Spice is Other People

The kitchen gets cramped when there’s more than four meals on the stovetop. Our home is more than a century old, housing years of history and a hood vent of that history’s smells. The set-up might only be designed for one, but cooking is not a chore that’s done alone here.

We chop and slice and saute in close quarters. We boil and fry and bake in small spaces. And in the span of two hours, we huddle over what we make. We sniff and add cumin. We taste and sprinkle chili powder. We learn the way one another’s mental spice racks work. We stir and cradle new creations and we walk away with full stomachs and imaginations full with flavors.

I sleep in the attic of a home of 17. We live together in a housing co-op, wherein we dedicate five hours of weekly chores in exchange for cheap rent and hearty house meals. Cooking has always been my contribution to places I’ve lived in, but spice was a banal question of salt or pepper for me when I walked into my first grimy, industrial co-op kitchen. Dinner crews prepared meals for 100 people there, and consequently, taste could easily be drowned out by quantity. I watched more seasoned chefs study the spice cabinet to furnish the meal. I watched housemates use measuring cups to level out the thought of sumac, solving the need for nutmeg.

The first time I really tried to add more to the meal than just onion powder was burrito night. My lead chef asked me to make a sauce for the side. Entrusted with such a big responsibility, I let my creativity get the best of my housemates’ taste buds, and probably my reputation as a cook, too.

Chili powder! Berbere! Paprika! Ground chipotle! Sriracha? Sriracha! And a lot of…

I didn’t know a lot about sauces, it seemed. I was certain that my burgeoning palet for spice would be enough to sustain a meal. But the recipe lacked fundamental elements, namely a paste or cream or something, to carry the flavor. So I added a lot of olive oil.

And it was a sticky glob of hot spices. The oil had not been a good choice, as it seemed to solidify the spice, not absorb them and take on their flavor. I thought that was just how sauce-making worked, and it might turn into a silky mix if we just let it sit. But when the house lined up for dinner, judgemental forks in hand, my gloopy, biohazardous spices remained non-recognizable. Maybe it was the strangled faces that writhed when they reached the sauce bowl, or the roars of laughter that escaped those who actually tried it, but something felt appalled after I the mix made its rounds.

But I practice more restraint now. I’ve come to appreciate how personal and pointed spice can be.

Having just cracked an egg for a rainy, midnight snack of cinnamon-sugar cookies, I panicked to find an empty cinnamon shaker. My roommate was quick to respond after hearing the clink of half the spice rack shoved to one side in my search. She chuckled, and let me watch her careful fingers slide her spices to the counter.

Black pepper? Cayenne? Cardamom made sense. But I wasn’t sure about the ground cloves, either. We added two pinches of each selection. “My mom wouldn’t let chocolate in the house,” she explained. “She was allergic to sugar. I was always looking for ways to make cookies that weren’t Tollhouse.” We rolled them up, and sent our cookies to the flame.

It worked. The freckled dough caught the dim kitchen light, a volcanic pastry. Its harder outside shell crinkled in my hands and came undone in my mouth. The spices cut and then rang and harmonized — I’d never imagined so many strong scents and flavors working together.

It took me some thought to realize that I couldn’t have really — this was a combination, maybe not unique, but specific to my roommate. As a result of her chocolate-less position, she had time and trials to spend on perfecting her spice signature. Unlike typical co-op cooking that aims to please as many pallets in the shortest amount of time, this recipe was tailored, tenderized, and lovingly crafted by my roommate. And she had just shared it with me. We powdered the cookies with sugar, and left them to the living room of growling bellies.

Spice is something we develop certain tastes for. Witnessing the connection between person and flavor adds a wholly different layer to a meal, and helps us to appreciate the context behind it. And of all the sights and smells that come with living so close to several dozen folks, a thought-out and meaningful spice means the most.

About the Author

When Noel Larcher is not taking care of their four chickens, he’s probably writing poetry about butts. Or busy analyzing Ru Paul’s Drag Race through a Foucauldian lens. They’re also a consultant at UT’s writing center and a security guard at the Blanton Museum of Art.