Long ago and far away in 1980s Manhattan, I owned a spice rack. Spice rack ownership required the painstaking task of transferring spices from McCormick’s neat rectangular tins into small round jars. Each jar was identical in size, sporting a label clearly announcing their identity. They were my spice sentinels, anxiously waiting for their call to action in baked goods and savories. The labels were barely affixed to the jars when I started making new and exotic purchases, worthy additions to any kitchen. The grim reality was that I had used all of the jars provided by the spice rack company and more troubling, there were no additional vacancies on the rack. One of the spices that refused to conform to the dimensions of the rack was cardamom.
In the 1980s, cardamom had yet to become the new cinnamon, and though intrigued by this well-loved Scandinavian addition, it wasn’t something I used everyday. I had purchased it in order to make a Swedish-inspired recipe touted by Maida Heatter. Maida encouraged me to expand my spice horizons but sadly, the spice rack makers had not provided room for my burgeoning collection. Inspired by the comfortable tone of Maida’s cookbooks and my growing frustration with the tumbling bottle of cardamom, I opted to ditch my restrictive spice rack, moving everything to a slightly warped Tupperware lazy susan. Despite their newfound freedom, the spices continued to fight for space. Once again, cardamom was the renegade.
Always slightly out of step with her neighboring bay leaves and cinnamon, cardamom was clumsy on the shelf, toppling over whenever I gave the lazy susan the slightest spin. I wondered about cardamom, wishing it could be more like cinnamon. Cinnamon was my Flash-Dance spice, as warm and comfortable as a pair of leggings, spinning, practically leaping from cabinet to countertop, landing in cookies, coffeecakes, and the occasional batch of Cincinnati chili. I was constantly replenishing cinnamon but it seemed that every time I moved, the same jar of cardamom tagged along, blatantly out of place beside her sister spices.
Several years later, an exhaustive bakery crawl of Seattle proved what Maida knew all along; cardamom was stepping out of line on the spice rack because she was worthy of recognition. The warm, fragrant addition of cardamom was certainly more sophisticated than cinnamon, equally at home in sweet and savory dishes. Pacific Northwesterners used cardamom with an even hand, never overpowering, always enhancing. I wanted to be like, eat like, and bake like the Seattle-ites. I ate pear tarts spiked with cardamom and rich sour cream coffee cakes swirled with cardamom. Ginger spice cookies had a generous hit of cardamom, which tasted even better with a hot mug of cardamom coffee. Clearly I needed a little more Scandinavia in my life. I purchased fresh cardamom pods at Pike Place Market and smuggled them home in my suitcase.
It is easy to understand why Scandinavian immigrants were lured to the Pacific Northwest. Rich farmland, rivers and bays teeming with fresh fish, and a temperate climate were incentive enough. Thankfully, they packed plenty of cardamom in their steamer trunks. Today, the Scandinavian impact on Seattle’s cuisine is notable and like most food-related trends, has a way of working its way eastward. Wedged between Maida’s cookbooks, I have a fair collection of books highlighting Pacific Northwest restaurants and bakeries. The Scandinavian influence is reflected in the recipes proving that one coast’s cinnamon is another coast’s cardamom.
I’m more patient with cardamom these days, making room on a spice shelf for both ground cardamom and cardamom pods. Yes, I’m still adding cinnamon to baked goods, but not exclusively, and perhaps now with a gentler hand. Cinnamon has hung up her legwarmers and is now just a regular girl on the spice shelf. Cardamom always knew she was special, but now she’s the ‘It’ spice girl. Used judiciously, I like to think of her as the perfect little black dress of spices, always in good taste.
It’s doubtful a spice rack will ever find a home in my kitchen again; my kitchen cabinets are filled with multiple spice containers that cannot possibly be tamed within the confines of a rack. I like grinding certain spices in a retired coffee grinder and I admit to keeping a small stash of both green and black cardamom handy for certain recipes. I’ll keep watching from a safe distance to see what the uber foodsters dub the next ‘It’ spice. Cayenne already had it’s day in the spotlight, ditto turmeric. My money is on a spice that had its own designated jar on my now vintage spice rack; mace, nutmeg’s cooler older sister. The hipster foodie sites will proclaim the wonders and restorative virtues of the spice made from the dried outer covering of nutmeg. And while they’re at it, they’ll link me to an etsy site where I can buy my old spice rack and a few repurposed McCormick spice tins for an ungodly price. That only fuels a small portion of my frustration. My biggest fear is that the next cool spice will ultimately end up in a coffee drink. Poultry Seasoning latte, anyone?
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm