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Spice is Nice : Traveling with Food

by Elizabeth G. Campolongo
Making chili and brussels sprouts. © Elizabeth G. Campolongo
For all you foodies and travel lovers, here’s a guest post by my daughter, who has taken a trip through time and memory without leaving her kitchen. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did – I’m sure you will. Some of you know her as a mathematician and an actress. She is also a fine writer and an awesome cook.
The travel writers Julio Cortázar and Alain de Botton follow an idea pioneered by Xavier de Maistre[i]: traveling in familiar places. I like to travel at home through food. Sometimes this means trying to recreate a dish I ate while out on my travels, other times it is picking up something unusual and interesting at the market–this is how I discovered that dragon fruit, though it looks really cool and as an “all-natural flavor” is delicious, is in reality quite disgusting. But most often, it is slowing down and following my instincts, scents, and taste as I cook.De Botton suggests walking more slowly through your neighborhood, taking more time to examine the people and places you normally overlook in your haste to get wherever you’re going. I think the same idea can be applied to cooking.

Often in the hustle and bustle of life in New York City, that rush follows us home, and the ingredients become a means to a specified end. What is the fastest way for me to re-fuel and keep going? The individual ingredients and your treatment of them–do I boil my broccoli a bit before dumping it in the wok–becomes a matter of efficiency–no, I don’t have time.

Efficiency and speed are the antithesis to variety and creativity in the kitchen. It’s like the genericness and general sparseness of the autoroute traveled by though Cortazar and Dunlop, who managed to find something new–find beauty–in that all-too generic scenery just by slowing down, stopping to smell the flowers, and letting their imagination guide them. So that is just what I will do, slow down, take the time to smell all my spices, and see where my imagination takes me.

My spice “shelf.” © 2013 Elizabeth G. Campolongo

In the spirit of exploring something common in a new light I decided to make chili from scratch. It has never been a main attraction kind of meal for me, just something quick and easy that I get in a can. So I stop by the market on my way home and pick up carrots, celery, onion, peppers, tomatoes–basically anything that looks good and I think would make a hearty chili. The game has begun.

As I begin my quest, I load up my favorite playlist and carry a chair with my computer into the kitchen–I will be in here for a while. I arrange my spices on the windowsill (typical NYC apartment with only 3 square feet of counter space), as Luca Dirisio’s voice begins to fill my kitchen.

First to arrive on my cutting board is the onion, accompanied by the usual waterworks of any attempt to cook with this pungent vegetable. Thankfully, it does not take too long to chop an onion and I quickly throw the pieces into my largest pot, which responds with a great hiss from the olive oil pooled at the bottom. I quickly crush a few cloves of garlic–I cannot go on an adventure without my trusty steed–and add that to the sizzling mix.

I think my usual recipe for beans would be a good basis for chili, so I also slice a couple tomatoes and let them simmer while I grab cans of kidney and black beans to add to the pot. Next I sprinkle some Adobo, which has the most heavenly spicy smell, and leave the beans to cook while I chop the other vegetables.

I throw the remaining veggies into the pot, and now the real fun begins (truly, Marc Anthony’s voice is now filling my kitchen, accompanied by a lively salsa beat). Any other day I might have just tossed in a few spices: cayenne, cumin, chili powder, a bay leaf, and say “it’ll do. I just want spice,” but every spice has a story, like every person and building in de Botton’s narrative.

I open the spices one by one and hold them to my nose, allowing the aroma to change my perception of my kitchen and transport me to a world of their own design. I start with cayenne, usually used to add a slight kick to my meal, and it surprises me. The smell is reminiscent of cat treats. I don’t believe my nose, and smell it again: still cat treats. It is such a delicious spice, though I will never be able to look at it the same again. Next up is paprika, a spice with whom I’m less familiar, and am hoping is better. It shares a similar smell to cayenne. My food should not make me think of my pets, though I love them dearly. This experiment seems disappointing and rather awful so far, but my kitchen usually smells good when I cook, so all the spices can’t smell so bad, right? The Adobo was a fiesta of spice.

Text and photos in this post © 2013 Elizabeth G. Campolongo.

[i] Julio Cortázar and Carol Dunlop, Autonauts of the Cosmoroute, a timeless voyage from Paris to Marseille, translated by Anne McLean; Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel; Xavier de Maistre, Journey Around My Bedroom.


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