The fragrance story of Christopher Street is a story laced in clove. A story that begins with long ago memories of the merchant days of Greenwich Village, continues with tales from inside neighborhood hospitals and dental clinics, and leads us back to the grocery shelves of today’s modern world. The scent of clove leeches into the air from the flowers we sniff, the smoke we inhale. It adds richness to our food and drink… Yes, in so many ways, the story of Christopher Street is a story that uncovers the many beautiful facets of a little spice called clove.
The epicenter of colonial clove cultivation was Ambon (Amboyna), a former Dutch colony in the Molucca Islands. An island explored by the Chinese in the 8th century, followed by the Arabs in the 13th century, Ambon was the heart of clove growth in the Far East, making it an important location in terms of the history of the Spice Trade. Clove from Ambon was one of the most precious (and highly valued) spices during the 16th and 17th century. Clove could be chewed to freshen breath, helped preserve meat in an era without refrigeration, and was used to add flavor to food. Like gold and silver, clove was a luxury good. In pursuit of clove, many expeditions were spurred and many wars were fought, mostly involving disputes amongst the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the British vying for clove trade domination. But it was the Dutch that ultimately kept control over Ambon and its people, and with it, access to clove. For more information on the Colonial Spice Wars and Trade Routes, including accounts of the nefarious and oftentimes gruesome tactics used to maintain colonial control over Ambon, the other spice islands, and their inhabitants, I highly recommend reading “The Spice Route: A History” by John Keay. It is important to remember how much blood was spilled in the name of spice.
Moving from the East to the Americas, let’s travel now to New York City, first settled by the Dutch in 1609 (then called New Amsterdam), before being taken over by the English in 1665 and renamed New York (in honor of the Duke of York). New York Harbor was known as one of the most important stops for traders and merchants in America. Of course, the main loading area for goods coming and going from New York Harbor was the waterfront landing along what is now Christopher Street. Merchants would come to the shores of the Hudson to collect their goods from arriving ships. These same merchants and traders would go on to establish vibrant marketplaces (i.e. Weehawken Market, Jefferson Market…) along this same path to the Hudson, in order to sell to the residents of New York. Amongst the goods traded and sold were the much sought after spices from the East, including clove. So from the very beginning days of Christopher Street, clove was there.
Walking down Christopher Street today, one is immediately struck by the unique architecture of buildings like The Northern Dispensary. It is the only building in Manhattan with one side touching two streets (Christopher and Grove) and two sides touching one (Waverly Place). The city handed the site over to the titular Northern Dispensary organization when the building was built in 1827, under the stipulation that it be used as a clinic for the poor not able to afford a stay in hospital. And that’s how it was operated, serving tens of thousands of the area’s sick – most famously Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) – up until 1920 when outpatient services began supplanting walk-ins and overnighters. As the city expanded, bigger, better hospitals opened around town, and the Dispensary became used solely as a community dental clinic.
Prior to the days of novocaine, doctors used clove to numb a patient’s gums before performing any dental procedure. Clove was a known natural and effective topical anesthetic. Although the Dispensary is currently vacated, shuttering its doors to the public after an incident involving the Catholic Church in the 1980’s, neighborhood residents still comment on the eerie scent of clove that sometimes wafts from its barred windows, especially during rainy days on Christopher Street.
As discussed in a previous post, carnation flowers and clove are intimately connected from an olfactive perspective. Oftentimes in lieu of using natural carnation oil, carnation accords are built using either clove oil or using a combination of eugenol and its derivatives (key chemical components found in clove oil). Burying clove nails at the base of a carnation plant is also thought to help enrich its spicy aroma. For me, the story of clove overlaps with the story of Craig Rodwell’s Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop, formerly at 15 Christopher Street. The overlap further highlights the floral beauty of clove, the complex richness of the material, both from a narrative perspective (again, an example of stories from the street intertwining), as well as in regards to the construction of the final Christopher Street fragrance composition (the scent of clove branching out from the heart of the fragrance). Read more about the relationship between carnation, clove, and Christopher Street here.
At the intersection of 7th Avenue and Christopher Street sits Village Cigars (110 7th Avenue South), a neighborhood staple since 1922. Village Cigars serves as a reminder to the historical connection between tobacco and Christopher Street. (Of course, the Hess Triangle outside of Village Cigars also serves as a reminder of rebellious spirit of the residents of Christopher Street.) Like clove, tobacco has been ever present on Christopher Street, going all the way back to the days when the land that the street now occupies used to be part of Trinity Farm; so, extending all the way back to the origin of Christopher Street. Yes, tobacco was one of the main crops farmed by the nuns at Trinity.
Like the marriage between carnation and clove in the heart of the Christopher Street fragrance, a similar overlap can be smelled between the tobacco note in the top of the scent and the clove in the heart, the two ingredients combining together to give the olfactive impression of a clove cigarette dancing in the air. For many of us, the smell of clove cigarettes brings up images of Hippie culture, the 60’s/70’s personality of Christopher Street (an era when Greenwich Village was a known hangout spot for Flower Children). For others, it is a connection to the spice roots of clove (from my travels around the world, I have never been surrounded by more plumes of clove cigarette smoke then while I was visiting Indonesia). Once again, the relationship between clove and the other ingredients in the final Christopher Street fragrance (in this case tobacco), underscores the multifaceted beauty of the clove note itself.
The story of clove has one last connection to the story of Christopher Street, drawing from a relationship more familiar to our modern associations with this spice ingredient; clove’s connection to the gustatory and with it, memories of spaces like the Bleecker Street Grocer (once at the intersection of Bleecker and Christopher; now an Accessorize store). The story of BSG is yet another fascinating peak inside life in Greenwich Village, a story I will return to in future ingredient stories. For now, let’s briefly look at its connection to clove.
In today’s world, most people associate clove with the other herbs and spices picked up at their local supermarket, or in the case of BSG, down at the corner mom-and-pop shop. We use clove to mull apple cider, to pin pineapple to a ham roast, or to add depth to a good curry (to name just a few recipes). Clove is now a staple in a home spice rack, a far cry from the days when it was valued alongside precious metals. A material once fought over and reserved for the few, it is now easily accessible by the many. It has become the grocer’s clove. Hence, the scent of clove reminds us of the many local shops (past and present) that line Christopher Street.
Over 400 years of New York City memories, all unearthed by following the scented trails of clove along Christopher Street.
More About Clove
Clove (varieties include Eugenia caryophyllata, Eugenia aromatica, Caryophyllus aromaticus and Syzgium aromaticum) usually refers to the aromatic dried flower buds of a tree in the family Myrtaceae. From the Old French ‘clou‘ meaning ‘nail,’ a reference to the nail-like shape of the dried bud. Clove trees are native to the Molucca Islands but are also cultivated in Zanzibar, Madagascar, Indonesia, Brazil, India, and Vietnam. Cloves were used as medicines (anesthetics as well as stomach remedies) as well as flavoring agents. Documented usage dates back to the 4th century BC in Europe and 3rd century BC in China. Clove oil is also known to have been one of the earliest ingredients used by Arabic perfumers. In perfumery, clove ingredients include clove bud oil, clove leaf oil, and clove bud absolute (along with newer CO2 extracts now available), though many restrictions to usage apply due to clove oil’s high levels of eugenol. Clove bud oil (the most commonly used of the three varieties) is mostly made up of eugenol (80-85%), eugenyl acetate (10-15%), and ß-caryophyllene (5-12%). Clove has a distinctive spicy floral aroma, reminiscent of the scent of carnation blossoms, with sweet, fruity, almost woody undertones.