Cinnamon has such an incredibly rich and interesting history that I never knew. I have always known cinnamon as something that makes certain foods taste extra delicious and combines with sugar to make awesome desserts, but I never imagined that it was once valued higher than even gold. There are so many other things that I also wasn’t aware of, such as that it has many health benefits. Not only is it yummy, but it’s healthy as well. What more could you ask for? It took me a while to think of whether I had a story to share with cinnamon, but when I finally remembered my mom’s famous cinnamon pull-apart I knew I had to talk about it.
My Christmas morning routine used to start with being woken up by my sister, sneaking a peek at my present from Santa, jump on my parents’ bed to wake them up and then go back downstairs to wait for my grandparents to open stockings and presents. This routine has now changed from when I was younger, but what hasn’t changed is the food, specifically the cinnamon pull-apart.
Cinnamon comes from the inner bark of a genus of trees from the family lauraceae. There are many different varieties of these cinnamon trees, including cinnamomum verum, true cinnamon, and cinnamomum aromaticum, cassia. True cinnamon is native to the island of Sri Lanka (formerly known as Ceylon) off the coast of India while cassia is native to China, Indonesia and Vietnam.
The cinnamon pull-apart is what my whole family looks forward to most on Christmas morning. It is essentially made up of little balls of dough that have been rolled in a sugar and cinnamon mixture and then baked together in a bunt cake pan with caramel syrup over the top. The smell of it baking the night before gets us all excited for digging in the next day. My dad has even been known to sneak a piece fresh out of the pan, but regrets it when my mom catches him. I can remember helping my mom every year with baking and when I was little I wanted to help as much as I could. As I got older I had to be told and sometimes guilt-tripped to get me to help out. This past Christmas though I’ve found that I am back to wanting to help my mom out and I essentially took over the whole baking process minus the bread maker’s part of the job.
The evolution of my involvement in the making of the pull-apart is similar to the evolution of the cinnamon monopoly. Control of Ceylon (present day Sri Lanka) changed hands many times just as I changed my opinion on whether I would help out that year. The spice traders would purposely keep the location of the sources of cinnamon a secret so that they would have a monopoly. This is what allowed them to continually demand a high price for the spice and consequently make an extremely good living. Even when the prices would start to decrease, those that controlled the monopoly would burn the spices to keep the price high. When the establishment of the Ottoman Empire interrupted the spice trade, access to the spice centers from Western Europe was cut off. During this time, the price of cinnamon, along with other spices, became so incredibly expensive that even kings and queens were finding it difficult to afford them. Because of this, leaders of Western European countries started to send explorers to search for a new route to access the spices. When Ceylon and other spice rich areas were found via these new routes, the ‘conquering’ nations would colonize the area and take over the monopoly. The Dutch were especially good at this and took over control of Ceylon and the trade of cinnamon in the 1600’s. They almost exclusively controlled the spice trade for a while until the French managed to steal enough cinnamon and other spices to plant and start growing them on French-controlled islands in the Indian Ocean.
My favourite way to eat the pull-apart is to grab a chunk and spread some cheez-whiz on top. It is the most delicious way to eat it and according to my mom, it is the only way. It took her years to finally dissuade me of my illusion that it would be disgusting and convince me to try it, but I’ve never looked back.
Similar to the strange combination of cheez-whiz and pull-apart is the combination of cinnamon as both delicious to eat and good for you. There have been studies done that have determined that true cinnamon, not to be confused with cassia, can help to maintain blood glucose levels in type 2 diabetics. It has been found to do this by slowing the emptying rate of the stomach and by potentially increasing cell sensitivity to insulin. The latter possible mechanism would be very helpful for diabetics since they tend to develop insensitivity to insulin over time and have a difficult time regulating their blood glucose levels on their own, hence the diabetes.
Cinnamon has also been shown to have some antiviral properties. Eugenol oil, extracted from the leaves of cinnamon trees, has been found in some studies to be effective against the herpes simplex virus. This is the virus that is responsible for causing genital and oral herpes. Strangely enough these same extracts were also found to be effective at killing mosquito larvae. The study I found that looked at this lethality found the eugenol to be effective against the strain of mosquito that is responsible for Yellow Fever. There hasn’t been much further research into this aspect of cinnamon’s properties, but it could be possible that we may use cinnamon extracts as bug repellant in the future.
True cinnamon, or cinnamomum verum, has all of these wonderful properties, but the type of cinnamon most consumed in North America, cassia or cinnamomum aromaticum doesn’t. There is a toxic compound that is found in all cinnamon called coumarin, which can cause liver and kidney damage in humans if enough is consumed. You don’t need to worry about coumarin with true cinnamon because there are negligible amounts present in the bark, but there are relatively high amounts found in cassia.
Cinnamon is a very rich spice in so many different ways. It made traders and nations rich in the past, it’s rich in potential health benefits and it makes our bellies rich in deliciousness when we eat it. Wars were fought over this spice that we consume with almost unnatural regularity and we take it for granted. Research is being done to look at the potential health benefits of this spice for diabetics, those affected by herpes simplex virus and as a bug repellant. I personally don’t need all these health benefits to eat cinnamon so long as it’s in my mom’s Christmas cinnamon pull-apart.
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