I learned a hard lesson in the kitchen: the greatest spice of life is . . . still capable of being overdone. You see, there’s a pernicious malady to which us newbie cooks are particularly prone: “Spice Fever.” It’s that uncontrollable urge to sprinkle. There are all those lovely, alluring spice jars, full of exotic, aromatic substances that promise new and undiscovered gastronomical joys. Then you add the cooking shows, where the pros slice and dice and spice with chatty, rapid-fire ease, and suddenly the aspiring culinary artiste is ablaze with Spice Fever. It all looks so fun, so easy, so savory, the itch to try it ourselves becomes almost uncontrollable.
My own descent into spice madness was propelled by the movie Ratatouille. I got hooked by that scene where the little rodent chef frolics amid the spices, dancing around a percolating pot while tossing in handful after handful of spices, herbs, and fantastical fromages, all with reckless, joyful abandon—and never a recipe in sight.
Only problem is, Remy (the furry, four-pawed cartoon cook) was guided in his free-form adventure cooking by a special super-power: in the movie he has an amazing gift of olfactory discernment that allows him to peer into the inner essence of spices through his hyper-attenuated nostrils. I, on the other hand, am more limited in the powers of my nasal sensitivity. To wit: I can smell garlic. Provided there is enough of it. Other than that, my nose can’t really tell pumpkin from pineapple. And I don’t have any other super-senses to fall back on. And, at that time, I was also limited by an almost total lack of cooking experience.
But, I reasoned, I had eaten my whole life. And I was inspired by the desire to achieve gourmand greatness. What more could I need?
Turns out an iron stomach would have been nice.
I set out into the cooking deep relying on my cartoon-inspired zeal to create new and exciting flavors, which I thought must give me some kind of connection to the great culinary energy source pulsating through the cooking cosmos. I figured The Food Force must be with me, and that it would guide me in its own mysterious and subtle ways as I explored the wonders of Spice.
Unfortunately, when put into actual practice in my food-ignorant brain, those mysterious and subtle promptings of The Food Force looked something like this:
Oregano. That’s Italian. Add it to things to make them more Italiany.
Fennel seeds. Not really sure what these are. But saw hipsters on TV talking approvingly of them. Add them to things to make them more hip (whatever that means).
Mustard. Oh, I love hot dogs. Mustard is good. Add more mustard.
Surprisingly, the results of this interior dialectic between my cooking spirit and The Food Force produced only disappointing and upsetting results (intestinally speaking).
But I was undaunted in my spice zeal. If my first forays into the fabulous world of spices were disappointing, it could only mean that I must need more spices, and more exotic.
This downward spiral of Spice Fever continued, unbroken except for the occasional pizza delivery ordered to stave off starvation, until everyone in the family was finally so sick of my botched cooking experiments (and, eventually, even pizza), that something had to give.
It was only then, in my darkest hour, at the very rock bottom of culinary failure, that a new and shocking, and heretofore un-thought-of, even unthinkable, glimmer of an idea pierced through the gloom cast by the great cloud of spice haze that had engulfed my kitchen and hung in the air as a roiling, sneeze-inducing, eye-watering, thyme-tinged fog. And the ideas was: maybe I should try less, instead of more.
Like the rising of the morning star, a new light shone in the night to guide the odyssey of my cooking journey: try seasoning my food with restraint.
The effect was immediate, and much appreciated by the burned-out taste buds of my spice-scorched family. Everyone was happier. And a lot less hungry. And our pizza bills plummeted.
The sun was cheery and bright once again in the happy valley of our meal times.
It was then that I coined the immortal rule: “If you are using more than three spices, don’t.” And yes, salt and pepper both count.
I put this lesson into a snappy aphorism to help teach my children and pass on my hard-won wisdom to the generations that will follow after me:
When first you practice to food prepare
Beware and take care
As you dabble with teaspoon, pinch and dash
Lest you have to throw it in the trash.
So I’ve done my bit to add to mankind’s patrimony of wisdom. Nice to check that off the bucket list. Kind of takes the pressure off. (Though I do apologize for the haphazard meter; those lines were penned when I was still under the lingering influence of too much crushed red pepper.)
Surprisingly, the Bible tells us much the same thing, when it says:
“Let anything you hear die within you; be assured it will not make you burst.
When a fool hears something, he is in labor, like a woman giving birth to a child.
Like an arrow lodged in a man’s thigh is gossip in the breast of a fool.
. . . every story you must not believe.”
Sirach 19, 9-14.
Restraint. As it is with cooking, so it is with life. Stay your hand when it comes to spices, and you might just save the family dinner. Stay your tongue when it comes to words, and you might just save the family. Or in rhyme:
Stay your hand, stay your tongue.
Good for the old, good for the young.
And makes your meal time yum, yum, yum.
(Sorry about that one too; I still suffer some residual effects from a chili powder mishap.)
Restraint is the spice that makes the world go ’round (without crashing and burning). Now if I could just get a jar of that at Penzeys.
Copyright 2015 Jake Frost.
Photo: Espanol: especias en un negocio de Buenos Aires, Argentina; author: Hectoryemmi; Date: 27 October 2014; from WikiMediaCommons (https://commons.wikimedia.org); license: Creative Commons Attribtuion-Share Alike 4.0 International license.