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spice tins

I can’t remember exactly where I first saw the magnetic spice tins.  It was probably some kind of kitchen or lifestyle website, the kind with the empty countertops, the spotless backsplashes, the shining faucets.  All I can tell you is that when I saw them, I just sat there for a while looking at them, jaw slack, mind spinning.

Breaching the spice cabinet of a recipe tester is not for the faint of heart.  Over the years mine had evolved into a beetling, pungent jungle of  condiments that defied categorization, was housed in a motley assortment of boxes, tins, and jars, and fell out in bits and pieces every time I tried to find something.  I had become so ignorant of what I had in there that when I finally made a stab at organizing it a couple years ago, I found I had three containers of asafoetida.  I had 16 kinds of salt and 17 kinds of pepper.  I had bishops’ weed and fenugreek leaves, cubeb and kalonji.  I did my best, going at it with a labelmaker and a box of old glass stopper jars, making separate neighborhoods for seeds, leaves, mixes, and so on.  But the whole thing remained, more or less, impenetrable.

But when I first saw magnetic tins, the elegance of the solution left me poleaxed with awe: to be able to see everything, all at once! free of the pedantic requirements of gravity! Nothing hidden behind anything else!  This was not home organization – this was Art.  I priced it out as a DIY project and determined I’d be better off signing up for discount emails from Pfaltzgraff, the housewares site, and buying them ready-made, on sale.  So that’s what I did.

I filled my tins and slapped them on the fridge and then just looked at them for a while – the colors and textures an analog for the brilliant world of smell and taste safely closed within –  in a kind of fugue state of bliss.  I sort of wanted to leave them unlabeled, but I’m not quite that arrogant.  There was, after all, a sporting chance I might swap out ajwain for caraway, or mace for dried lime powder, which would be a recipe-testing misdemeanor at the very least.  So I decided to label them on the floor-facing curve of the lid, alphabetically . . . and in Latin.

Now, it would not be entirely untrue to say I have a sort of reflexive aversion to doing things the normal way.  But labeling in Latin wasn’t just an attempt to be different, and it wasn’t a matter of pretense either.  It’s a simple fact that spice and herb nomenclature is a taxonomist’s nightmare.  Some spice cultures named things after the leaves, some after the seed, some after what the thing does to you when you eat it.  Every language has at least one name for the same spice, and to privilege one language over any other in a rigorously post-tribal kitchen seemed rife with ethnocentric assumptions.

It seemed simpler to just go straight to the closest thing we have to a lingua franca in all of this – the botanical name of the plant from which the condiment derives.  If that means I have to have two Myristica fragrans – one for the nutmeg, one for the mace – fine.  I can see the difference, after all.  And what’s more, Latin is equally inconvenient for everybody.  It’s democratic!

So that’s how my spices look now – arranged on the side of the fridge, 6 feet away from the countertop and stove, alphabetically from Apium graveolens to Zingiber officinale.   My birthday’s still a month away (I don’t suppose it’s obvious I’m a Virgo or anything), but I have to say this is about the best present-to-self I’ve ever pulled off.

As to the other problem – won’t my spices have a shorter lifespan from being kept in daylight, exposed to indirect solar radiation?  I can only answer: Probably.  But after all, even a cookbook reviewer has to make some sacrifices for Art.


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