Staying at home allows time to take stock

What have you been doing with your “spare time” during these long weeks that I’ve come to call “house arrest”? Probably a number of things more useful and efficient than what I’ve been doing, but I’m “virtually” (what a word for today!) sure that what I’m going to be telling you about is quite different from anything you’ve attempted — or probably haven’t even considered: I have cleaned out the spice shelf in my pantry!
This may not seem like much of an achievement to most of you, but you’ll understand if you consider the facts involved here: How did a dedicated non-cook manage to fill one long pantry shelf with tins and jars totaling an amazing 46 different spices? If you can even imagine that, you may get some of the feeling I enjoyed after I cleared them all out. This was an adventure that actually resulted in — to my surprise — a better feeling than when I used to look at them and smile. Those were the days when I was awaiting a time to use them in something — almost always, a time and a “something” that never came.
So after I’d asked myself, seriously, why I had ever amassed such a collection, the answer was obvious. It was simply because it was a collection!
The desire to collect seems a human built-in: Coins and stamps are quite usual, as are books. I’ve collected the latter for many years, and a related collection is that of figurines that feature little girls reading; I have about 70 of these, from fine china ones to Lucy sharing a book with Linus. They represent the importance of reading that was instilled in me as a small child by my father, whose motto was “Education is not a mere means to life; education is life itself.” And reading is, of course, the key to all education.
But — spices? For a non-cook? Lined up on the top shelf of a closed kitchen cabinet that no one but me ever opened? I searched myself for a motive as I took down all those 46 little glass jars and metal boxes, one at a time, emptied out the contents of each into a single trash bag, and thoroughly washed them all. But my search for a reason that I’d amassed such a collection came up as empty as the newly empty shelf that had given way to a counter full of clean containers now awaiting recycling.
When I say that my collection ran the gamut from A to Z, I mean it quite literally: I could start with Allspice and end with Chef Alan Zeman’s Sonoran Seasoning, and hit virtually every letter in between. Among their origins were Chinese, Italian, West Indian, Greek, Mexican, Canadian, and French spices, and an assortment of American specialties including Gumbo File, Cajun poultry seasoning, and Santa Fe Six Seasonings.
And in the same time-to-clear-out spirit, I have already given away a rather large collection of cookbooks, mostly unused, keeping only three: Sara Kasdan’s 1969 “Love and Knishes,” for its easiest, best, and only chicken soup recipe I’ve ever followed; Mildred Grosberg Bellin’s 1941 “Jewish Cook Book,” which doesn’t list ingredients for any recipe, just tells you in plain English how to make it — a book I treasure for instructions on preparing Roumanian Carnatzlach, the delicious beef dish my grandfather used to make; and — for obvious reasons — Peg Bracken’s 1960 “I Hate to Cook Book,” featuring 440 of the simplest, fastest recipes anyone could ever encounter, plus the world’s best advice concerning leftovers: “When in doubt — throw it out!” Much the same advice I applied to those old spices…
So if you could look into my pantry now, here’s what you’d see on its once-overloaded spice shelf: salt — regular and kosher — and three jars of pepper, one “normal,” two “coarse ground,” which I sprinkle most liberally over many of the things I routinely eat. And that is plenty for me!

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