about a nutmeg varietal that is indigenous. The calabash nutmeg  (monodora myristica) produces brown seeds that are used as a alternative for nutmeg.

monodoraMonodora_myristica

So it seems that nutmeg is integrated into Ghanaian cuisine through a myriad of ways.  I’ll leave tracing that culinary trajectory to another anthropologist.

Origin aside, the point is that I’m very thankful for the presence of nutmeg in Ghana. Lately I’ve been compelled to grate nutmeg all over my breakfast foods. Usually, this is oatmeal. On days when I need to feel special, I make pancakes and grate prolifically into the batter.  It’s not so much for the taste of the nutmeg as much as the smell of it that I’m after.

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When my mom found out that her 5th grade students didn’t know what cloves were, she brought some in for their exploration. Upon smelling the cloves the response was “Oh, I know that. It smells like Christmas.” Nutmeg smells like Christmas for me because Christmas for me is pretty much about baking. When I finish grating and get to breathe in that nutmeg goodness, I instantaneously feel transported to my mom’s kitchen, a setting that allows me to feel cool, calm and collected. These are feelings that are nearly impossible to feel while doing fieldwork in Ghana.

That's a lot of nutmeg!

I recall from an email forward filled with bizarre facts (circa 1997 when email forwards were in their heyday), that nutmeg, when injected intravenously, is lethal. So perhaps it is spice with some chemical influence. Since doing fieldwork in Ghana is like a giant obstacle course with no redeemable prize in sight, I’m game for huffing that pungent little nut called meg to help me along the way.

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