Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Herb and Spice Mixes Are Evil!

With the exception of maybe Old Bay, all spice mixes are bad and should be gathered and burned Salem-style for crimes against the kitchen. Have I owned a bottle of that fuzzy little Portuguese TV chef’s spunk mixture? Yes. Have I used “Italian Seasoning” in a Ragu Bolognese and “Herbs de Provence” in a Beurre Composé? Yes. Am I proud of it? No!

Nothing has done more to drain the soul out of the American kitchen than specialty spice mixes: steak seasonings, seasoned salt, rib rubs, jerk mixes, rotisserie chicken rubs, taco-seasonings, Mrs. Dash’s 10,000 different combinations that each only vary by one ingredient, and the dozens of celebrity chef’s ridiculously grinning at me from my local supermarket selves… all of these bastardizations of herbal goodness have chipped away at the collective skill of the home cook.

When I moved to Europe I wanted to cook an American Thanksgiving diner for my new German girlfriend’s family. They had only seen Turkey-day images from Norman Rockwell paintings and post cards. At that time I didn’t have very many notches on my culinary head-board yet, so I was going to mostly wing it, and was doing a lot of google'ing for American recipes. What I wasn’t prepared for was that literally EVERY dish that I wanted to make was held together, at least herbally, by ridiculous spice mixtures that meant nothing to my local Lebensmittelgeschäft employee.

What the hell was in “Poultry Seasoning”? How do you make “Apple Pie Spice”? Where was I going to find a 10 and ¾ ounce can of condensed cream of mushroom soup in Munich? And was I going to have to get my mom to air mail me a package of “Turkey Gravy Mix”? I made a Magna Carta like vow then, that I have lived by until this very day eight years later. Nothing enters my kitchen pre-combined. I even hate having Iodine in my salt. Self-rising flour is for the unimaginative, and even pre-made Ketchup never sees the refrigerator-light of day in my killing field. Ever since this decree, my understanding of food has increased with each day, and my food costs have crept to an all time low.

You’ll never hear me talking about my “secret weapon” or my “special secret ingredient”. That’s right. My only cloak-and-dagger mojo is my passion to understand what, how, and why. I have literally never seen a spice mix that could produce a better end product than even a dyslexic ten year old. The quality of the herbs in these mixes are, with microscopic exception, little more than dust off the floor of a Maersk Line shipping vessel. They produce unpredictable and irreproducible dishes. They take up valuable space in your cabinets by consisting of redundant ingredients. i.e. You already have all that shit in your spice rack to begin with!

I know that there are thousands of cookbooks out there that list spice mixes in their recipes. I also know that no one wants to think that they or their past family members were cooking bullshit dishes for generations. But, let me be the bearer of harshness. If grandma was using Bisquick, Coca-Cola, or Canned Soups to create her down home goodness… grandma was rookin` your ass! Now, before I get blasted for laying the pimp hand to ol` granny, I have to say that it wasn’t Granny’s fault. She was just doing what she knew, with what she had. Grocery stores then weren’t the mega-marts they are today with 15 different types of lettuce. There was iceburg and “the fancy stuff”.

So in conclusion. No, you do not have to throw out your mother’s old shoe box full of family recipes. No, you don’t have to rebuild your entire repertoire from scratch after bulldozing your pantry. But damn it! Think for yourselves. And if you pick up a cookbook that even makes mention of using pre-combined products to make a dish… leave it on the shelf with the rest of the dying dinosaurs. It is a new day. Your local store’s spice section is teaming with botanical life. Pick an herb, and use it all by itself in your dishes until you get a feel for what it does. Then move on to another. Eventually you will see how horrible you’ve been cooking and you’ll all start writing me thank you checks for having written this.

I look forward to my riches. Thank you in advance and good luck!

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