Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Poetics of Spice

The Taylorist element of my morning today was waking early to get production underway and maximize the day. My principles of scientifically managing my breakfast were, however, unrefined. In the pre-coffee haze of 6:30am, I took the pan of soy milk oatmeal from the stove, poured it over the sliced banana in the bowl, and proceeded to vigorously season it--not with the intended cinnamon, but with cumin. The flavor surprise, had it been captured on video, would have looked like the opposite of the 1980s tv ad for Reese's peanut butter cups! (If nothing else, that ad was a valuable public service announcement against strolling casually with a Sony Walkman and an open jar of peanut butter. I mean, is there not something far too intimate about that to do it in public?)

And, at the tail end of this Baroque curlicue, before returning to cumin, there are those Reese's cogs:

To torque a phrase from another vintage tv candy ad: "Whatever it is I think I see, becomes a proliferation of cogs to me."

Now the cinnamon and cumin reside in different sectors of the kitchen.

But this poetics of spice got me thinking of cumin and an encounter during my first year living in Shanghai. Out of the back gate of East China Normal University, there are all kinds of street food vendors, especially from evening till late. I became a regular of these two Uighur chaps and their portable mutton kebap grill. One night I asked them about the spices they added near the end of the grilling, and they kept insisting it was "Ziran Fen," which translates literally as "Natural Powder." I was, at the time, convinced that this was some fantastic euphemism for a Poppy-based spice blend that offers a Thomas DeQuincey dining experience. Only later, with a dictionary, and this is certainly not to exclude the likely prospect that there was something Paul Bolwesy mixed into the spices they tapped out of a modified LongJing Green Tea tin, did I learn that "Ziran Fen" is cumin powder.

All of which makes me hungry right now and wish I had a copy of DeQuincey to read because the last time I looked at it, in Tim Morton's Romanticism seminar, I remember being surprised again and again.

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