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Will The Real Cinnamon Please Stand Up!

Will The Real Cinnamon Please Stand Up!

Cinnamon Sticks
Cinnamon Sticks (wikipedia)

When enjoying cinnamon, a staple in food stores large and small, you’re actually enjoying a spice with a history colored by elegance, spirituality, and brutality. The cinnamon goes back to Egypt around 2000 BCE and comes from the bark of a laurel tree. It has gone by the Malay name “kayumanis,” meaning “sweet wood,” the Italian, canella, or “little cannon tubes” for the rolled cinnamon sticks, and the Hebrew “qinnämön” – probably the origin of the English word “cinnamon” .

Varieties of Cinnamon

It also goes by the name “cassia” and that’s because the cinnamon we know and love is actually two different spices. One is the Ceylon cinnamon, thought to be the purer of the two, from a tree that originated in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. This variety comes from the tender inner bark of the tree and has a fine texture and sweeter flavor. The other is cassia, a native to Southeast Asia, which contains both the inner and more rugged outer bark of the tree, and has a stronger, spicier flavor. While we might not distinguish between the two, others did; in the Book of Exodus (30:23) God commanded Moses to use both sweet cinnamon and cassia in the holy anointing oil.

Historical Use of Cinnamon

Drawing of Cassia
Drawing of cassia circa 1655

Throughout its life, cinnamon has served a variety of purposes. The Egyptians used it as a preservative for meats, in embalming, and religious ceremonies; the Romans for perfumes and other fragrances and as an ingredient to flavor wines; and in the Middle Ages, it was a favorite flavor in banquet foods as well as a digestive, an aphrodisiac, and remedy for coughs and sore throats.

But the popularity of cinnamon began to peak in the 16th century when the Portuguese discovered it in Ceylon. In an act of great and ongoing brutality, they enslaved the island’s population and ruled a prosperous cinnamon trade. This lasted 100 years until the Dutch, conspiring with locals, overthrew the Portuguese. Unfortunately, they ruled the cinnamon trade and the native population with an equally hard hand for the next 150 years.

Cinnamon in The 1700s

Gradually, the popularity of cinnamon waned. In the late 1700s, when the British defeated the Dutch and overtook Ceylon, it was no longer a rare and expensive spice. The Dutch had made Ceylon cinnamon more readily available by planting saplings in Indonesia and other places and the use of cassia was on the rise. Besides, another flavoring, this one from Mesoamerica, had won the attention of traders: the cacao bean.

Cinnamon as we Know it Today

Today, we use the two cinnamon more or less interchangeably borrowing from some of its historic uses: in perfumes and potpourris as a fragrance; in seasonal banquets such as Thanksgiving and Christmas; and in mulled wines and other fermented drinks. Some even claim that cinnamon is an aphrodisiac. Evidence of that is entirely subjective but it might be fun trying.


Red Hots: Sinfully Hot Cinnamon.

Cassia cinnamon – an American favorite

A powerful cinnamon kaboom in an itty-bitty bite. Originally called cinnamon imperials, these hard candies hit you from your nose to your toes. Small, hot, and oh-so-good. If your eyes water, it just means you love them.

-Ferrara Candy Company

The candy of today likely uses cassia rather than Ceylon cinnamon. Here are a few of them:

Chocolate Talk Bits and Nips

Chocolate Talk Bits and Nips

I attended a talk on the history of chocolate at the historic Dumbarton House in D.C. The speaker, Joyce White, managed to cover a broad swath of history in 90 minutes with plenty of interesting facts. Here is a handful with a few of my own thrown in.

  • We all know that the ancient Aztecs revered the cacao bean: they even considered it money…so drinking chocolate was much like drinking gold. But the crème de la crème of the chocolate drink was the froth. The frothier the better.

    Whole cacao bean with soft shell
  • Chocolate was considered hot and moist in a purely sensual way. In fact, the Catholic Church of the 1600s didn’t think it was suitable for women. Flash forward about 300 years and suitors were giving women boxes of chocolate to lure them to bed. Who knew some of the fillings, such as nutmeg and cinnamon really were aphrodisiacs.
  • Chocolate liquor is not an after-dinner drink but the result of the cacao being heated. In other words, chocolate.
  • Baker’s Chocolate, which opened in the 1700s in Dorchester, Massachusetts just outside Boston, was among the first American chocolate makers. The company was not named for the people who used it but the founder Walter Baker. The logo of the girl serving chocolate drink was adopted in 1883 and based on a painting of 1740.
  • The Quakers of England, including the Cadbury and Frye family, were instrumental in creating modern-day chocolate, starting in the 18th A great read is Deborah Cadbury’s book on the subject: “The Chocolate Wars.”
  • German Chocolate was actually Sam German’s chocolate. He developed a kind of dark chocolate for Baker’s Chocolate Company in 1852. In 1957, Mrs. George Clay’s chocolate cake recipe, with German chocolate, was featured in the Dallas Morning Star. The chocolate was a hit but the possessive wasn’t. It was soon dropped and the American-made chocolate took on a new national identity.
  • Today, most chocolate is made in Africa, not its native Mesoamerica although plenty can be found there, too.

Baker’s Ads through the Ages

Baker’s Chocolate in the Industrial Revolution
Good for the elderly? Really?
Baker’s Girl Based on 1700’s painting

A Quick Look at the Early Days of the Honey Bee

A Quick Look at the Early Days of the Honey Bee

The honey bee, the quintessential American insect, is actually an immigrant, arriving in the U.S. with the British around 1621. The Native Americans had never seen the creature before and didn’t have a name for it. So, they dubbed it the “white man’s fly.” The bee migrated ahead of the settlers in swarms; when Native Americans saw the bee they knew the white man would follow. The honey bee likely ended its journey at the Rockies, and was later transported to California and other places. As for the plants the bee pollinates: most are imports, as well.

Close-up of bees at their hive
Close-up of bees at their hive