Photo by David Malan via getty Images

"In my heart, I travel from Paris to Djibouti nightly on my stove top."

Jennifer Steinhauer
April 06, 2018

As I reached for my near-empty container of coriander, I once again espied my never-opened container of chia seeds, sitting there patiently in the back, knowing that my hand would never come its way.

All home cooks have their version of this—the spice, the dried herb, the can of pre-made rub, the Penzeys mix that you never asked for, sitting there, underused, or never opened at all. A Twitter survey of such items surfaced the usual suspects: cloves, arrowroot, juniper berries (I have them all); the obscure (I had to Google cubeb); as well as the mildly upsetting—one person claimed not to use his fish sauce.

Spices reflect our go-to weekly rotations of dishes, and offer up the comforts of well-known friends. Coriander is like Frank, whom I speak to nearly every day, usually about such ludicrous topics as what precisely that we like and dislike about walnuts. Ginger, cumin, smoked paprika, kosher salt, yellow miso, turmeric: these are all Franks.

Other spices are like people we see at a party who we want to like because we enjoy their distinctive glasses, but then realize we have nothing to say to each other. Mace, please go to the other side of the room. Asafetida? We dated once. It didn’t work out.

Many of these friends come in pairs. Why do I own two containers of tarragon? Because I probably forgot the other one was there. You have two of something too, I am sure. Probably those dreaded cloves, because twice a year you make some overbearing muffins.

But the chia seeds and the juniper berries and the cubeb reveal a darker truth about our cooking selves, contained in unrealized recipe dreams and deferred culinary ambition. Our spice drawers mirror the chasm between whom we think we are, or might be, and the truth about out domestic selves.

In my heart, I travel from Paris to Djibouti nightly on my stove top, undaunted by recipes with large numbers of ingredients. I make healthy smoothies with chia seeds. I am a person who wears a lot of flowing scarves. This is why I hang on to five-year-old containers of Ras el hanout.

In reality I am a woman with two cast iron pans and 25 saved recipes in my New York Times digital recipe box, none of them involving quince paste.

Our sense of kitchen fraudulence pervades the entire house. I requested an Instant Pot from my children in February, which has remained in its original box in the laundry room ever since, where I regard it much as Juliet when she saw Tybalt's ghost. “Stay!”

I could simply clean the damn drawer out. This seems sensible. My youngest child, who once helped me organize this spice drawer alphabetically into neurotic little medical containers with the tops that never actually get clean sniffed, “That drawer has gone to all hell since then.”

My stepdaughter who, when grounded, ill or otherwise homebound, has been known to touch up the entire interior paint job of our home and detail the Prius won’t go near my spice drawer. Perhaps she senses this would be a defeat of sort. What if I change my mind? What if I one day make a lamb roast that calls for anise seed? In fact I will. I will do it right now. I am going to go buy some kokum, too.

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