Do you ever have that moment when you realize you've kept a promise to yourself? And that it actually matters that you did?
When I was a kid we had an avocado green, two level, circular spice rack. We cleaned it once a year in the ritual spring cleaning spasm. Every cupboard was emptied. Every item was washed, every shelf wiped down. And then it was all put back. The twenty year old, mostly full bottle of peach brandy. The canned goods. The baking pans. The spice rack with its faded plastic bottles. The only spices on the rack that we used with any regularity were the Christmas spices - cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, vanilla. And the little packet of food coloring.
I used to stand on tiptoe and spin the rack, watching the spices float past. Curry powder, used perhaps three times to make curried chicken and rice. Parsely, faded to hay green, with the same smell. White pepper powder, faintly sharp when I sniffed it. Rosemary, dried to brittleness. Hot pepper flakes that my brothers shook onto pizza. A bottle of tabasco, used only as a disciplinary tool. (Two drops on the tongue if you said bad words.) Oregano, occasionally dashed into a pot of spaghetti sauce.
Ours was not a spicy heritage. It wasn't even a flavorful one. My mother had grown up in a house where Kraft Miracle whip was the spiciest thing on the table. Where lukewarm red flannel hash was a regular feature. Where green beans were picked only when they had grown hairs and were then boiled into submission. Mom mastered homemade bread baking, an impressive feat even for someone who had been raised cooking. She made some darn tasty roast chicken on Sundays too. Her pot roast? Delicious.
But spices and the variety they offered eluded our table. As child I used to read and reread the Joy of Cooking, searching for recipes that would use the mystery spices on that spinning rack. I searched my mother's cookbooks the same way I searched through our Encyclopedia Britannica, perched on the basement stairs, a giant book balanced on my knees. Boiled Artichoke with Hollandaise Sauce was as exotic to me as the dancers of Thailand. I dreamed about Rosemary Studded Lamb with the same romantic fervor as I dreamed about the castles of the Black Forest. I imagined a future kitchen in which every dinner plate had color on it.
Somewhere in those dreams I promised myself that I would taste these foods and see these places. That I would be the kind of person who used up spices.
Tonight I made a simple little meal, made up of what I had on hand. I shook out the last of the dill to make cucumbers with sour cream dressing, served with maple sausage links, and cinnamon sweet potato. Promise kept.