Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Spice of Life

I grew up accustomed to the taste of black pepper. My mother, traditionally enough, did most of the cooking at least until my middle years of high school. She had many virtues as a person and as a mom, but a knack in the kitchen wasn’t one of them. It was her notion that there was nothing wrong with any dish that more black pepper couldn’t address successfully. (My dad didn’t agree, but didn’t say so, and instead pled a sensitive stomach in order to get an un-spiced version of whatever was on the stove, or, if that wasn’t possible, a very small portion of it; what he ate for lunch is anyone’s guess.) Unsurprisingly, heavily peppered food became my baseline for what was “normal,” and, as I grew older, I added to my array of preferred spices, dumping Tabasco sauce on this and curry powder on that. To this day, my favorite cuisines are Mexican and Cajun, and I’m convinced that no dish is spiced correctly unless it makes sweat break out on your forehead.

“Why is ‘mild’ salsa even offered for sale?” I once wondered. “Who would buy it?” The answer, of course, is lots of people. It didn’t take me long to discover that there are at least as many mild spicers as hot spicers in the world, and that I’m located pretty far to one end of the bell curve. Still, most people like at least some, and apparently always have.

Black pepper is one of the oldest traded spices, first imported from India by ancient Mesopotamians no later than 2000 BC. The peppercorn-bearing shrub is native to Java, but was transplanted to the tropical Asian mainland very early. Cinnamon, ginger, and cloves also were coveted in ancient times. (Spices, as a matter of definition, are the seeds, fruit, or bark of a plant; the leaves are herbs.) In the New World, bell peppers, vanilla, allspice (Pimenta dioica), and chili peppers were favorites of native peoples, and, with the arrival of the Spanish, these also became part of European cuisine. For reasons that are not entirely clear (though there are many theories) the use of spices increases the closer one gets to the equator; the explanation may be simply that the plants mostly grow in this region.

Some people claim that spice preferences are related to personality. Dr. Alan R. Hirsch, for example, at the Smell & Taste Research Center in Chicago says, "Cravings definitely have a physical component, but they also give some insight into the type of person you are." Maybe, but I’m not convinced. According to his list, spice-lovers are fastidious, like order, and pay attention to details. Anyone who has seen my desk knows that is untrue, at least in my case. I suspect that a taste for spices has more to do with early exposure to them, though I’ve met a few people who learned to like them later on.

Spicy foods, by the way, do not cause ulcers or digestive disorders. Nor do they kill taste buds. They do, however, trigger symptoms if you already have an ulcer or other disorder. If you can handle spices, though, there do seem to be some health benefits (see

In one of those ironies of life, it so happens that virtually all of my friends are light-spicers or no-spicers. Accordingly, when we go out or when I have guests, the menu is blander than when I order or cook for myself. In truth, I have learned to appreciate unadorned meats and veggies as well; they just aren’t my default choice.

Tomorrow, May 11, is a special day, however. According to the holiday-tracking site Gone-ta-pott, it is Eat What You Want Day. No kidding: Google it. At my house it will be jambalaya and curry chicken, with hot cherry peppers for dessert.

A Burger After My Heart


  1. Who likes mild salsa, you asked? Well, me for one! However, due to my picayune ways, I won't eat any kind except the Mexicana brand. Why? Because it consists of fresh, chopped tomatoes, onions, cilantro and just enough chopped jalapeno pepper and salt. Yes, it does have heat, but not so much that it obliterates the taste of the salsa. What it DOESN'T include is tomato sauce, sugar, syrup or ketchup because either of those creates a sweet, gravy like consistency. EEEWWW! The juices should be an opaque, pale pink and NOT a thick, solid red like spaghetti sauce. Tomatoes are naturally sweet and need no additional sugars. To make the 20 oz. tub of salsa go further, I add a 15 oz. can of good quality (like Hunt's)diced tomatoes and a can of Rotel tomatoes and diced jalapenos. Then, splash in lime juice and sea salt to taste. Tortilla chips are optional because salsa can be enjoyed like gazpacho.

    I am not a health food freak nor Vegan, but cannot understand the public's need for sugar. Sweet entrees and vegetables are disgustingly common. If you've tried Green Giant's Extra Sweet Corn on the Cob, you'll understand what I mean. It's like eating Halloween candy corn on the cob!! I've never enjoyed that candy and certainly don't want it in lieu of a vegetable.

    Although I'm not a heat seeking missile, heat is important in the character of some dishes such as Jambalaya and even in my recipe of Puttancesca. A personal favorite seafood recipe is Garlic and Smoked Paprika Shrimp. Simple, quick and prepared in the oven with minimum olive oil, it does include the heat of ground red pepper plus the warm blanket of smoked paprika. Recently, I prepared the dish and included roasted vegetables as a side. In anticipation of this special dinner, I specifically arranged my table with a placemat and cloth napkin--they fit my old TV tray perfectly!

    Joyously, I sampled my first bite! It took a nano second for the heat to sizzle my tastebuds like the Winn-Dixie iron brand seared steaks in their old TV ads! With eyes tearing and reaching for the iced tea, I wept-gasped to the dog, "Holy &*(^@#$! I've added too much ground red!!" Weeping heat tears and sucking iced tea like a vampire in a blood feast, I remembered a phone call interrupted me as I added spices to the dish. Much to the dismay of my gastronomy, I had doubled the amount of red pepper. With the pepper doing a number on my sinus', I sniffed, dabbed my eyes and in noble determination, decided to finish the dish in spite of the pain. Lacking a sadistic side, it's merely the high cost of shrimp that urged me on to consume the flaming krill. Alas, the day ended with my sacrifice of lost sleep as my poor lips hummed in low grade heat for hours afterward.

    True, I have an undying love of any sour, dill pickles, peppers or giardineria. My Mom used to grow her own peppers including the small, blazing Bouquet Peppers and pickle them. A page from her memorable suppers would be her wonderful peppers, a bowl of beans and ham graced with a crispy edged square of melt in your mouth cornbread. Perfect!

    One day last fall, I was running errands and shopping when I pulled into the local Sonic Drive-In for one of their Chili-Cheese Hot Dogs. Scanning the menu, I discovered their new collection of hot dogs. Reading the description of their "Chicago Dog," I saw the recipe included two pickled, hot pepper pods, a kosher dill spear, thinly sliced tomato plus more on a poppy seed bun. It was love at first read and confirmed at first bite! For me, the Chili-Cheese Dog was history!

    Call me crazy, but if I'm within a quarter mile of the Drive-In, the tart, slight heat of those peppers and kosher pickle spear call softly to me, "Breendaa! Breeendaaaa!!" Sigh...Woe is me!!!

    1. The poppy seed bun is an interesting touch. My grandmother used to make a rich poppyseed cake, a slice of which would make you fail a drug test for a week. (No one bothered administering those back then, of course.) Only one local bakery ever came close to equaling it, and it is now closed.