Banishing the Mustiness: What Cleaning Out My Spice Cupboard Told Me about My Life

Spices vignette
Sometimes things are just not spicy at all (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

I reached into my spice cupboard for cinnamon and came up with cumin instead. As I pulled out a bag of white peppercorns and an empty jar that once contained coriander seeds, I knew I needed to do it. Clean out the bags, boxes, and bottles that hampered my cooking and my life more and more every day.

My spice cupboard needed a thorough scrubbing and weeding out. And so I sat down on the floor – my spice cupboard is to the right of my cooktop, nestled in the “island” in my kitchen – and started pulling out the bottles, bags, and boxes. Pretty soon I’d covered most of one of my countertops with the clutter. I counted something like 67 different spices and herbs, some of which – like many cooks – I’d only used a few times. Think ajwain and kalonji. And those 67 didn’t include the spices I keep in my freezer, the dried pasilla chiles and chile powders – ancho, chipotle, jalapeño powder – which stay fresher away from light and air.

As I poured some of the spices into small clean jars and tossed out musty-smelling marjoram and mint, I realized that my spice cupboard revealed a lot about my life.

Hurrying through my cooking, I would grab the right spice or herb, only to thrust it randomly back into the cupboard, making my original “filing” system no longer viable. With the coriander mixing it up with the sage, I found myself taking longer and longer to find what I needed. But that increasing entropy paled in comparison to the increasing lack of quality lurking in my cupboard.

I cooked lasagna last week for a new family in the neighborhood, making my family’s traditional recipe – no, we’re not Italian, but the recipe originated with some friends of my parents who were – and that recipe, like many from the 1950s and 1960s, required dried basil and dried oregano to perk up the tomato gravy made with sweet Italian sausage. Because I frequently use mostly fresh herbs in cooking these days, I’d lost track of just how old my dried basil and oregano were.

Musty and useless, those two herbs reminded me of the dead grass I see on lawns a few days after someone’s run through with a mower.

I immediately grabbed my car keys and ran out the door, headed to the grocery store, where I bought two brand-new jars of oregano and basil. When I got back to the house, and opened the jars, I sniffed. In that moment it hit me: there’s a lot more mustiness surrounding me than just dead herbs in jars. Once again, I’ve been careening through life on autopilot.

When that happens, and I know you know what I mean, it’s like I’m going through the motions of living without the reflecting that enriches life day by day. Pulled here by social media, jerked there by familial tensions, upended by unforeseen circumstances, and seduced by society’s expectations of success, no wonder I let my spice cupboard get to the point where it no longer functioned very well.

I delivered the lasagna to the neighbors. And I vowed to put some order back into that cupboard, a small thing, yes. It took an hour or so on a sunny Sunday morning, but in the process of caring for the spices and herbs, I slowed down. The fragrance of the spices – the “healthy” ones – transported me to kitchens where I have cooked. The pungent bite of ground coriander, Morocco, where the garish orange and somber black tiles of my butler’s pantry always conjured up thoughts of Halloween. Cumin took me to Mexico and the hole-in-the-wall place where I ate Tacos Arabes slathered with ancho chile sauce. And tarragon allowed me a moment to savor memories of France, where but for a quirk of time and geography, I should have been born.

So I sit here now, aware once again of how easy it is to lose focus. Once again, I’ve found that food drags me back to where I need to be, squarely planted on the ground, in a manner of speaking. Food is from the Earth and so are we. Every bite we take is a form of communion in a way, if you think about it.

© 2013 C. Bertelsen


  1. So true, Cynthia–true to the kitchen and true to life. I remember a novel of Ann Tyler’s (can’t recall the name) in which she described a character arranging her spices in alphabetical order. Reviewers commented on the obsessive-compulsive nature this illustrated. Not for me! I’m no obsessive compulsive. But I do try to keep my stuff in alpha order–how ever would you know where the nigella is if it’s not placed before the ancient oregano and after the equally ancient mustard seeds and the mace bought in India the year of the tsunami?


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