Graters gonna grate: the rise of the pocket nutmeg grater

In a world bustling with flavors, there are few combinations that can awaken the senses quite like the blend of nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger and gloves – especially in the fall. To this particular spice blend we now refer as pumpkin spice. When combined with coffee, it creates the beloved Pumpkin Spice Latte, with its warm and inviting aroma filling cafes and homes alike. Spices had always played a important role in peoples lives. It was in the 15th century that European traders first discovered the Spice Islands and became captivated by the allure of nutmeg. Its tantalizing aroma, unique flavor, and renowned medicinal and psychedelic abilities made it a coveted commodity. With the arrival of nutmeg, the elite seized the opportunity to associate it with refinement and prestige: the trend of the luxurious nutmeg grater was born. In present times, nutmeg is still classified as sophisticated, just a lot less prestigious. So how did we go from an a highly sought-after spice to something that is so common today?

This painting shows the fruit of the nutmeg. At the bottom on the left side you see the kernel in a red seed coat. This is called a aril (in dried form the spice mace). After removing the red aril and drying the black kernel, the nutmeg seeds remains. Once this seeds is dried, you can grate it to obtain nutmeg. Painting: National Museum of Singapore, William Farquhar Collection of Natural History Drawings. (Accession no. 1995-03060)

The history of nutmeg: the short version

“Much of this [voyages to the East] was about a small perfumed nut, in pursuit of which the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British battled from the 16th to the 18th centuries.”

John Reckless, Nutmeg Graters, Pomanders and Spice Boxes. Luxury and utility from the 16th century to the present day (2022), p. 8.

Every spice has its own history with rich stories about sea voyages, trade and colonial rule. The same goes for nutmeg. Once were the isolated Banda Islands (Moluccas, Indonesia) the only place on earth where nutmeg grew. At the beginning of the 16th century, the spice had become a desirable commodity in Europe. Nutmeg was a highly in demand product with many European powers fighting for control over its lucrative trade. It made the Islands an important trading center. After the arrival of the Dutch East Indian Company (VOC) in the seventeenth century, the Dutch claimed her position in the nutmeg trade, resorting to any means necessary to secure the monopoly. A long period of violence and tyranny ensues. Towards the end of the 18th century, the Dutch loses its monopoly over the spice trade. As a result, nutmeg cultivation expands across the entire Indonesian archipelago and eventually reaches other parts of the world.

A perkeniers (supervisors) house on the nutmeg patch Bajauw on the island of Lontor, part of the Banda Islands. Painting: Maritiem Museum Rotterdam, Picturalia Collection. (Accession no. P2161-30)

Elite VS Plebs

Long before the dawn of the 21st century – and the phenomenal Pumpkin Spice Latte, nutmeg was considered a treasure of untold value. It became a symbol of wealth, as an expansive and luxury good. But even the lower class did not hesitate to spend their hard-earned wages on the spice. However, it should be noted that this was not the case until well into the 18th century. During the early 1600s nutmeg graters were first spotted in England. These graters were placed within the lids of lignum vitae wassail (wooden) cups or integrated into spice tureens (pottery bowls). As indicated by their challenging names, these devices were primarily owned by royalty and the wealthiest citizens. Later on, to emphasize their wealth, the elite started using silver pocket graters. A stark contrast to the wood, iron or tin graters the plebs used for grounding nutmeg.

Every grater has a silver lining

Silver nutmeg graters first appeared in the mid seventeenth century as a tool of finer dining. It was fashionable for nobility to keep a small grater in their vest pocket, showcasing their refined taste. By carrying a grater, nutmeg could be used at any time, whether you poured yourself an (alcoholic) beverage at home or on the road.

This drawing showcases a male street-seller who specializes in selling nutmeg grates. In the man’s hand is a sign with the text “I was born a cripple” an on his body he has a variety of nutmeg grates. The sellers expertise of the spice trade makes up for his physical disability. Photograph: Victorian London

Initially, the graters were simple cylindrical designs, with a solid silver tube for storage between uses. Over the course of the 18th century, more extravagant versions surfaced made from ivory, gold, silver, bras, wood and Battersea enamel. As a result, graters were crafted in various forms to express the owner’s taste and personality. The popularity of nutmeg graters reached its peak in the following century.

A 19th century English travel pocket nutmeg grater with a breaker and a corkscrew in the shape of a walnut. Picture: Victoria and Albert Museum (Accession no. M.1065-1927

By the 19th century nutmeg became more and more demanded as an ingredient in cooking while the price of the spice declined due to new plantations in America. Because of the price drop, more people had access to the spice, which led to an increased demand of nutmeg. Tin and woodenware spice canister sets (contained with a plain grater) would be replacing the pocket version of the nutmeg grater. At the end of the century the groundbreaking innovation of the mechanical nutmeg grater allowed the process of grating large amounts of nutmeg at once.

The kitchen-mechanical nutmeg grater

The American innovation known as the “kitchen-mechanical” or “patented” nutmeg grater was created in 1850 by Albert Hadley, a baker from Massachusetts, in collaboration with his neighbor, the tinsmith Edmund Brown. Their grater, Brown & Hadley Rotary Nutmeg Grater, was initially designed as a tool for bakers, but soon gained competitors due to its popularity in regular households. William Bradley, a neighboring tinsmith, filled quickly for patent of the utility. Within a 40-year time frame, there were a total of 20 mechanical grater patents filled in an eight mile radius from Hadley’s bakery.   

Despite nutmeg being a luxury product in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, it has transcended its humble origins, becoming a symbol of cultural exchange and a culinary delight in kitchens around the globe. This would not have been possible without the invention of the (mechanical) grater.

An illustrated advertisement for the Edgar Nutmeg Grater. This grater was designed by George H. Thomas in 1891. Picture: NutmegGraters

From the Spice Islands of Indonesia to the modern-day Pumpkin Spice Latte, the nutmeg tale showcases the rich history and diverse culinary traditions that have shaped our taste preferences. The previous upper class luxury product emphasized by its silver graters has undergone a transformation over the centuries into a widely loved spice that is accessible to everyone. Nutmeg continues to flavor various foods and drinks to this very day. So, next time you sip on a Pumpkin Spice Latte, take a moment to appreciate the incredible voyage that nutmeg has endured upon to reach your cup. And who knowns, maybe the pocket nutmeg grater comes back in fashion.

A flamboyant nutmeg grater made ca. 1690 from a cowrie shell. This kind of shell was used as money in the trade networks of Africa, South and East Asia. Picture: The Metropolitan Museum (Accession no. 68.141.278

Written by Kaylee Overkleeft

Further readings:

John Reckens, Nutmeg Graters, Pomanders and Spice Boxes. Luxury and utility from the 16th century to the present day (2022).