My sister Gabby is the original Spice Girl.
When I got married, she gave me a hideous wall-mounted spice rack for the sole reason that it contained 36 essential spices that I absolutely “needed” for my kitchen. Her intention was that I toss the ugly rack but keep the jars to stock my cupboard. And here I thought I was doing so well with just salt, pepper and garlic powder. Who knew?
Gabby’s obsession has only gotten worse over the years. She’s a foodie, and has grown into a serious spice snob. Take, for example, my favorite spice: cinnamon. My sister is only too happy to explain the difference between what most of us know as cinnamon–the spicy and sweet cassia root from Vietnam–and real Ceylon cinnamon, which has citrusy overtones that are great for baking. There’s also pungent Chinese cinnamon, which delivers an eye-opening pop of flavor. She’s got them all—ordered in artisanal quantities at great cost from a specialty purveyor. And that’s just one of dozens of spices on her shelf.
Along with changing how we cook and enjoy food, spices have an amazing history. In a world where almost everything can be found on the grocers’ shelf, it’s easy to forget how rare and prized spices once were. Medieval Europe’s appetite for cinnamon, cloves, ginger, cumin and other exotic flavors inspired the exploration of Asia and ultimately the world; the rise of the great Renaissance city states in Europe; the founding of America (Columbus was searching for a Western route to the Spice Islands); untold advances in shipbuilding and cartography; and several wars for control of trade routes and territories. Indeed, it may be impossible to overstate importance of spices in shaping modern civilization. (more…)