I love spices. I love the scents of them, the tastes and just the IDEA of them, those far-traveled flavors of cinnamon and fennel and caraway, the allspice berries and the exotic cloves, with their little nail-shaped, round-headed selves, all nippy and fragrant with a thousand miles of the Spice Road in their wake.
I use cloves in several pickles, especially the Lime Sweets and the quick-make “Cheater Pickles” which can be made up in ten minutes. We use them to make Christmas-scented pomander balls, studding fat oranges with hundreds of the little knobby-headed fellows, and scatter a handful into a big glass candle-chimney, along with anise stars and a few little logs of cinnamon stick. The fat holiday candles’ heat causes the aromas of all the lovely spices to perfume the air in a most enticing way.
I bit a clove once, by accident, in my Mammaw’s Sweet Pickled Peaches; those were the roundest, most beautiful things in the Fruit House, and the dozen or so carefully-hoarded jars were saved for very special occasions. The big globes of golden-orange peach had been slip-skinned into smooth round perfection, and chosen each-of-a-size to match each other in the wide-mouth Masons. The deep-sweet syrup with just a tiny tang of vinegar was completed by a clove or two as garnish in each jar.
And in my zeal to enjoy each and every drop of the wonderful peach spooned up neatly from the small cut-glass bowls, I accidentally crunched down on an errant clove, numbing my tongue and gums and causing great laughter at the table as I grimaced away the odd feeling and flavor. I didn’t want to do THAT again. Ever. And to this day, I cannot stand even the scent of Dentyne gum.
At first our kitchen shelves boasted only salt, pepper, cinnamon for cinnamon toast and baked apples, and a can of sage or “Poultry Seasoning,” like a hundred redolent dust-bunnies crammed into that tiny white can. Mixed pickling spice was a given, so important with its allspice, bay leaf, tiny crusty circles of sliced dried red pepper---those were tied into a small square of white cloth and immersed into the great white pots of “chillie sauce” and spiced tomato sauce and chow-chow before they were canned.
Slowly, the number of spices increased, as we added nutmeg, celery seeds for slaw and potato salad, mustard seeds for squash pickles and Bread & Butters, turmeric for the “yellow rice” which accompanied shrimp and other fish dishes. Spices were bought for a one-of-a-kind recipe passed on under the hair-dryer, or clipped out of Farm Journal, and when a new faddish recipe surfaced amongst the Church Supper set, like as not another new spice or herb was added to every cook’s arsenal, whether she liked the flavor or not.
And now, with trips to Penzey’s and World Market and Trader Joe’s---the spice shelves are laden with things too irrestible to pass up---some used often, and some which grow dry and flavorless with old age, their scent and savor whispered away unsung in the dark of the cupboard.
And the heady scent of that rattly whole nutmeg calls me to open the bottle and sniff even when I’m not going to use any. But I think our tiny grater’s perhaps tossed in a drawer, far from the spice rack. A friend mentioned a while back that she kept her grater clear across the kitchen from the spices, and wondered why she did that, when it caused more steps from drawer to nutmeg.
And in a burst of silliness, I wrote back:
Believe me, that little grater is unendingly grateful to be far away from those pesky rough hooligans. Nutmegs are the schoolyard bullies, the Lollipop Guild of the spice world. They sneak out past curfew, they gossip and lie, and they just can't. be. trusted.
Quite a few spoilages, over-seasonings and boilovers in a quite normal kitchen can be traced to those lurky, tricksy nutmegs. They sit there, giggling behind their hands, as we spill, drop, pour laboriously-made stock right down the drain, and have unspeakable encounters with blistering pothandles and razor-blade mandolines.
Keep that little grater safely away from those jinxes. And don't turn your back.