How to learn every spice in the cabinet

So many of my peers are going epicurean. Its beautiful because I think cooking is empowering: it encourages people to try new things and experiencing new ways of thinking. It worrisome because it provides another thoroughly commodified identity, with all kinds of vocabulary for justifying not liking something. I spent a year convinced that I knew how I liked my coffee (and that I didn’t like it any other way). I finally admitted to myself that it was a delusion, and that the variance between cups of coffee was greater than my ability to tell the difference.

So we’ll focus on the first: empowerment. I never knew how to use the spices. I figured that the best way was to just cook lots of recipes by the book until I got the hang of it. But so much of the joy of cooking, for me, is making stuff up. For a while I just cooked without spices at all. I still prefer it that way, but I wanted to learn the spices, so I shifted to throwing in tons of random everything. Occasionally I would make things that worked. While the random approach will eventually start to pay off fine, it requires a certain affection for failure.

Though my stance towards failure is particularly affectionate, I did eventually refine my technique, and now it is fancy enough for anyone to learn to use any spice. Did you know that taste and smell are thoroughly integrated senses? Did you know that the tastiness of coffee and chocolate is entirely illusory? Coffee and chocolate have no taste. They are entirely smell. Try eating chocolate while holding your nose: all you’ll taste is the added sugar. And you can use this confound of the senses to simulate the experience of a new spice without committing to it. Soup is the easiest for this technique, so I’ll focus on it, but it works for everything:

Make your soup without any spices at all, throwing in all kind of stuff and putting off any spicing towards the end. When you are ready, ladle a little thimbleful of soup into a cup and walk over to you spice cabinet. Now open a random spice, take a sip of the soup, and smell the spice, and the next spice, and on down the line. By mixing smell and taste, you can simulate the experience of the soup with the spice. If you like what you are tasting, add the spice to the soup, erring on the side of too little. You can try all kinds of exotic spices and figure out what you like with impunity. Its simple and intuitive, and it will eventually get you a familiarity with the spice cabinet that you didn’t imagine yourself capable of. Feel the power of spice through your main course!