’tis the Seasonings

When I baked a batch of molasses cookies for Halloween last month, I pulled ground ginger, cinnamon, and cloves off the spice shelf without so much as a glance at the labels. I recognized the spices by their colors and textures. Had I taken two seconds more to peruse the other spices nearby, I would’ve noticed the thin layer of dust on their bottle tops. Yep, my life needs a change of season-ings.

Here’s the count, at least in my kitchen.  On the spice shelf, I have fifty-two bottled or bagged inhabitants.  In the spice drawer (essentially an overflow of the shelf) I have another twenty-six.  No-calculator math brings my total to seventy-eight unique flavorings, yet how many do I use regularly?  Maybe a dozen.  I ask the same of you. How many spices live in your rack/drawer/shelf?  Of those, how many do you use week-in and week-out?

We’re missing out on adventure, you and me.  My recipes are bland enough to demand little more than garlic salt or oregano (on the savory side), and cinnamon or ginger (on the sweet).  I could spice things up if I’d just explore more exotic recipes… or simply brighten the ones I already make.  My mantra should be “Spice is the variety of life” (not the other way around).

For inspiration, I could take a trip to Indonesia’s Maluku Islands.  Once upon a time, nutmeg, cloves and mace could be found only on the Malukus, earning their nickname “The Spice Islands”.  I have this vision of a pungent-smelling tropical oasis of colorful trees, plants, and bushes, everything edible and delicious.  I’m running around sampling this and that like a kid in a candy store.  Kind of like (you remember the scene) the Chocolate Room in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Spices have tons of trivial facts and here are some of my favorites:

  • Allspice tastes like cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves all rolled into one.  Keep that in mind the next time you bake.
  • Saffron is one of the most expensive spices in the world.  Some varieties ring in at $400 for a few ounces.  Maybe because it takes a hundred hand-harvested flowers to produce a single gram of the spice?
  • If you find a blend called Chinese Five Spice, you can season your food to be sour, bitter, salty, sweet, and pungent all in one shake of the bottle.
  • “Masala” means “spice”… and nothing more.  In other words, be wary of that next dish of chicken masala; the seasoning could be a blend of anything.
  • Spice blends are often associated with countries, as with Harissa (North Africa) and Jerk (Jamaica).  The United States?  Pumpkin pie spice, of course.  We Americans obsess over anything pumpkin spice.
“If You Wannabe My ‘Clove-r’?”

Because the musically inclined want to know, I took this opportunity to read up on The Spice Girls, the British girl group from the 1990s.  I was disappointed to learn the name has nothing at all to do with spices.  Each of the five women took on a nickname to include the word “spice” but only Geri Halliwell’s (“Ginger Spice”) made any reference to a real spice… and that reference was only to her red hair.

[On that note, can anyone explain ANY connection between “ginger” and “red hair”?  My bottle of ground ginger is decidedly yellow…]

Diaspora Co. Spices gift box

Here’s the real crime with my spice shelf.  Almost all occupants are standard brands, like McCormick or Spice Islands, uniformly bottled in identical quantities.  Neither brand is organic (let alone an advertised proponent of fair trade).  Furthermore, their spices are processed and packaged in a factory, while I have zero excuses not to be shopping at a local store like Penzeys.  You only buy as much as you need at spice stores, and you can be assured of fewer steps in the journey from source to you.  Of course, you can also shop spices online at places like Diaspora and Burlap & Barrel.

Speaking of “as much as you need”, I can say with certainty most of my spices are past desired shelf life.  No, they’re not expired; more like “faded”.  They won’t pack as much punch as they did in their prime.  Here’s the rule of thumb with spices: if whole (i.e., cloves) best used for 2-3 years; if ground (i.e., cinnamon) best for 1-2.

If I took a poll of “favorite spice” I’d get a different answer every time (including a few men who’d choose a Spice Girl).  My favorite spice?  Red pepper flakes.  I use them liberally in a lot of dishes, including pasta and soups.  I describe them as a convenient after-thought, a final flourish as I’m about to sit down at the table.  Fire on top of my food.

Maybe if I invested in one of these spinning countertop racks, the mere visibility of so many options would spice up my life.  I’d be more in line with Simon & Garfunkel’s “… parsley, sage, rosemary & thyme”.  But if I’m limited to a shelf (and a drawer) my spices are out-of-sight, out-of-mind.  Just a shake of red pepper flakes and call it good.

