’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”.

Putting the Kettle On

Kacey Musgraves is a blossoming country music artist whose recent album “Golden Hour” will compete with heavy-hitters at this year’s Grammy Awards for Album of the Year. She’s released only four albums (through major labels), so the nomination is remarkable. And yet – despite the acclaim heaped on “Golden Hour” – my favorite Kacey song remains a track from her second album, “Pageant Material”. In her words, it’s “a little, tiny, music-box-of-a-song” called “Cup of Tea”.

The message in “Cup of Tea” (have a listen here) – is simple: no matter who you are or what you stand for, you’re never going to appeal to everybody.  There will always be haters out there no matter how you present yourself.  My favorite lyrics in “Cup of Tea” are the refrain itself:

You can’t be, everybody’s cup of tea
Some like it bitter, some like it sweet
Nobody’s everybody’s favorite
So you might as well just make it how you please

Kacey wouldn’t mind if I told her “Cup of Tea” gets me thinking just as much about tea as about how well I mesh with other people.  Not that I’ll be steeping anytime soon, mind you.  I can’t seem to acquire tea-taste, no matter how many times I put the kettle on.  Go figure – half my DNA originates from England, so you’d think my instincts would have me setting out the fine china and doilies every afternoon.  I’d nibble on the cakes or scones or whatever comes with, but no tea, please.  I much prefer my morning coffee.

Ironically, tea brews with some of my earliest childhood memories.  My parents used to take my brothers and I downtown in Los Angeles, to restaurants on the streets of Chinatown – probably as much for the cultural experience as for the food. I can still picture those dark, quiet dining rooms, with the strange music and gaudy decor.  The meal always began with a pot of tea, including the little round cups that seemed to have misplaced their handles.  Tea was a cool experience back then. Listen, when all you drank was milk or water (or the occasional soda), tea was pretty sweet no matter how it tasted.  It was like having a “grown-up” drink before being grown up.

Forty-odd years later, I notched another tea-riffic memory.  My wife and I took a cruise on the Baltic Sea a few summers ago (“six countries in eight days”), and chose Oceania, one of the nicer cruise lines.  Good decision.  As much as we enjoyed the excursions off the ship, we enjoyed the return even more, because every day we were treated to “afternoon tea”.  Oceania’s tea was the perfect respite between the early morning touring and the evening dinners/dancing.  “Tea” included tableside service from tuxedoed waitstaff, countless cakes and petit fours, and those little triangle sandwiches with the crusts removed.  “Tea” even included a string quartet; their soft music adding to the ambiance.  I suppose I could’ve asked for coffee instead, but that would’ve tainted the experience.  Not to say I enjoyed the tea itself.  Just “afternoon tea”.

The culture, history, and preparations of tea could generate a week’s worth of posts.  (See the Wikipedia article here).  What I find more interesting is how tea has become the daily routine of several global cultures.  The Chinese and Japanese consume tea in the morning “to heighten calm alertness”.  The Brits serve tea to guests upon arrival (or in the mid-afternoon), for “enjoyment in a refined setting”.  The Russians consider a social gathering “incomplete” without tea.  Not sure about all that, but I can at least agree with the moment of pause tea provides; the respite from the faster pace.  It’s just… my “cup of tea” is coffee.

Back in the Sandbox

76-zen-1       76-zen-2

Draw a line in the sand.

Therein lies the allure of the most unique Christmas gift I received this year.  The before/after photos above depict a modern-age spin on a Zen garden, only the “gardening” is done automatically; almost magically.  Place the ball where you feel the magnetic pull, spin a couple of dials underneath, and sit back and watch.  The ball is pulled invisibly around the sand, creating beautiful designs like the one in the second photo.  My “Sandscript” (which can be found here if you want one of your own) reminds me of “Spirograph”, the geometric drawing toy I had as a kid.  But my Zen garden is so much more than cool drawings.  It’s about finding calm within the daily chaos, or perhaps just a different way of looking at things.

Here’s what’s really Zen about my Sandscript.  First, you determine when the drawing is done by turning off the dials – the ball doesn’t just come to a stop on its own.  Second, the line drawings are random, and rarely symmetrical.  That’s my own brand of Zen right there.  I like things a little too neat and organized, so anything never really finished or never really perfect is my kind of therapy.

I always thought Zen gardens – one of countless cultural contributions from the Chinese and Japanese – were a little out there.  Authentic Zen gardens are the size of basketball courts and have you shuffling around the gravel and rocks, raking and rearranging as you seek your higher self.  Several years ago we bought my mother-in-law a tabletop Zen garden and I found myself drawn to the “gardening”, not really understanding why.  There is an undeniable calming effect when you draw lines in the sand.

The same can be said for mazes.  I loved mazes as a kid, especially the books you could draw in or the tabletop box where you turn the dials and tilt the maze to get the ball from start to finish.  Mazes are purported to have the same calming affect as Zen gardens.  I always thought mazes were limited to the hedge or cornfield variety but there are all sorts, including a chain of amusement parks throughout America.  We have a maze right here in our neighborhood, fashioned from painted lines on the asphalt surface of a cul-de-sac.  I’ve walked a few mazes in my lifetime but I’m still in search of the Zen in the experience.  I think I’m too preoccupied with finding my way out to discover any calming effect.

Zen is a great word, by the way.  There’s something about the sound of the “Z”.  Zen.  Or maybe I just like words starting with “Z” because they’re not used all that often.  Quick, name ten words off the top of your head starting with “Z”.  I gave myself sixty seconds and could only come up with seven.

If you don’t think Zen goes hand-in-hand with American culture, check out the following photo from a visit to a local retailer:

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My posts on Life In A Word will continue to run the gamut of topics, including personal experiences and humor for added zest (ha).  As you read you may find unexpected comfort in my words.  That’s not by chance – it’s probably just me playing with my Zen sandbox before I sat down to the keyboard.