Standing in my kitchen over a sizzling pot of black beans, sliced onions and red peppers, holding an unidentifiable orange-coloured spice bag uncertainly in the air, I wonder if I'm about to ruin my family's dinner.
I'm hoping that what's inside is cumin, which would make this meal taste authentically Mexican, but I'm not sure. This worn-out plastic spice bag has been around for at least a couple of years; I know I should get rid of it, but I don't. This is just in case it's the end of the world and we run out of all our other, clearly labelled, bags of spices.
Remembering a scene from Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth, in which poor Chinese farmers eat mud to alleviate their empty stomachs, I imagine that instead of earth, my soup could be made from one wrinkly, soft potato found in the basement, an old leather glove and this unrecognizable spice to make it more palatable for my family. I know they are relying on me to nourish them through the post-apocalypse.
This spice bag contains either ground cumin or coriander – or perhaps even curry powder. Once every six months or so I give the spice in the bag a taste test. I place a tiny dab on the end of my tongue and attempt to identify it. Then I commence to whip up a delicious dinner – and afterward, of course, I don't label the bag. I forget instantly what spice I decided it was, and don't give it another thought until that moment when I really need cumin or coriander again.
I believe you can tell a lot about the inner workings of a person's life just by looking at the way they store their spices. Our family's are stored in a large, square, dented tin that used to hold Carr's Entertainment Crackers and Biscuits. The tin has bits of food stuck to the lid's colour photo of artfully arranged crackers beside a sprig of greenery and a stack of cucumber-and-shrimp kebabs.
Our spice box is overflowing with a hodgepodge of yellow plastic No Name-brand bags. Three bags of oregano leaves (or – since we are in Canada – feuilles d'origan) are each partly empty and their resealable tops have been left wide open.
Looking more closely, I see that we have chili powder (assaisonnement au chili) and, in a larger orange plastic bag that looks as if a rat opened it with its yellowing incisors, a packet of vibrant orange hot chili powder by a brand called Suraj. I know this one has cayenne pepper in it because too much of it ruins our chili dinner.
Whenever I reach for a bag from the tin, I make sure never to touch the bottom, as though a tiny monster may be lurking there ready to nip at my fingers.
I have tried to organize my spices many times. The last time was after picking up my daughter from a play date one evening and noticing with wonder that this girl's mom had all her spices stored in little metal tins, magnetically attached to the side of her fridge in a charming, Martha Stewart-style way.
I went home that night and told my family we were going to change our shabby ways.
The next day, we carefully poured all our spices into little jars, labelled them with black permanent markers and stood back proudly to admire our handiwork. Once the jars were empty, though, we never refilled them. After a long day of work, errands and soccer practice we are all too weary to maintain our new system.
Each new spice bag carried home from the grocery store is ripped open impatiently with teeth and, once used, thrown pell-mell into the tin in the back of the cupboard.
If I look at it optimistically, this method actually helps me to wash the kitchen floor more often: One of these unsealed bags will inevitably fall when someone reaches into the dark recesses of the cupboard for a bag of chocolate-chip cookies. When a full bag of turmeric lands with a thud and dusts the kitchen floor and the air with bright yellow clouds, it's as if we are celebrating the Holi Festival of Colours in India. And then I have to wash the floor.
I can lament the way we store our spices, or I can just accept it and realize our spice box is a reflection of who we are: I want to live my life with plenty of strong flavours; I don't want our meals ever to be bland; I want my family's insides to be washed clean with turmeric; I want spicy dinners to bring my family together every night, not only to give us health, but to enjoy mouth-watering meals.
Every evening when we sit at our battered wooden table, with its pot-sized circular burn mark, I want us to look up from our steaming hot bowl of homemade chicken soup (or maybe even that last bowl of spicy leather glove soup) and, for a brief moment amid our hectic modern lives, to connect.
Margot Fedoruk lives in Calgary.
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