Some content sourced from the Relish blog article, “15 Spice Facts You Never Knew”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Author: Dave

Three hundred posts would suggest I have something to say… This blog was born from a desire to elevate the English language, highlighting eloquent words from days gone by. The stories I share are snippets of life itself, and each comes with a bonus: a dusted-off word I hope you’ll go on to use more often. Read “Deutschland-ish Improvements” to learn about my backyard European wish list. Try “Slush Fun” for the throwback years of the 7-Eleven convenience store. Or drink in "Iced Coffee" to discover the plight of the rural French cafe. On the lighter side, read "Late Night Racquet Sports" for my adventures with our latest moth invasion. As Walt Whitman said, “That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.” Here then, my verse. Welcome to Life In A Word.

22 thoughts on “’tis the Seasonings”

  1. I my house, my wife is in charge of the spices. She has these plastic drawers she keeps them in. I’m only allowed to use them with special permission and close supervision.

    Word of advice: Never tell your wife that you think a band saw could be used to slice carrots …


  2. Agree, I would like to experiment/explore different spice flavorings more. THAT would be a good cooking class – all about spices. Take the same vegetable or piece of meat (4 pieces of each) and have us spice each one differently. Cook and see what we like best. I’m all in! LOL – I recently went through my spices, many were EXPIRED! Good post – with holidays, I should re-look at the ones I have left, see if they are expired.


  3. Simon & Garfunkel’s “… parsley, sage, rosemary & thyme” – that is my go-to foursome!
    We went through all our spices a few years ago and threw (into the compost) everything that was long, long past Best Before or wasn’t used regularly!


    1. I agree, Neil! I prep my oatmeal (er, steel-cut oats) the same way. I used to use brown sugar and blueberries, but cinnamon helped me tone down the sweetness. Healthier too.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I learned a lot from this post, starting with the composition of allspice. It also forced me to look up the origin of the term “ginger” in reference to red hair. Multiple theories abound. But my favorite is that it refers to the character Ginger from “Gilligan’s Island.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Okay, I like that explanation on “ginger” hair Paula, especially because Gilligan’s Island is a throwback to my childhood. We teenage boys sure had a crush on Tina Louise back then.


  5. My entire spice collection consists of salt, pepper, cinnamon, and savory (for the turkey dressing), and some cloves/allspice/nutmeg for the Hermit Cookies. I’m into safe and bland, as spicy food, even everyone’s favorite garlic, tends to bother my stomach, but that Chinese Five Spice stuff does sound interesting. I would be willing to try more spices though.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I love spices and spice blends. Without them I’m afraid my cooking would be too bland for words. Lately we’ve been into berbere which is a peppery mix from Africa, I think. It’s great in soups and stews, kind of sweet and citrus-y with a kick.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I’m not much of a cook Dave and I do have one of those revolving spice racks with various cooking utensils sticking out of the top of it – the spices are likely long rancid, but it helps keep my country kitchen look cozy. I do have a few Mrs. Dash sodium-free spices for my crockpot meals so that’s it for spices, but I do sprinkle cinnamon liberally into my oatmeal every morning, for the taste as well as because it is good for you.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Cinnamon on oatmeal is a wonder. I never thought I’d wean myself off the brown-sugar-add my mom raised me on. Now it’s just steel-cut oats, cinnamon, and raisins. As you say, much better for you! Also, when a recipe calls for cinnamon, make sure you get the measurement right. One time I mixed up a very small measurement of cinnamon with the slightly larger measurement of salt. My chocolate-chip cookies tasted more like “cinnamon-chip”.


  9. I’m guessing you must be a good cook! My late husband was the chef – he was very generous with spices which made every dish delicious. I’m more timid, but trying to be more adventurous.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I like to bake, Ruth, but it’s my wife who’s better when it comes to recipes. She also knows her way around the spice shelf better than I do, for which I am regularly grateful.


  11. Mmmmm, now I’m hungry.

    And here I thought that nutmeg came from New Jersey. Why else would it call itself The Nutmeg State?

    I think my fave is the big shaker container of Canadian Steak Seasoning. I learned about it from another dad at a scout camp out, and it’s mix of salt, pepper, onion, garlic and whatever is a winner on beef. My Mrs won’t join me though, because of all the salt.

    I don’t know how local Penzy’s is, seeing as how we have one in Indianapolis.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good point about Penzy’s. Maybe I’m fooled by their creative displays (and free recipes!). I’ll just play this one naive and assume their product comes straight from the source instead of a big ol’ factory 😉


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