Last week my honorary daughter Rio helped me clear out my spice rack.
Rio is my partner Teja’s daughter by birth—a recent college graduate who is living with us while she recovers from getting an education.
She was inspired to tackle my spice rack after she opened a jar of cayenne for her refried beans and found bugs wriggling in it. (I don’t know what kind of bugs make their home in chili peppers, but I’m pretty sure I don’t want them living with us.)
I do know that it’s a good idea to purge one’s spice shelves periodically. It’s just that it hasn’t been on my priority list for . . . oh, maybe a quarter-century or so?
Digging through the spices was an archaeological expedition through my culinary past. There were jars of cardamom pods and sulfurous asafoetida [a resinous gum collected from plant roots] from the time I reviewed an Ayurvedic cookbook for Yoga Journal and was inspired to make mung bean kedgeree to calm my fly-away vata energy. (How old were these seasonings? Hint: When I was the books editor for Yoga Journal, I wrote my articles on a Mac 512 and was about to embark on a tumultuous romance with the Brazilian housemate whose herbs jostled mine in the communal kitchen drawer.)
There was saffron I picked up in Mysore while studying Ashtanga yoga in an era when dropping into a backbend from an elbow balance was a regular part of my practice. (I used to simmer the spice in fresh milk from the cow stabled below my bedroom.) There was yeast from a brief foray into bread baking when my now 6-foot-tall son, Skye, was in kindergarten, and red curry paste from an adventure with Thai cuisine.
There were two unopened jars of faded tarragon, an herb that I can’t recall ever using—my best guess is that one arrived when my ex-husband moved in with me and the other when Teja did. (Whatever else I might say about the years in between, apparently my cooking was tarragon-free.) There was fenugreek seed that I bought without knowing how to use it, because—in my pre-motherhood life when I wrote down my dreams every morning—a dream owl informed me that I needed to eat more fenugreek.
I struggled with discarding some of these relics—Hey, cloves don’t go bad, and all three half-empty jars of them smell like Christmas! But Rio helped me to be ruthless, especially with items that had expirations dated before she could talk.
We unscrewed lids and dumped jar after jar into a paper bag, sending up multicolored, aromatic clouds of turmeric, fennel, dill, and ginger. (We had to banish the cat from the kitchen, due to her keen interest in climbing into the bag.) We recycled the empties, scrubbed down the shelves, and returned the chosen few to their places. Then Rio carried the expired spices down to the curbside green waste bin to spark the curiosity of foraging raccoons until garbage collection day.
Since then, whenever I get a little frazzled, I go to the pantry and gaze at the spice rack—orderly, spacious, serene, its contents smelling of now.
“If you let go a little you will have a little peace. If you let go a lot you will have a lot of peace. If you let go completely you will have complete peace,” the Thai forest monk Ajahn Chah advised.
It’s tempting to hold on to the past, especially when it still smells like pumpkin pie. But my spice rack is a tiny, fragrant reminder of the ease that comes when I let it go.
And I’m excited to go to the grocery store and see which spices call out to me—begging to be stirred into recipes I haven’t dreamed of yet.
This article first appeared on Anne Cushman’s blog
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