If Hank Kaestner didn't have to worry about volcanoes in Indonesia, striking port workers in Bombay, dollar fluctuations in Holland, monsoon rains in Pakistan, drought in Morocco, floods in Spain and religious strikes in the Punjab, he might get bored with his job.
That's because spices provide much of the variety in Kaestner's life. As director of spice procurement for the world's largest spice manufacturer, the century-old McCormick Spice Co. of Baltimore, he is something of a modern-day Marco Polo.In 23 years, he has visited 96 countries and learned six languages while keeping track of the many variables that affect the spice industry, including crop sizes, weather, local economies and politics.
Kaestner has a complex job in a $2 billion industry that is distinguished by both a rich history and a paradoxical present and is both progressive and highly traditional.
At least 2,000 years before Christ, camel caravans and frail ships bearing spices journeyed along the dangerous routes from the Orient to markets in Babylon, Carthage, Alexandria and Rome.
Affordable only by the wealthy, spices nevertheless were in great demand in ancient Greece and Rome, where they were used to season food and wine and to make medicines, incense and balms. Bay or laurel leaves were woven into crowns for Olympic heroes.
In later centuries, the quest for spices inspired the journeys of such famed explorers as Marco Polo, Vasco da Gama, Ferdinand Magellan, Sir Francis Drake and Christopher Columbus. Records indicate that Columbus probably wouldn't have reached the Western Hemisphere had he not been able to convince financial backers he could find a shorter way to the Orient's spicy treasures.
As domestic consumption of spices continues to grow, the United States has become the leader in world spice buying. Last year, Americans used about 649 million pounds of spices - including herbs and seeds - an increase of 47 percent in 10 years, says Thomas F. Burns, executive director of the American Spice Trade Association.
In the 1960s and '70s, most spices were sold directly to consumers for home use, but today the highest share goes to restaurants and manufacturers of prepared foods.
By using seeded buns, for example, in 15 years fast-food hamburger chains have doubled demand for the age-old sesame seed. Today, sesame seed is the second-highest spice import - just behind mustard seed, which is used both inside hot dogs and as their most popular condiment.
Herbs also have become important to the American palate. "We've seen a tremendous increase in the use of herbs such as basil and oregano, which are big in Italian foods," Burns says. The pizza boom, the proliferation of spaghetti sauces and salad dressings, and the influence of ethnic specialties have boosted consumption of basil 365 percent and oregano 87 percent in a decade.
Virtually unknown until Columbus discovered it in the Western Hemisphere, red pepper is now the world's most-used spice, while black pepper remains the hottest-selling pepper in the United States. Americans sprinkled nearly 27,000 tons of black pepper on their food in 1988, says Burns.
Black pepper comes from four major countries - Brazil, India, Indonesia and Malaysia - where the volume of local production drives its highly fluctuating prices. Estimation of crop size is complicated by the plant's three-year growing cycle.
Although the market for spices has increased substantially, growing and harvesting techniques remain surprisingly primitive. This has prompted some manufacturers to send agronomists to work with local farmers on improving their operations and to build processing plants overseas.
Several thousand miles and seemingly hundreds of years away, spice buyers, agents and brokers in the United States rely on modern technology and a network of global contacts for daily information on political events, weather conditions and trade matters.
The industry has come to expect the unexpected when dealing with the whims of Mother Nature and Third World countries.
When the Chernobyl nuclear accident in the Soviet Union created unacceptable levels of radiation in eastern Turkey, where much oregano is grown for export, spice buyers and brokers had to move quickly to identify other sources.
Sometimes market problems can be long-term, as with Vietnamese cinnamon, considered the world's best. After the Vietnam War, the United States banned its importation. Later, the United States cut off trade with Iran, a major supplier of cumin, and Nicaragua, a prime source of sesame seed.