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Let us praise nutmeg: A shrine to the aromatic spice

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Down a gravel driveway off James Street in Durham's Lakewood neighborhood live Jonathan Nyberg and his wife, Rebecca Wellborn, owners of Meadowsweet Gardens landscaping company. Their home is surrounded by an eclectic garden. A creek trickles around the house through a raised moat, where grassy sedge plants and fragrant floral bushes share the glory with two penguin statues and other quirky, repurposed art objects.

Within minutes of entering the front door, I stood in a hallway, my eyes closed. I heard the sound of grating and opened my eyes to catch Nyberg as he closed his. He raised his open palm cupping a small mound of freshly grated nutmeg and tilted his head back.

"Wow. It's really amazing, isn't it? The smell—that's an attraction to me, obviously," he says. "God, this smells so good. It smells like Christmas."

We are ensconced before a shrine to nutmeg, what must be the only collection of nutmeg paraphernalia in town. There are a dozen tins no bigger than the palm of a hand, rusted at the tops and corners, each chosen by Nyberg based on one criterion: a logo depicting a plant. He bought them from eBay, most for no more than $8 apiece.

"I think most of these are from the '40s and '50s, some from the '60s. There are some nutmeg tins that people spend $500 or $600 for. And I wanted 'em!" Nyberg says. "If I had the money, I would have bought 'em. They were just luminescent. Yeah, they were just beautiful and in mint condition. But you have to make choices. There are so many."

The tins share a shelf with at least 40 whole nutmegs, given to Nyberg by friends who spent time in Grenada, the small Caribbean island where nutmeg is now produced. However, the nutmeg tree grows wild on the Banda Islands, an archipelago in the Moluccas, Indonesia. The spice itself is a seed resembling a chestnut, freshly grated or ground for cooking. A curved, porous outer layer is known as mace, a more expensive spice.

Nyberg is known among friends for his obsession and work with plants. Yet people have rarely questioned his love for nutmeg. "I look at myself as a generalist. I'd like to know a lot about a lot, but there's just not time for that. So I sort of get interested in nutmegs, and I do this. It is relaxing as a hobby in the best sense of the world. Nutmeg brings all sorts of interesting things together—travel, history, exploration, the way the Europeans interacted with the native people that they found, and plants, and eating."

His nutmeg shrine includes a magazine photograph of a nutmeg harvest, a basket of nutmeg that has been freshly peeled from its fruit, each seed wrapped in a blood-red aril layer. Nyberg's wall is covered with research articles and historical references to the exotic spice. A copy of the popular Nathaniel's Nutmeg by Giles Milton is propped up. The story begins:

"The island can be smelled before it can be seen. From more than ten miles out to sea a fragrance hangs in the air, and long before the bowler-hat mountain moves into view you know you are nearing land."

The same spice that grows musty and forgotten in our cupboards until Thanksgiving, waiting to be included in our pumpkin pies, once sent tyrannical explorers sailing halfway across the world during a century-long struggle for its control. Nostalgic for history, Nyberg details his knowledge of a power-hungry spice trade that traveled through various European cultures: first the Portuguese and Spanish, then the Dutch and English. He mentions the brutal Dutch empire, which enlisted Japanese Samurai soldiers to secure control of the Banda Islands, the motherlode of nutmeg. Finally, in 1667, the Treaty of Breda awarded the last island of the archipelago to the Dutch. The English, in exchange, received the island of Manhattan.

"They traded this useless spit of land for Manhattan," Nyberg says. "That's how valuable nutmeg is."

History also reveals other uses for nutmeg. Before refrigeration, nutmeg was used as a meat preservative. Some historical accounts praise the aphrodisiacal effects as a homeopathic cure for impotence. Nutmeg apparently provides a decent high when ingested in large amounts, according to various historical accounts.

Nutmeg and mace sneak into various dishes across the globe, most commonly in Indian, Asian, Middle Eastern, Greek and Caribbean cuisines. Nyberg's first real taste, he says, was in the summer of 1984. As a 28-year-old fresh off military service, he spent time working abroad with friends. That summer in Holland, they ate everything with sprinkled nutmeg.

"We were living on very little money. The weather was miserable and we lived pretty much on potatoes and carrots. For a treat we ate cabbage. How little money do you have where cabbage is a treat?"

Nyberg says he still mashes his potatoes with nutmeg, and he makes the "richest eggnog" at Christmas. As an homage to his newfound discovery, the shrine includes a shard of porcelain tile he found in the floorboards in Holland. The illustration depicts a man wearing a wide-brimmed hat, colored in indigo and rusted red. With a gleam in his eye, Nyberg notes, "I doubt if there's any other thing I've had that I've had for so long."

Nyberg worked for many years as a horticultural therapist in North Carolina prisons and mental health facilities. I wonder whether he sees the shrine as a form of therapy for himself.

"It obviously touches something inside of me, and in that way it can be spiritual," he says.

His garden blooms with meticulously maintained trees and plants, so one might wonder if Nyberg has an affinity for the nutmeg tree itself.

"Well, I've never seen one," he says. "Some things are maybe best left in fantasy."

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