Deborah Cassell, managing editor
I adore Mrs. Dash. She and some other women — Mrs. Butterworth (the syrup) and Mrs. Grass (the soup), namely — once were regular residents of my home. Although I’ve not lost my affection for that first lady, I’m now open to other ingredients. I love a little a little dill in my salad, some crushed red pepper on my pizza, a bit of basil in my spaghetti sauce, a sprinkle of cinnamon on my toast and a shot of raw sugar in my tea. In fact, not one but two spice racks take up valuable counter space in my narrow yet functional kitchen.
For me, seasonings truly are the spice of life. Without them, food would be as boring as that freeze-dried paste astronauts eat.
I’ve read that as we become older, our taste buds become less sensitive, hence our tendency to over-season. However, my AARP-aged parents take pride in the fact that they don’t salt anything. When visiting their house, I have to search the cupboards for the shaker. Instead, my father is a condiments connoisseur, and my mother favors hot peppers and sauces. She also keeps the pantry stocked with everything from Lawry’s lemon pepper (great on Brussel sprouts) to McCormick brand nutmeg and allspice (not my favorite flavors, but no less useful) to a few things I’ve neither heard of nor can identify.
But she never overdoes it. When Mom says to put in a “pinch” of garlic powder, she does not mean a tablespoon. I learned that the hard way. I’ve since become well-versed in the subtle nuances of certain seasonings, as well as how they can overpower a dish when used in excess. I keep my racks rife with the dried leaves and ground seeds I’ve come to rely on when canned and frozen foods fail to meet my taste buds’ high standards. When I run out of these flavor enhancers, my meals suffer, and I look forward to restocking.
Seasonings can be divided into two types: savory and sweet. Sweet is easily understood. But it was not until studying in England my junior year of college that I heard the term “savory” (or “queue” and “arse,” for that matter.) Although the word now is part of my everyday vernacular, it was, at the time, foreign to me.
I find it ironic that the same country to teach me about “savory” — aka, aromatic or spicy — produces some of the blandest food in the world. (Equally ironic is the fact that the Spice Girls hailed from England.) No, the UK isn’t known for its cuisine, but I’ve come to enjoy pub grub. And as far as I’m concerned, one should drink eight cups of English Breakfast a day, and scones are a major food group.
But I digress.
In 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue in search of the New World, an excellent source of — you guessed it — spices. I don’t know that any new spices have been discovered in recent years, but what’s popular one year often is out the next. For example, 2006 was the year of the pomegranate (in bread, cocktails, lip gloss, you name it). Sources say the acai berry is next.
Flavor combinations are constantly in flux, as well. As Americans are exposed to more diverse cultures, we’re told that our palates become more sophisticated, resulting in the introduction of such products as SoyJoy mango coconut nutrition bars, honey mustard & onion Pretzel Crisps, Snyder of Hanover olive oil & herb potato chips, and Hula Hotties blueberry chipotle sugar and cherry habanero fudge cookies.
Lately, sweet-meets-savory flavors dominate. This is not a new phenomenon. (Think kettle corn.) But it’s a trend that’s become more mainstream. For example, according to McCormick and Co.’s 2007 Flavor Forecast, the top 10 flavor pairings for this year include wasabi and maple, and cumin and apricot.
Wasabi? Cumin? Yum! I heart all things spicy (like mother, like daughter) and rely on pepper — from black to cayenne — to flavor many a dish. Years ago, I got a potent, ground-up mixture from a friend’s stepfather, who grows his own peppers, including fiery habaneros. Few seasonings pack the punch that this nasal-clearing concoction does.
But it’s certainly not the end-all, be-all. I encounter new seasonings everywhere I go. For instance, while in Baltimore last fall for the Snack Food Association’s Pretzel & Baked Snack Seminar, I tasted OLD BAY … and was hooked.
Move over Mrs. Dash. There’s a new spice in the house.