Other people’s kitchens are showcases for collectibles, those interesting (and financially sound) kitchen items such as china or Fiestaware or antique sausage grinders. But I just can’t get the knack. I’d like to present a serene, color-coordinated face to the world when it comes for dinner, but I can’t seem to shed the impossibly sturdy Goodwill pans and the well-loved cookbooks, rippled with giant spills. I have a lot of them, both the pans and the books, but they’re not very nice to look at.
I have lots of collections, just not the sort that a lifestyle magazine would be interested in. My bottom cupboards are filled with an incomplete but wide-ranging set of mismatched Tupperware, and used-once gadgets turn to lumps of plastic in my drawers. The detritus of my food life washes up in the crannies like sediment from a river. But out of chaos, as they say, comes order, and out of my eccentric foodways comes my true pride, joy, and hoarding disorder: my spice collection.
The true extent of my compulsive collecting reveals itself with one peek in the cupboard, above and to the left of the stove. Just crack open the door and the jars and packets of seasonings rush out into full view. Organizing them is as hopeless and ridiculous as trying to harness the tide, but I do my best. I save all the little glass jars from capers and mustards and jams (I collect condiments). Sometimes I’ll even buy an unnecessary condiment just because the jar’s so cute (so I guess I collect jars, too).
There are never enough jars to catch everything—who eats that many capers?—so inevitably a half-dozen crinkly baggies full of unidentifiable brown powder wind up next to each other in the cupboard. Over time the labels wear off, the plastic cracks, and the spices merge identities in a miracle of olfactory osmosis so that they and the whole cupboard all smell the same. It’s a kind of cinnamon-chile odor, which is fine for an authentic Mexican molé, but hell on apple pie. Anyway, spices are like make-up: You’re supposed to throw it out every six months. So I toss ‘em, make a list, and replace.
I didn’t start out this way, you know. I inherited the palate of red-blooded, lower-middle-class, Anglo-Americana: Give me garlic powder (or better yet, garlic salt), crumbly gray oregano that smells of lawn clippings, poultry seasoning for special occasions. I got through college without realizing that allspice was an individual spice, and that sage, that fluffy stuff that looked like lint, actually came from a leaf. I never really thought about it. My 85-year-old grandmother has lived her whole life without knowing what a head of garlic looks like, and until recently I seemed fated to follow on that same path.
But all that changed a few years ago when, desperate for more flavor in my newly vegetarian diet, I began investigating eastern Indian cuisine. Indian cookery requires a real devotion to hunting down spices and using them thoughtfully. Traditional spice blends, the kind that get handed down from mother to daughter and probably have been the subject of serious inheritance disputes, may include up to 50 spices. The first stew I picked out of the book, a simple cauliflower and tomato curry, required seven or eight separate herbs and spices, most of which I had never heard of before. On my first visit to the bulk spice section in the natural food store, I stayed there for hours. Whole cumin seeds? Who knew?
Back home, I dusted off my stainless-steel mortar and pestle (which I had acquired for their art-deco qualities but then shelved when it was apparent that I would never acquire another piece of kitchen equipment to match either material or style). I fired up a dry frying pan until spit sizzled. Then, following the directions in the cookbook, I carefully poured in the first spice on the list, rattling round coriander seeds. They darkened in the heat, and crackled faintly, even after I had transferred them to the ringing bowl of the mortar. The weighted metal pestle plowed effortlessly through the whispering hot seeds, a few of which spilled out to scorch my bare feet. I was so lost in the cloud of buttery cinnamon smell that I barely noticed. The curry, as I recall, was a good facsimile, especially for a beginner. But it is the scent of coriander powder, rising on the warm air, that I remember most clearly.
That was the day my spice collecting began. I’ve enlarged my repertoire to include Mexican food, Scandinavian, Italian, Middle Eastern; I’m drawn first to recipes with long ingredient lists. I never buy seasoning without reason, but I always scoop out more than the recipe calls for. The remainder stays in its bag, or goes into a little jar if I have one, and gets added to the jumble, a souvenir from my culinary wandering. The heap of spices, in earthy tones of brown, red, gold, green, remind me where I’ve been, where I’m going, and how many teaspoons it’ll take to get me there.
Meanwhile, auxiliary collections have emerged. I’m getting into mortars and pestles now, testing them to see which will better handle the seeds, the pesto, the unripe peppercorns, which heavy pestle balances best in my palm, which bowl pushes back for the most thorough crush.
And I still would like to have enough jars to hold everything. At finer home-furnishing shops, my eye wanders to the spice racks, whose gorgeously weathered New England style masks their Asian-sweatshop origins. The jars they hold are clean, uniform, charming, and hermetically sealed. But I always pass them by. I think I’d miss the apple pie-molé smell.