Sunday, September 26


When you really begin cooking, you realize that a dish is not the same without  spices. In fact, I would argue that often times, the spices make the dish. Spices, I think, are especially critical in the fall, when the flavors of summer are passing and you are faced with a new spread of produce to prepare. Just for a minute, think of fall without spices: imagine pumpkin pie without cinnamon and cloves; or consider your favorite chili without chili powder and cumin. Recently, I have been exploring this element of cooking and I am currently in a state of: overwhelmed, but in only the best sense of the word. 
Over the last year or two, I have frequented our local spice shop, The Spice House. From this, I have gained so much more than a simple spice collection. Every time I visit the Spice House, I feel as though I have stepped into my grandmother's kitchen, and am learning the wisdom of cooking that she learned in her grandmother's kitchen.
Today I visited the Spice House, with the intention of finding some vanilla beans for vanilla extract and a simple recipe for chili powder. When I began talking with one of the Spice House employees, we connected almost instantaneously. First we talked about chili powder. She directed me towards the chili powder section of the store, but when I expressed that I was interested in making my own chili powder, it was as if she understood me and I her. The exciting thing about making your own chili powder, is that you can really achieve the flavors that you want. I like my chili powder to have a little heat, but not extremely hot. She has experimented with homemade chili powder and was excited to share her wisdom of this, with me. I ended up with dried ancho chile powder. This will be my base for my chili powder; ancho chiles are a mild and sweet pepper which exude the aroma of tangy raisins. To this, I will add dried, red chili peppers from my dad's garden, eventually reaching the flavor and heat that is perfect for my tastes.
Then, was vanilla extract. She, a woman about the same age as my mother, had been making her own vanilla extract for years. She shared stories of her vanilla extract, and how it has changed her cooking and how simple it is to make! We were sharing ideas, and recipes and suddenly the spices I had were more than spices, but flavors of wisdom that had been shared with me. When I use my vanilla extract or chili powder, I too will begin to have food memories and hopefully one day, I will share my wisdom with someone.
This got me to really thinking about our current food situation. I have been reflecting a lot lately, about our food culture. Much of this reflection has been in part, because of the garden unit's commitment to non-packaged foods. In eating this way, we are forced to be creative with our foods and practically reject the food mecca of the grocery store. Let us look closer at the grocery store. Think of the spice isle at the grocery store. Every time I would try to buy spices from the spice isle at the grocery store, I would have to clear my afternoon of any other obligations. Talk about overwhelming! I never know where to start in that isle, and your chances are, that no-one in the store can help you too much. A specialty spice shop, however, encourages conversation. Suddenly, your spice shopping is a conversation with someone else who uses spices like an art medium.

Then I began thinking about the internet and cookbooks. Technology is so helpful in sharing knowledge and wisdom with others, but I feel as though our culture has lost the beauty of the human relationship in cooking. It seems that our meal times are often spent rushing from place to place, eating our meals from a box, and though our stomachs are filled, we still feel hungry. Perhaps we are yearning for the community that once was a part of food. Surely, it is a wonderful thing to be able to hop on the web, and search for what spices to use or what recipe to use. But, let me just say, the internet would not have suggested ancho chiles to me, like the woman from the Spice House. I cannot have a conversation with the internet. And, suddenly, cooking and learning becomes a solitary act, rather than a communal experience. And what fun is that, to cook alone?

When I left the Spice House today, I was so excited to start exploring the many levels of flavor that are a part of chili powder, and I was excited to have had a conversation about it. And when I left the Spice House, the woman I had been talking with said to me, "keep fighting the good fight".

Spices are critical to completing a dish. Similarly, food is not complete without conversation and human relationships. Really, I have come to believe that these are fundamental elements to the food experience. It seems that these elements are as nourishing, if not more, than the food it self.

On that note, happy eating!

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