Saturday, June 09, 2007

The Warmth of Spice


This tin of cinnamon measures 5-3/4 inches high, 4 inches wide, and 2-1/2 inches deep. It moved from Brooklyn to Florida with my parents in 1980 and was still in the pantry when Mary and I arrived here in 2003.

For Sunday Scribblings.

I grew up across the street from a man who worked in a spice factory. Our pantry was filled with tins, usually one-pounders, that I'd bought for five or six dollars. They contained cloves, nutmeg, garlic, cinnamon -- and herbs like tarragon and rosemary. Saffron, the most expensive of the lot, came in smaller packages but could still be had for a song....

Experimentation was cheap.

Marinades were my specialty. I sniffed first one open tin and then another, deciding what and how to mix. I let my concoctions age in the fridge to see how the flavors blended. I learned the properties of sauces like A-1, Worcestershire, Pickapeppa, and Tabasco. In the 1970s a friend had taught me -- in a restaurant in New York's Chinatown and to an audience of waitstaff -- how to mix dipping sauce using soy sauce, vinegar, and chili oil. Like me, he didn't measure, conveying his instructions by way of hand movements. This long a pour. That many shakes. He wanted to go to a culinary school back then. I wonder if he ever did.

In early February 1985 I had no refrigerator and had lived without one in Massachusetts for almost two years. I ate mostly out of cans, storing perishables in a plastic grocery bag that I hung out my kitchen window in winter. That scheme had proved successful for solid objects, but using it to manage a marinade would have been tougher.

I'd made tentative dinner plans with a friend who wasn't sure whether or not he could visit. It didn't matter. I had a hankering to cook. I bought spare ribs and made a marinade of garlic, hickory sauce, English mustard, soy sauce, Worcestershire, Tabasco, red cooking wine, and A-1.

Lucia's grocery still stood then; in about a year it would give way to a franchise. "You're A Stranger Here But Once," read the large block lettering painted on the red brick of its side wall. I lived around the corner and could wheel its cart right to my doorstep. Even so, the people at Lucia's stared at me when I brought a Styrofoam cooler and bags of ice to the checkout counter accompanying the meat and fixings.

They must have wondered who in their right mind would be buying all that ice when a blizzard was raging outside.

I didn't care. I had a nice flat surface on which to place my bowl. My meat and mixture remained cool for two days in a house that I usually kept at 55 degrees during the winter because I was paying for my own oil -- and back then my oil bill came to about a thousand dollars a year. I left my kerosene heater behind when I moved out of Woburn and into a Cambridge apartment that included heat. Living in New England introduced me to thermal underwear, which I use even here in Florida, where I've experienced a winter low as far down as the teens.

Although lacking a fridge in Woburn, I did have an oven, a condition that was reversed in my first Cambridge apartment (my second Cambridge apartment finally had both). When my dinner date didn't materialize, I carried my small feast to the end of the block.

I knew that my neighbor Helen -- my friend of 14 years, until her death in 1998 -- had been low on cash. I didn't know until I entered her apartment that the only food she had left was a single box of macaroni and cheese on an otherwise bare pantry shelf.

She, her boyfriend, and I ate well that evening.


Blogger Shelby said...


10:42 PM  
Blogger gautami tripathy said...

Looking at that tin reminded me of the aluminium cup with which my mom used to measure rice for cooking. I still use it.

It is almost disintegrating but it is more precious than anythng else I have.

It has been around 50 years now.

Thanks for this post!

9:54 AM  
Blogger Rob Kistner said...

Elissa - Very engaging story. What a journey is yours!

My wife and I still have her great-grandmothers sugar, flour, and tea 'tins' from the 1920's. They are actually made of nickel-chromium with real ivory handles, and punched lettering -- mostly still filled with black lacquer.

Thank you for sharing this bit of your life. :)

9:21 PM  
Blogger nonizamboni said...

Lovely post - you've had an interesting life!

8:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A wonderful spicy twist of a story. I can see it all clearly and almost taste!

10:37 PM  

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