Even with all this knitting, I am still reading a lot. This one will not be the last in my color series for a while, because I think there’s a yellow book in the queue at the ranch. But on to this one. A Perfect Shade of Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire, by Amy Butler Greenfield (2005), was recommended in the Master Naturalist session I took on cochineal. I’m glad I picked it up and read it, even though I’ve already read two other books on the color red. The history part was a lot of fun.
This book concentrates on the ups and downs of using that little Mexican insect, cochineal, to dye things red, starting from the very beginning and continuing to current times. One thing I learned is that, unlike the wild cochineal that grows out at the ranch, the kind that has been developed in Oaxaca to produce the most dye is a finicky thing. No wonder Spain held on to its secrets for so long and monopolized its import (when those pesky English pirates weren’t stealing it). They just couldn’t get it to grow well other than its native territory for hundreds of years.
Without the exact right climate with not too much rain, not too much wind, and not too much cold, they keel over pretty fast. The other books I’ve read didn’t go into as much detail about how many places tried to grow cochineal. It failed spectacularly all over the world, and was particularly unsuited to being grown by slaves like sugar cane, corn, or cotton. Oh well.
I did learn that eventually, patient people finally got it to grow in the Canary Islands and Guatemala, of all places. They even surpassed Mexico toward the end of the popularity of cochineal dye.
Another thing the other books didn’t tell me was that thanks to Red Dye No. 2 being identified as so poisonous, cochineal began coloring foods in modern times again, but it’s not popular with vegans and there ARE people allergic to it, too. Huh.
Even if you’re less than fascinated by dyeing things red with little insects, this book is a fun read, because you get an interesting perspective on European history from it. Much of the book makes England seen like a pretty nasty place, but the descriptions of Hapsburgs and their jaws made me rather sad for European royalty. What an inbred mess. All the intrigue between kings, queens, pirates, merchants, chemists, and others is a lot of fun.
It appears I have another race book and a novel ahead of me, though there IS a memoir I may sneak in. Thanks for bearing with me on these book reports.