Spices have been used in cooking for over 4,000 years. Explorers-turned-merchants embarked on long journeys seeking new sources for the best spices. Tales were spun – pirates lurked at ports and at sea and spices were very valuable; cinnamon and pepper were the currency of the day.
I began my tenure at The Spice House in Milwaukee, Wisconsin over 20 years ago. There I can play in bowls of peppercorns from India, cinnamon from Indonesia and ginger from China. I fill bottles with vanilla from Tahiti, Madagascar and Mexico. I sell spices to customers from every country, in every age group and at every economic level from the very poor to the very rich and I am grateful for it all.
In The Spice House, I have learned that the strongest link to our memories is our sense of smell. When observant Jewish children enter the store, their parents remind them of that and they say a prayer. An elderly gentleman drops in monthly in the early opening hours, smelling of a night’s binge on hard liquor, to buy the blend he enjoys on eggs for breakfast. A German couple come for ground poppy seeds needed to duplicate the cake they ate in the old country, and have been doing so for 30 years. A Sicilian woman tells me how her husband is feeling and what she will be making when her children and grandchildren come for dinner on Friday night.
We are often asked at The Spice House if we could bottle the aroma one is embraced by when entering the store. I would say yes. When I am at home in my kitchen and I decide to toast some seeds – perhaps cumin or coriander, and then grind them in a mortar with a pinch of crisp sea salt, or when I heat up a large silver ladle and then very quickly warm saffron threads before adding to a Moroccan stew redolent of cinnamon, the aroma that fills my home is testimony that a seed picked from a humble vine in one part of the world can transform a moment in another part of the world into something beyond words.