August 18th, 2006

krazy koati

Where the sour turns to sweet

One of the simplest ways to make any meal taste different is to add spices. Better would be preferred, but different will suffice. Looking over one's shelf of dusty spices opened in previous presidential administrations with a bare fifth of the material used it can be hard to believe there were times when spices were as good as money. Up until the Industrial Revolution aristocrats would eat piles of black pepper to prove how much wealth they had accumulated before supper. Before you point and laugh and wonder why it took humanity so very long to stop taking royalty the least bit seriously consider that during the height of the dot-com boom skilled company heads would routinely buy expensive Aero chairs, grind them up, and sprinkle the powder over their ice cream, which they would then send to employees as proof they had been vested. Things were very silly in those days.

The search for spices drove much of the economy of Europe for centuries, with ships spending years carrying bulk back from India and Southeast Asia. At the end of one of the many Anglo-Dutch wars the treaty of Breda saw the Dutch trade Manhattan for the Indonesian island of Run, where nutmeg came from. This makes it sound as though the Dutch didn't really want New Yorkers, but nutmeg was much more prized in those days, seeing as how it was credited with being able to cure mild cases of death and whatnot. You'd think we'd apply it more of the year.

For a long while the spices carried back across tens of thousands of miles over the course of years would be used to cover the taste of rotted meat, but it was as easy to use the meat to cover the taste of rotted spices. Matters improved in the 19th century when Ralph Wedgewood and Pellegrino Turri invented carbon paper, and industrialists discovered that by chopping up used carbon paper into small bits, spraying it with an appropriate perfume, and giving the product a good Middle Earth name such as Cymbopogon or Galangal, they could make spices every bit as good as the natural-grown product. Unfortunately the spread of carbonless-copy forms in recent years has badly hurt supplies and shortages of some of the more popular spices may be expected soon.

The great thing about using spices to change the taste of your meal is there's not much need for recipes or practice or any idea what you're doing. Suppose we're making spaghetti; then while the spaghetti is boiling and the sauce warming up simply open up a few pleasant-looking spices and sniff for ones with a pleasant aroma. You can sprinkle the carragon in the boiling spaghetti, or mix eregion into the sauce, or just save it all to be added later. You can have mine too, since I've eaten enough spaghetti, and don't need any more. You can take this bottle of tarragon off my hands, too.

Trivia: There were 658 salt companies working in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, in 1837. Source: Salt: A World History, Mark Kurlansky.

Currently Reading: The Spanish War, GJA O'Toole.