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Please Don't Quote Me

By Caralee Aschenbrenner

They are Rodney Dangerfield of your kitchen pantry: Spices: They don’t get no respect!

Spices come from far distances, have an exotic background and the distinction of changing food from bland to flavorful. We here in the Northwest can travel far away in knowing a little bit about spices. Take, for instance, Mustard.

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This may have been hand-colored in the book—greens, yellows.

Dry Mustard or Mustard seed both are useful and from the long ago. The seed which is whole or powdered comes from the common Mustard plant that is found all over the world where there is temperate climates. There are forty known plants but only two are used for flavoring, Brassica alba and Brassica juncea, that related to Brussell Sprouts, broccoli and cabbage. The seed is ground and powdered but has less bite and aroma than the whole which is used in pickling vegetables and meats. The tiny seed can be white, yellow or brown and is pungent. It can color whatever food it is mixed with and it may surprise you as it did me to learn that most Mustard imported into the United States comes from Canada.

At one time Mustard promoted the container it came in of the Westmoreland Specialty Co. in Pennsylvania. For whatever reason the company manufactured both glass items and Mustard. The containers in this case were figural milk glass in shapes such as chickens, cats, dogs, owls, cows, doves, etc. (We have a turkey!)

About the turn-of-the century, 1900, the company put its Mustard output into the figural milk glass containers and charged a dime for the condiment and the premium dish. Imagine, a dime. Now they bring a whole lot more in the antique shop.

Westmoreland also used pressed glass containers, pretty enough to use as drinking glasses. In 1896 they bore the likenesses of Presidential candidates William McKinley and William Jennings Bryant on their labels—now an expensive collectible.

From 1889 to 1910 thousands upon thousands were snapped up. At the latter date the company discontinued the Mustard business and in 1924 the name was changed to Westmoreland Glass Co., continuing to make the figural dishes but not for a dime!

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That bottle of Vanilla Extract was actually brought into use at the instigation of a New England housewife. It was pronounced VAY-nilla at first, and had found its way to Europe from Central America in the day of exploration around the globe. It came about at the same time as cacao, chocolate, but came in the form of a long bean-like pod which was cut into pieces, put in a cloth bag and dunked into a hot beverage such as coffee, chocolate or tea or ingredients making cakes or dessert.

Sometimes the bean was put in the sugar jar to meld into for its flavor. That sometimes a nuisance and time consuming to say nothing of being unsanitary. By the time all the dunking was done, the last insertion was much lessened in taste and aroma.

A Boston housewife who had lived in France became enamored with Vay-nilla but hated the thought of dunking, so she took some beans to a nearby chemist and asked that he find some way to use them in cooking that was more efficient.

Joseph Burnett, the chemist, had already made himself known for the several kinds of tonic he’d invented such as the “America Cure” which boosted everything in the metabolism and then some. Before too long he’d come up with Vanilla Extract, a liquid flavoring easily used. Housewives thus from the mid-1800’s had the Boston housewife to thank for pushing for efficiency at the baking table. Some purists still use the Vanilla bean in whipping together certain desserts but mostly the extract is the favored flavor!

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Hernandez Cortez had taken cocoa shells back to Spain from the New World as part of the treasure and the new beverage, hot chocolate, became the fashionable rage. Tea was introduced about the same time at the first of the London coffee houses where as early as 1653 chocolate rivaled the other beverages as THE drink. Its story can be told at a later time. The one drawback of the Vanilla bean that had accompanied chocolate was its scarcity and having to be transported so far from the New World.

The bean is the seed pod of a climbing perennial orchid that grows thirty feet high. Botanists worked for three centuries to try to grow the Vanilla planifloria so it would be less expensive and easier to harvest. It wasn’t until Belgian Charles Morran went to Central America to study the plant first hand that he understood the intricacies of its pollination and could replicate it in the laboratory. Now the plant can be grown in other places; Mexico, Madagascar, Tahiti and Indonesia. Aren’t we fortunate some adventurer went for the Vanilla bean, not gold!

One of Nature’s most efficient packaging jobs is the Nutmeg. Its glossy brown ridged seed is about the size of a peach pit. And is seed of a fragrant, tropical tree, Myristica, whose fruit when ripe splits open to reveal the seed shell covered with a bright red lacy covering. It is scraped off to make another cooking space, Mace.

Mace can be substituted for Nutmeg anytime although it is much more subtle in taste and aroma. When the Mace is cut off the shell it is called a blade and when dried it is ground into the powder recognizable to good cooks everywhere. It is used in commercially sold soups, ketchup, sausages, puddings and doughnuts. Blades may be simmered in homemade soups but removed before serving. The powder is good in mashed potatoes, mac and cheese or creamed spinach. Indonesia was once the only place in the world where Mace/Nutmeg grew but with scientific know-how it is found elsewhere too.

