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An all-day Saturday seminar on spices - one of the many programs on the Mall, around the world, even in cyberspace, offered by the Smithsonian Associates

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Went to a seminar on spices and got a shock before I'd hardly sat down. That thing about spices being used to preserve meat, or cover the stink when it gets rotten? It's a myth.

You could hear the gasp in the hall when Elisabeth Rozin, a food historian, told us why this is nonsense. Yes, sometimes French sauces are accused of trying to compensate for stale meat. But no combination of spices will mask the awful smell of rotten meat or keep you from getting violently sick. If you really need to preserve meat, what you want is salt-not technically considered a spice since it's a mineral-or vinegar.

Rozin has made a study of the alleged curative powers of chicken soup (I say, how does one get to become a food historian and can an English major apply?) and declares this to be in part a matter of mythology as well.

First of all, how do you define chicken soup? "Different cultures," said Rozin, "have different constellations of spices that they use to put their own labels on certain common foods."

To illustrate the point, she issued little paper nut cups containing six samples of chicken broth. They were indeed a revelation. The Chinese style featured ginger and sesame; southern Italian had olive oil, garlic, tomato and oregano, and tasted like pizza; Thai had coconut and lime, coriander, lemongrass and hot pepper; Egyptian mixed cumin, lemon, garlic and mint tastes; Indian had ginger and coriander; and the Mexican version smacked of chilies, oregano and cumin.

With all this competition, why do people think that the version made by American Jewish mothers is as good as penicillin? "In the old country, chicken was often the only meat that Jews got, and then not every day; for many it was served only on religious occasions. When people came to America in the early 20th century, chicken was a lot more available," Rozin observed. The immigrants apparently needed to keep chicken special, so a secular mythology arose about chicken soup being curative. Rozin gives American Jewish immigrants the credit for popularizing the belief in the curative benefits of chicken soup but questions whether the chicken part has any unique value.

"Throughout history, and in many cultures, people have known about the benefits of various hot liquids. In the 19th century, many Americans thought the best remedy for minor maladies was hot beef tea." Chicken soup might be especially good as a decongestant, but hot lemonade or any vitamin-rich soup, in particular one spiced with pepper, garlic, onions and curry powder, will provide most of the same benefits.

Our next speaker, Julie Sahni, explained to us that most spice plants tend to grow in hot climates-primarily within 15 degrees above or below the Equator-and tend to be naturally low in moisture, so that even when picked, they retain fragrance and volume. Herbs, however, grow in temperate climates and tend to be the leaves and stems of plants that do not have hard bark and that do not lose their moisture quickly.

"Spices make things digestible, too," she said, "and they're extremely good for you." In fact, the ancients knew to combine certain spices with various foods to make them go down and stay down, so to speak. Cumin deters the flatulence caused by chickpeas; epazote-also known as wormseed or goosefoot-makes refried beans act less like beans.

"Our industrialized society is so far removed from the basic knowledge of our grandfathers that we use recipes without understanding why they work," observed Sahni, an architect, food writer and director of a cooking school and a spice company in Brooklyn. "You have to know when not to overspice and be careful with certain combinations; for example, bay leaf, cloves and basil. Together they usually taste awful."


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