Around the Mall & Beyond

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

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."

Using slides taken on her cuisine tours of Asia, she showed us how spices are grown and harvested. It all has to be done by hand, which is why spices are expensive. The seeds, leaves, stems, buds, whatever, are picked with care lest they be crushed and prematurely begin to lose their potency.

The pepper vine kills the tree it grows on, which of course complicates everything. The fruit of the nutmeg tree-known in Indonesia as a hallucinogen and aphrodisiac, which will not surprise the eggnog crowd-has to be pulled off one by one.

And each individual clove can be harvested only on one night in a season, when the bud is exposed. If your cloves lack that central bud-the little hump in the middle of the spikes-you know they aren't the best.

Vanilla, the lovely bean that Montezuma offered to Cortés, has to be pollinated in a single day of the season, a job that requires the small hands of women and children.

Cinnamon comes from the bark of a tree that grows so slowly that, in Sri Lanka, for example, it doesn't rate valuable field space but is grown in straggling rows on street shoulders.

There were some 170 of us at this all-day seminar on spices, one of the many programs offered by the Smithsonian Associates, the Institution's membership and continuing education arm. On the Mall here in Washington, across the country, around the world and even in cyberspace, the Associates present more than 2,000 courses, lectures and performing arts events a year! I know you're still thinking about spices and food, but I'd like to digress just a bit more to give you some examples of Associates programs. In 1996, Associates shared recipes with Julia Child, heard tales of the deep from Jacques Cousteau, enjoyed seeing Kenneth Branagh and Sir Derek Jacobi at a Washington premiere of the new film version of Hamlet, and learned about the beginnings of broadcast journalism with Walter Cronkite. This year Ken Burns will do a behind-the-scenes presentation on his latest work, Thomas Jefferson; the Muppets will give an up close look at the genius of Jim Henson; and sportswriter Shirley Povitch will talk about Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey.

The Associates also conduct the nation's largest museum-based educational travel program, each year offering more than 360 Smithsonian Study Tours and Seminars all over the world.

My own favorite part of the spices seminar was the lunch, which included a Burmese green bean salad and a chilled carrot soup with ginger and mace. Mace is the crimson, vinelike substance that covers the nutmeg seed. It is peeled from the seed, dried and ground into powder. Many people think the flavor is just about the same as nutmeg, but I'm told that gourmets appreciate the unique subtlety of mace. It certainly did wonders for the carrots.

After lunch, we were all in a perfect mood to hear our third speaker, Ann Wilder-owner of Vanns Spices in Baltimore, a company that specializes in premium-quality spices-talk about pepper. Tellicherry black pepper, for example, is picked when red, and it takes one person a day to strip one vine of pepper. The berries are laid out to dry on the ground, where people and animals walk right over them.

"You don't want to look at a peppercorn through a microscope if it's not sterilized," Wilder said, and then had to reassure the safety-preoccupied audience that the ones we get are carefully cleaned. We heard a lot about pepper. I suspect that most spice lectures get to pepper sooner or later, because it and other hot spices have a way of making themselves remembered.

I have my own story. When we were living in London some years ago, I shopped at a neighborhood Cypriot grocery run by three jolly brothers. One day I noticed a display of mustards and chutneys, and I asked them which was the mildest. Oh, they said, exchanging a three-way glance, the lemon chutney by all means. Very light, very delicate. It looked light. Yellowish-white, with bits of rind. Rather like a fine marmalade.

It was not until I had spread some of that chutney on my roast beef and run for the kitchen and held my mouth under the cold-water faucet for several minutes that I noticed the inside of the jar top. That appalling mixture of spices, I was convinced at the time, had destroyed the threads of the screw-on cap and all but eaten clean through the metal top itself. Oh how they laughed when I reported back. I've since learned that alcohol or fat is the best antidote for tongue burners.

Wilder gave us some pepper samples: Tellicherry black (a bit sweet, most agreed), Malabar black (less sweet), Brazilian (just plain hot) and Sarawak white (mild but hard to find outside Britain), and these were only a handful of the world's great peppers. They all tasted pretty much the same to me. "Pepper is incredibly short-lived," Wilder noted. "As soon as you grind it, the flavor begins to go off."

Paprika is a mild red pepper that differs dramatically in different soils. Hungarian is nothing like Spanish, which is fermented and more fragrant. "Just a touch is all you need," added Sahni.

Some varieties of chilies, the hot fruits of capsicum plants, can be diluted a million to one in water and still be tasted. A person can be addicted to them, Sahni told us, and require ever larger doses for the kick. So many things to remember: black pepper does not dissolve very well in water, Sahni explained, but does dissolve in alcohol (in a wine sauce, for instance), and then it quadruples in power. It shouldn't be cooked anyway, she opined, but sprinkled as a garnish. "Pepper can easily react during cooking and turn a sauce bitter."

All the speakers emphasized that we should buy spices in the smallest amounts possible and should use them fresh. We were even advised to buy little grinders for our kitchens and make the powders as needed.

When you buy your whole spices in small quantities, for the most part keep them at room temperature, though coriander and paprika can be refrigerated. And keep them away from light and heat. Red pepper, paprika, turmeric and ginger are OK in powder form; they retain their flavor quite well.

On to salt. "There are many kinds of salt," said Wilder, "though most people use plain table salt. Mines are flooded; the salt dissolves in the water, which is then pumped out and boiled off. When you do that you lose the minerals, the calcium and so forth, and that's not good."

She showed us a football-size chunk of salt, streaky with minerals. A product called Realsalt is mined with pick and shovel, and so retains the minerals. Kosher salt is kosher because it has no additives. Some say sea salt tastes "saltier" than the others.

"I use kosher because I can get my hand in the box and control it better when dispensing it," she said. "I hate table salt. It's bitter."

We all tasted our samples and agreed. The bitterness may come from aluminum salts, iodine and other additives, including sugar in some brands. Wilder also passed out samples of other salts: Japanese (tasted of seaweed) and Korean (baked in bamboo and good for headaches, say the Koreans).

I can remember when the average kitchen had nothing much besides cinnamon, cloves and maybe allspice, but with the influence of ethnic cuisines we have discovered all kinds of spices and herbs. Now the question is whether our indiscriminate combinations of them will violate the delicious traditions of the different cultures.

"The extended family which passed that heritage along is largely gone now," Rozin said. She collects what she considers to be examples of horrendous "fusion" cuisine. "I once had something called 'Siamese Tacos.' For me, the combination of the strong corn flavor from the tortilla and the Thai spices used for the pork filling was awful. On the other hand, back when the conquistadors brought tomatoes back to the Mediterranean from Mexico, maybe tomato sauce was so novel and radical it was considered bad fusion cooking."

My mind was still on lunch. Nobody needed the saltshaker.

Get the latest Science stories in your inbox.