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(author's note: It's an early dinner tonight. Pull up a seat, grab a beer and make yourself right at home.)

I have a confession to make.

In my pantry are spices that are 6 years old.  I know this because the package is dated and I know exactly where I purchased them - The Dekalb Farmers Market in Decatur, GA. I still lived there when I bought that curry powder and other flavor enhancers and when I moved, the plastic containers came along with me.

I'm currently packing up again and in doing so, took a good look at the contents of my pantry. Some of the stuff hasn't been opened for years. Curry powder? I can't stand the stuff and for the life of me have no clue why I would have purchased it in the first place. Dried spearmint?  Why o' why did I buy that? Maybe it was for tabouli. Ground nutmeg? Maybe I was planning to smoke it because nutmeg loses it's flavor approximately 3.9 seconds after being ground up. Other spices should generally be replaced after no more than a year. They do lose their taste and pungency after a while. By coincidence, that became clear the other day when I made my favorite spicy shrimp and it seemed to be lacking in something taste wise.

No matter what is hidden in the recesses of our pantries, spices have been a part of the human existance for thousands upon thousands of years.  They are mentioned in the book of Genesis when Joseph was sold into slavery in exchange for spices. Ancient texts from across the world mention them. The importance of salt is further illustrated by it's use as currency in the past.  The earliest human traders dealt in spices. They are the key reason the early explorers set out upon unknown waters. Nutmeg even played a role in the English acquisition of Manhattan from the Dutch.

Spices even can keep us healthy. A 1998 paper from a food researcher at Kansas State University claims some common household spices can even kill deadly e-coli bacteria. Hot spices are also believed to play a role in the health of cultures where they are common.

Garlic, onion, allspice and oregano, for example, were found to be the bestall-around bacteria killers (they kill everything), followed by thyme, cinnamon, tarragon and cumin (any of which kill up to 80 percent of bacteria). Capsicums, including chilies and other hot peppers, are in the middle of the antimicrobial pack (killing or inhibiting up to 75 percent of bacteria), while pepper of the white or black variety inhibits 25 percent of bacteria, as do ginger, anise seed, celery seed and the juices of lemons and limes.

Source: Food Bacteria-Spice Survey Shows Why Some Cultures Like it Hot. ScienceDaily, 1998.

Other spices are thought to be wonderful aphrodisiacs:

The Romans also embraced the phytochemical concept of the biblical lover's spicy enticement: "Make haste, my beloved, and be thou like to a roe, or to a young hart, upon the mountains of spices." (Song of Solomon 8,14); "I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloes and cinnamon. Come let us take our fill of love till morning." (Proverbs 7, 17-18). The Arabs had their "Perfumed Garden" and the Hindus their "Kama Sutra", each of which extolled favored spices such as nutmeg, cloves, galangal, cardamon and ginger, while the Romans came to favor cinnamon and pepper, and the Chinese were most impressed with ginger.

Flower, seed, leave, grain, root, fruit...no matter the form, we do love our spices and I would venture a guess that every home in the United States has at least a couple containers of some type no matter how little they cook. And I would bet many households have pantries not unlike my own ... full of some really old stuff.

In recent years, I've wizened up to the waste of old spice and learned the wisdom of buying only in small quantities of those that I will use in the near future. I'm grateful for the local organic food store which sells spices in bulk. That alone makes it easy to buy just what I need when I need it. I've also gotten better at preserving some of what I grow whether dried or frozen. With my upcoming move to a new home (and a nice kitchen ... yippee for me), I've made a pledge to myself to divest myself of the old crap once and for all.  

As I do, I'll be making note of what I really should keep on hand in small quantities at all times and what I should get only as I need them.

Most of what I want to keep handy are basics which I use with some regularity:

  • oregano
  • thyme
  • basil
  • italian seasoning mix
  • marjoram
  • bay leaves
  • whole sage leaves
  • thyme

The irony of that list is I also grow all of these herbs and prefer fresh for obvious reasons.  However, there are times when I want to use dried spices such as when I make a rub.

  • cumin whole and powder
  • red + black peppercorns
  • garlic salt
  • celery salt + celery seed
  • paprika
  • ground mustard
  • mustard seed (currently yellow + brown)

I also like to keep things spice mixes like chili powder and poultry seasoning handy. Sure, they are easy to make but it's easier and easy is my adopted middle name.

So what is in your pantry?

What spices are key to your cooking and what can you live without? And come on, admit it ... tell us what is the oldest container in your cabinet.

Fresh Poultry Seasoning:

  • minced fresh sage
  • minced fresh thyme
  • minced fresh marjoram
  • minced fresh rosemary

From The Lure and Lore of Spice:

If the appearance of spices were to reflect their real importance in the history of the world, the bottles of spices would be filled with bright glittery substances, diamonds, rubies, emeralds or gold would be appropriate. When you opened the bottle, a poof of vibrantly colored, mystically fragrant, magical smoke would slowly billow softly throughout the room. The reason the perfumery of the spices would be magical relative to the history of the world is that spices enable you to enhance not just your food, but many more important intangible aspects of your life.

And dinner tonight? We are ordering pizza in. On that pizza I will sprinkle crushed red pepper or pepper crunchies as I call them.

Here's a pizza joke:

A ________(enter your favorite ethnic group) man walks into a pizza joint and orders a pizza. He requests that it be cut into 6 pieces only saying he couldn't possibly eat 8.

Originally posted to tvb on Sat Apr 14, 2007 at 01:45 PM PDT.

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