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Speaking of spices. May 28, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here (again). Just yesterday, I was posting about Scottish spices. Then our friend Ben called my attention to an article called “A Taste for Hotter, Mintier, Fruitier” in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal. (Read it for yourself at www.wsj.com.)

The article itself was about how American companies are making their foods’ and drinks’ flavorings more extreme, from Third-Degree Burn Doritos to Wrigley’s Orbit Mist Gum with flavor crystals called Micro-Bursts. “In short, American cuisine is adrenaline cuisine,” author Miriam Gottfried says. This is not what I—or presumably anyone who prefers to taste real food with real flavors, not lab-created coatings for tortilla chips and the like—would call good news, though it’s hardly a surprise. I recommend the article to your attention.

But what amazed me was a spice-related statistic: “At home, seasoning company McCormick & Co. Inc. says Americans now keep an average of 40 different spices, a figure that has grown roughly twice as fast in the past two decades as it did in the previous 30 years,” Ms. Gottfried reports. Forty spices! We’ve come a long way from salt, pepper, cinnamon, cloves, vanilla, and dried mustard, baby.

Thinking this through, I could see a sort of timeline. First were the regional herbs and spices used in traditional cuisines like that of this area’s Pennsylvania Dutch (caraway, coriander, sage, dill weed, dill seed, fennel, yellow mustardseed, horseradish, and anise) and the fiery dishes of the Southwest. Next, the Mediterranean herbs: oregano, thyme, marjoram, basil, rosemary, garlic. And then French cuisine, adding tarragon, lavender, and fines herbes to the mix.

Then the spices of India and Pakistan (curry leaf, fenugreek leaf, fenugreek seed, cardamom, black mustardseed, cumin, ginger, turmeric, and innumerable others) and their spice blends (curry powder, garam masala, chaat masala, and so on, in all their variations). And then Asian cuisine, with its wasabi, star anise, sesame oil, lemongrass, chillis, coconut, and distinctive curries.

These days, we can enjoy the spicings of Ethiopia or Senegal, Lebanon or Turkey, Thailand or the Philippines, Jamaica or Barbados, with hardly more effort than it takes to go online or open the spice cabinet. Still, I’m kind of awed.

Admittedly, I have hundreds of spices, herbs, and blends. But I’m a spice junkie. That the average American kitchen now has 40 spices simply blows me away. I can’t think of stronger proof that our culinary horizons have expanded. Maybe our national obsession with fast food, junk food, and fake food will finally fade in favor of real food with real flavor. But then again, maybe we’ll just reach for another bag of Third-Degree Burn chips.

                ‘Til next time,