Cumin Tastes Like Dirty Socks

And Other Musings on Spice from the Sunshine Fairy.

Generally, I am a fan of cumin. I use it in marinades for things like London broil. (Oh, we should have had that with the Olympics. Maybe tomorrow.)  It is an important ingredient in one of my favorite broths for mussels.  But you know it’s a tricky one, you have to be a little careful about ratio to other spice and well, don’t be too heavy handed.

So I should have read the ingredient list on the package of spices for grilling peaches. There’s a voice inside my head that tells me grilling a fresh South Carolina peach is a sinful waste of a good peach. Or maybe that’s my mother on the telephone.  At any rate, we’ve enjoyed lots of wonderful fresh peaches in this house this summer. All except my dear husband.

Because he once ate a gallon of cherries in a single sitting, he can no longer eat certain fruits unless they’re cooked. This includes cherries (of course), peaches, plums, nectarines, apricots and to a lesser extent, apples and pears.  (Of course it was before I knew him, you don’t think I’d encourage that kind of gluttony, do you?)

So I thought we’d grill some peaches tonight to go with our wonderful summer dinner of grilled filet and grilled corn and mashed sweet potato. I’d picked up a spice packet somewhere for grilling peaches, and it looked liked we were good to go.

Except I should have read the ingredient list which included, along with demarara sugar and cinnamon, cumin and coriander. Coriander is the seed of the cilantro plant, a herb which, like cumin, has its fans and its critics. A friend of mine once gave me her entire harvest of cilantro, telling me it made her think of cat urine. Nevertheless, I love fresh cilantro. I would probably even love fresh cilantro on grilled peaches, maybe with a little fresh mozzarella? Coriander, though, is a different thing completely, and in this instance, only enhanced the “dirty sock” quality imparted by the cumin.

We soldiered through two peach halves, then I skinned and rinsed the remaining grilled peaches. I think they’ll be palatable enough chopped up and mixed with yogurt, or in a salsa. What should have tipped me off about the list of ingredients (had I read it closely) was the absence of nutmeg. If you’ve read many of these blog entries, you will know already that I adore nutmeg. I like it so much that in our house, nutmeg has it’s own grinder. (A coffee grinder bought specially for the purpose, which has “NOT FOR GRINDING COFFEE BEANS” written in several places on the box and on a label on the body of the machine.) I buy the nutmegs whole and grind them as needed.

Nutmeg was used in medieval Europe as a flavoring, medicinal agent and preservative, and during the Elizabethan age, it was believed to ward off the black plague, so it became immensely popular and the price skyrocketed. It’s also said to be effective in the treatment of strep throat. The covering of the nutmeg is the source of Mace, (the spice, not the stuff in the canister sprayed in the eyes of Wall Street protesters) – which is a lot like nutmeg, except not quite as delicate and as a result, not quite so exquisite. Historically, there was a lot of turmoil (including all out war) over the production of nutmeg, and I am glad to say  that this a thing of the past because I would really be sad if I couldn’t get nutmeg for my rice pudding.

In very large quantities, fresh ground nutmeg is both a hallucinogen and a toxin. It contains a monoamine oxidase inhibitor, which seems to be contraindicated to every known prescription medication– so don’t consume huge amounts of nutmeg if you’re on a course of something. Perhaps in response to nutmeg’s long history as a powerful medicinal and hallucinogenic substance, what I remember most about it from my childhood was what tiny little quantities were called for in cookie recipes. There might be a teaspoon of cinnamon and a teaspoon of vanilla and half a teaspoon of ginger and a quarter teaspoon of nutmeg. A quarter teaspoon! That must be some dangerous stuff.

Now I use nutmeg everywhere I think it would work, in savory dry rubs and marinades as well as with sweet things, and in quantities many times that stipulated by the old Betty Crocker cookbook. Of course, there were herbs (more so than spices) used in such enormous quantity during my childhood that I never use them now. It was the seventies, and Tarragon was King. Or maybe that was Oregano. In either case, if I never have them again that will be just fine. I’m getting that way about Rosemary too, enough already.

But the spice most associated with my childhood was tumeric. Not that we consumed a lot of tumeric. I’m not even sure why we had it in the house. Back then, people bought spices (or received them as wedding gifts) and they kept them for decades. I kid you not. I recently threw out a container of Allspice that I pilfered from my mother’s kitchen (taking rather too literally its name) when I was leaving for college in 1979. It had been her kitchen for as long as I could remember. Tumeric is used widely in Indian and south Asian dishes, neither of which we were eating in Prince Edward Island in 1973.

However, the End-of-the-School-Year program was upon us and my mother had a day to produce a costume, that of the Sunshine Fairy. (Stop laughing, I hear that.) There was no yellow RIT dye to be had on our end of the Island. A trip to Summerside, which might have produced some — but no guarantee– would have eaten up most of the day. So she took some old lacy sheer curtains and boiled them up in a vat with an entire container of tumeric.

And it did make the most glorious yellow-gold lacy curtain fabric, from which she fashioned a very clever costume for a Sunshine Fairy. It took a long time for that tumeric smell to wear off in the house. Even now (because I do have some for Indian and south Asian dishes) when I open the jar and breathe in, I am transported to the kitchen of the old Presbyterian manse in Tyne Valley, a bubbling pot of yellow curtains on the cast iron stove.

That evening I was presented with a book for being the student with the greatest achievement in 6th grade English. (It was the Writing and Drawings of Bob Dylan, presented by the Tyne Valley Women’s Auxilary. This still strikes me as hilarious, even though my mother suggested the title, which also is a bit weird. Well, it was the seventies.) I spun and leapt and curtsied my way across the stage in the cafetorium, putting my all into the sunshine of the Sunshine Fairy. After the curtain calls, the snapping of the instamatic cameras, the little blue explosions of flashcubes, I arrived first back in the dressing room. Right behind me was Perry Fry, my classmate and co-star. He grabbed my hand and kissed me on the mouth and then fled from the room.

I never saw him again. His family moved to the mainland over the summer. Maybe they left the next day. I remember standing there touching my lips, a little stunned, as the rest of the cast tumbled in, followed by parents and brothers and sisters. My mother was there alone, which was unusual, my stepfather wouldn’t miss a school production, unless- as the area doctor– he’d been called away.

“There’s been an accident,” my mother said by way of explanation and we drove home. He didn’t get home until very late. He stepped in to my room to say he was sorry he’d missed the debut of the the Sunshine Fairy, and I said it was okay, I understood.  In the morning my mother told me that he’d pulled four dead teenagers out of a car that failed to make a turn, and when that was done, he had to go with the RCMP and tell their parents.

So much tied up in the memories that rise from a spice jar.

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2 thoughts on “Cumin Tastes Like Dirty Socks

  1. Loved this…amazing how smells can bring so many memories rushing forward…like the smell of fresh baking bread in an alley or exterior air space…makes me think of Papa Bear! I can see you as the Sunshine Fairy! Thanks for this…

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