The 1886 “Grocer’s Handbook,” however, has a page devoted to Nutmeg and tells that long ago it was native to South America, West Indies, Asia, Jamaica and Trinidad. It described the Mysrica tree as resembling a pear tree, about twenty feet tall and bearing in all seasons. The tree could live seventy to eighty years to produce four thousand Nutmeg a year. (It takes eighty to ninety seeds to make a pound.)

The Dutch closely controlled their Nutmeg crops in those far off places because it had such a high trading value. Legend tells that once when some island was about to be taken over by a rival, the Dutch cut down all the trees and made three huge piles “as large as churches” and burned them so there’d be nothing to take away. However the Nutmeg Pigeon(!) came in and carried away some of the seeds and flew to another island where, naturally, they grew so we have Nutmeg and Mace today, “to the World’s benefit,” said the Handbook. Antiquers will recall seeing the Nutmeg grater, a metal half-moon shaped utensil about 3-4 inches tall, punctured with holes from the inside to make a rough, sharp surface on which to grate the Nutmeg, a tedious kitchen chore. EVERY kitchen had one.

Pepper, it may surprise you, comes in colors other than black ... white, green, red/pink and they all grow on the same tree. It’s the preparation of the seed that tints the spice. “Grocer’s Handbook” states that Black pepper is simply the dried fruit of the tree and so is “not so agreeable to the eye.” White pepper retains more flavor and aroma. It is obtained by the soaking the seed in water to remove the outer covering. It is sometimes bleached. Green Pepper is merely picked when unripe. Picked unripe and freeze-dried or treated in a soak of sulphur dioxide to preserve the green color, it makes an unusual sprinkle to whatever its applied. Red and pink Pepper are the ripe berries. They are rare. They are soaked in brine and vinegar. Fully ripe, they are allowed to decompose, the fruit falls away and the bare seed is left behind.

Whole seeds are called Peppercorns to be cracked in a Pepper mill. They grow on a flowering vine, Piper migrum. Pepper is used by almost all cultures of the world. It grows in India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brazil.

Cloves, Ginger, Cinnamon are often used together in a recipe, a trio of satisfying flavors and smells to tantalize the cook and recipient. The earliest reference to Cloves was long ago BC when those making an audience with the Chinese emperor was recommended to fill their mouth with Cloves so as to have sweet breath when speaking to him. Gulp!

Cloves are handpicked pink or red flower buds that are put to dry until hard and brown. Whole Cloves are very familiar in spicing ham. The quaint little “nails” are

ground to powder and today grow in Zanzibar, Madagascar, Indonesia, as well as India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. They are the product of an evergreen tree and the 1886 Handbook claimed that they were smoked over a wood fire and dried in the sun ... A lot of hand work involved. Amboyna were the “most esteemed.”

Unlike buds and berries from which spices are taken, Ginger is a root of a plant growing in most tropical countries. When the plant stalk withers it is gathered and scalded to stop any sprouting. Or it is scraped. It grows 3 to 4 feet tall and the root is gnarly and orange-ish. When harvested it is then cut into small pieces to be distributed. There are two forms—crystallized which is soaking the root in a sugary syrup until tender then sprinkled with sugar. Powdered, as we usually use it to make gingerbread men, gingersnaps, ginger cakes, etc. is cultivated in China, India, West Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. A dash of powdered Ginger in a cup of tea will settle the nausea of motion sickness.

Last here, but hardly least of the Spices in your kitchen, is Cinnamon which, yes, is the peeled bark of a tree—an evergreen tree, of more than one type. The bark is sliced off and as it dries it curls up tightly into pieces called “quills.”

The quills are bundled by the handful in varying lengths and tied for retail.

The best Cinnamon is graded for its essential oil content. Sometimes cassia bark was sold instead of that from the genuine thing. Yes, some merchants Back When were cheaters.

Cinnamon is used in baked goods, soups, accent for coffee or chocolate and is a tempting come-on when used. It is believed that Cinnamon was one of the most important spices as world exploration began and shifted into high gear with Marco Polo, Magellan, Cortez and Columbus who were to scope out what spices were available in the New Worlds they were discovering those hundreds of years ago. Spices were adventure, expensive trade goods. Spices changed society. Spoiled food was given a second chance with spices by preserving and making them palatable. Picture the search through the jungles, rugged coastlines, the dangerous outback of unexplored wilderness, the hardships and sacrifices in foreign lands. It’s all right there in your kitchen.

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