There’s a store in our area that specializes in baking products, so on a recent Saturday afternoon, I tagged along with my wife as she checked it out. Mrs. G.’s rekindled interest in baking was partially sparked by one of her mother’s cookbooks, which is written entirely in German. Each recipe has to be translated and established American measurements have to be ditched in favor of weighing everything in grams. There was a bit of trial and error at first, but she can now crank out a Linzer torte that’s every bit as delicious as one that her mother made. This is a win/win because Mrs. G. enjoys baking and I heartily enjoy eating baked goods.
As much as I like sharing quality shopping time with my wife, this store stocked baking and cooking supplies and not much of anything else. There were no power tools, no books, no electronics, no cameras, no anything that interested me. What they did have was a diverse assortment of packaged spices in sizes ranging from more than anyone would ever need in a lifetime, to enough to open a chain of cupcake bakeries.
They also had jimmies (those things that get sprinkled on ice cream cones) in every imaginable shape and color. It was, without a doubt, the most magnificent assortment of jimmies I have ever seen, but in spite of this jimmie jamboree, I wanted to leave within ten seconds of walking into the store. They had free coffee, though, so I grabbed a cup just as Mrs. G. was being approached by a staffer who started talking about cinnamon. My interest in cinnamon ends the moment after I sprinkle a little on my oatmeal, and in all of my years, I have never given a thought to where cinnamon comes from or how it’s grown, but it seems perfectly clear to me that it grows in stalks, like celery.
I dawdled at the coffee station while Mrs. G. got a private tutorial on cinnamon, which started me thinking about other spices, such as cardamom and paprika and nutmeg. Where do those come from? Nutmeg seems obvious, but the rest will forever remain a mystery to me. What I do know is that there are fourteen drawers in our kitchen, and I can say with absolute certainty what’s in five of them—and one of them contains nothing but spices. Yes, we have an entire drawer full of spices. I usually open this drawer with a flourish, as a waiter would with one of those fancy wooden tea boxes, and marvel at our spice collection. If this were the Spice Wars of the 1500s when spices were used as currency, I’d be wealthy. I would be a spice baron. “How much for that castle? Pfffft. Here’s a basket of ginger and some nutmeg. Keep the change,” I would say from inside my spice-scented carriage.
Granted, there are a lot of duplicates in that drawer, which happens when Mrs. G. goes to the grocery store and remembers that she needs allspice for something, but she can’t be sure if we have any, so she’ll buy another container. This explains why we have three containers of allspice. If the urge ever comes up to go into the pumpkin pie business, we’re set for a while.
We also have spices that were moved from entirely different houses. Twice. There are containers in there that date back to the Epic of Gilgamesh, and each one of them is a mystery to me, so I thought I should pay at least some attention when the person in the store started talking to my wife about cinnamon—but not your run-of-the-mill grocery store cinnamon. Saigon cinnamon. She handed Mrs. G. a small container with a little of this special Saigon cinnamon in it and invited her to taste it. Now I was wary.
Who tastes cinnamon, but more to the point, how does one actually do this? I’ve done the sample route at Costco, so I thought I was savvy on tasting protocol, but where were the toothpicks? The teeny, tiny spoons? Was the container supposed to be upended into the mouth and swirled around for the exceptional Saigon cinnamon piquancy? It’s cinnamon. A teaspoon of it goes into an entire batch of cookies. If it were left out of a batch of cookies, I doubt anyone would notice.
So Mrs. G., being way smarter than I am, tapped her index finger in the cinnamon and then dabbed it on her tongue. I was looking for any sort of sign that this was the spice equivalent of a really good wine or an early October apple. Nope. It was cinnamon.
“Want to try some?” Mrs. G. asked. “No. It’s cinnamon,” I said. “I had my first taste when I was two. I doubt that it has changed much in sixty years.”
“But it’s sweeter,” the cinnamon lady said, looking a little disappointed that I wouldn’t at least try it.
There were a hundred things I was thinking, such as what sort of person eats cinnamon plain, or how could a person tell if cinnamon is sweeter when it’s mixed with tea or oatmeal or a batch of cookies, or if Saigon cinnamon is really worth more than the large container we have from the grocery store that will last us at least five years and was a fraction of the cost. Things like that, but I kept quiet because a really good baker probably could tell the difference, and who knows which ingredient will turn an average cookie into a really good cookie? It was obvious that the cinnamon lady was sold on the superiority of this particular type of cinnamon, so what I was thinking the most was that I felt bad for not trying some. It would have been the courteous thing to do. After all, I get my shorts in a knot if my Guatemalan coffee is ground too soon before I brew it. I’m a coffee snob. This person knew her cinnamon. Everybody has their thing, and I dismissed hers.
So I slipped away from my wife and the store clerk, and wandered around unobtrusively, feeling like a jerk and out of my element by a good mile, until I found a shelf full of hot sauce with names such as Dr. Assburns. This kept me distracted and entertained while Mrs. G. talked with her newfound friend about flour. My wife, God bless her, can and will talk with anyone about anything, and she attracts people out of thin air who will strike up a conversation with her or ask her opinion on something. She was now in a rapt conversation about flour for, I swear, ten minutes.
By the time we left the store, my wife knew more about flour and cinnamon than I’ll ever know because she listened to a stranger talk passionately about something that was important to her. It was serendipity that these two women shared a few minutes, one talking and one listening about something as simple as baking supplies. I left the store reminded that I need to spend more time as an active participant and not just a curious observer.
As it turns out, my daughter’s nascent “stranger attraction” gene kicked in on her recent thirtieth birthday, so now she too has become a stranger magnet. She was a little disconcerted about this and asked me about it the other day. I told her that with great power comes great responsibility. More interestingly, though, and much more significant is that she’s becoming her mom, and the world needs more people like them. If there’s any doubt about this, she can hone her gift with a nice lady who’s not too far from here, who is an expert on cinnamon.
Imagine my surprise when I found out that cinnamon does not grow in stalks, like celery, but is harvested from the inner bark of a small evergreen tree. When I hear things such as this, I always wonder who the first person was who knew to peel tree bark for a tasty spice. I would never think to do that. I also wonder the same thing about lobsters, because those do not look edible at all. According to Wikipedia, considered to be the last word on such things, spices can come from a seed, a fruit, a root, bark, a berry, a bud or a vegetable substance.
Now I know. I’m also curious to the point of obsession to find out how Saigon cinnamon tastes compared to the jug of cinnamon we got from Trader Joe’s.