Herbs Spices

Just a dash awakens dips, soups, salads, sauces, and entrees --Label on a bottle of The Spice Hunter's® "California Cayenne"

Aroma cues. 1. Any of several aromatic plants (e.g., parsley, sage), trees (bay, cinnamon), or roots (ginger, sassafras) used a. in medicines; b. in perfumes, deodorants, and colognes; and c. in food and drink as flavorings. 2. Leaves, flowers (e.g., chamomile), bark, or roots containing odor molecules specifically designed (like insectoid pyrazine molecules) as olfactory warning signs to deter insects and other invertebrate pests.

Usage: Though often bitter-tasting, we use herbs and spices as seasonings to perk up the palate. In small amounts, their warnings put our sense of smell on alert, heightening food flavors with unconscious whiffs of "danger." In cologne, plant phytosterols (e.g., in incense) resemble animal steroids (e.g., male testosterone and female oestrodiol; Stoddart 1990) and thus carry sexually suggestive messages.

Principle. Herbs and spices illustrate a principle of nonverbal independence, i.e., that a sign may evolve independently from its material carrier (or "sign stuff"), and exhibit a separate reality (designed solely to convey information). The defensive odor molecules of herbs and spices (called secondary products), evolved apart from ordinary plant requirements for energy, reproduction, and growth. Just as herbs and spices repel insects, the tuberous roots of garlic & onions repel worms and snails (see, e.g., BIG MAC®).

RESEARCH REPORT: Many plant-odor signs use pyrazines as nontoxic warnings (McGee 1990). E.g., the true mints (including sage, rosemary, marjoram, oregano, and thyme) evolved powerful odors of camphor, eucalyptol, and limonene to keep insects at bay. From the laurel family, cinnamon bark's balsamy orange aroma has been used since biblical times. Its smell may be considered an insect repellent, like the odor of cumin (from the carrot family), an ingredient of Indian curry powder. Sage contains terpenes (cineol and borneol) designed to ward off pests, as well.

Neuro-notes. Herbs and spices address pungency (trigeminal nerve) sensory nerve endings (see TASTE CUE, Trigeminal "taste").

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