The Magic of Spice: A Story
The most sacred thing in the kitchen wasn’t the cast iron skillet, or the old butter churn, or even that antique change jar my grandmother kept on top of the fridge. It wasn’t the old-fashioned kettle or even the fiesta ware that was so painstakingly collected from yard sales and flea markets.
It was the spice rack.
My grandmother’s spice rack consisted of an old Coca-Cola bottle crate turned on its side and filled with weathered glass jars of spices. Most of them weren’t labeled; she could tell what was in it by sight, and if that failed, by scent. The crate was a yard sale find from her days of pinching pennies as a military wife during World War II. The jars were passed down from her mother, and her mother before that.
The black lids were worn in certain places, just enough that when you picked up a jar and opened it, your hand fit perfectly in the curves. Those weren’t molded there. They were instead created there by many generations of hands opening and closing them.
The spice rack held such status that even the cookie jar wasn’t as forbidden. Grandchildren might sneak into the kitchen and steal a cookie from the jar, but they wouldn’t dare to touch the spice rack, no matter how enticing it might be. It was simply off-limits for reasons other than being told no. There was something sacred about it, something that demanded respect.
The first time I touched the spice rack, I felt as though I had been invited into a new world. My grandmother stood at the stove, stirring something delicious in an old pot, and she looked my way. “Go to the spice rack and pull out the one in the top corner. Open it up and sprinkle a touch in this pot.”
I did as I was told. The jar felt like a prize in my hands. The food seemed to smell better the moment I opened the jar and sprinkled in a “touch” – probably about a teaspoon. My grandmother told me when to stop, and then I replaced the jar, feeling as though I had been initiated into something grand.
Over the years, my mother had her own spice racks, one after another, none of them staying for long. I tried out a few myself when I grew older, but nothing seemed quite right. I used whimsical designs, sturdy and traditional types, and even the big spinning wheels that kept all my spices right at my fingertips, ready with just a spin of the wrist.
But none of them felt quite right.
While scouring yard sales about a year after my grandmother passed away, I found an old Coca-Cola bottle crate. I didn’t ask how much it was; I knew I wanted it. I knew exactly why I wanted it. I brought it home and announced to my husband that he had a small job to do this evening. I showed him where I wanted the crate and he went to work, affixing it to the wall just inside the kitchen.
Then I went on the search for glass jars.
A year later, my spice rack was filled with jars with no labels. I could tell what the spices were just by the look, and sometimes by the scent. The jars were old and worn, picked up from one flea market or yard sale after another, and none of them quite matched.
Now I had what I needed to make my kitchen feel exactly like home.