Introducing A Spice Odyssey

Spices, Fire Kirby, and Open Sesame Pie

Since I left a full-time job I’ve been doing book readings for my book, On Spice. It came out in January but I was so consumed by my job that I didn’t schedule any readings or events around it, and my publisher didn’t either—I was told I had someone in the publicity department working on it, but nothing ever transpired, so so much for that. Now that I have open days I’m speaking at bookstores, libraries, and culinary organizations. 

I’m doing what I imagine a lot of people who give talks do: I’m re-using stories and jokes, returning to a phrase or wording I said once and using it over and over, because it’s a good story or a pithy turn-of-phrase and it works. My reading is followed by a Q&A, and someone usually asks about cooking. In the conversation about cooking with spices that follows I now always say: “If I were to write a cookbook it would be called Vegetables + Olive Oil + Spice, because that is how I cook.” I douse vegetables in olive oil and spices and stick it in a hot oven and eat what comes out.

I do have recipes in On Spice. Some of them I’m proud of. But it’s the most simple, basic recipes that are the most true, in the sense that those recipes are the ones I actually cook all the time. These hardly seem like recipes at all, they’re so straight-forward. They’re easy, reliable, low-labor, and delicious. They don’t require a whole trip to the store. I just need to pick up, say, broccoli, or brussels sprouts. These recipes are also pretty healthy, relatively speaking.

Anyway, once I said the name of my cookbook would be Vegetables + Olive Oil + Spice, I kept thinking about it, and listing all the dinners I make this way in my head, and wondering if I shouldn’t put them on my website somehow. But my website is just for my book, and this feels like something else. Hence, a newsletter. I like the looseness it offers. I can share those recipes, but I can also write whatever the hell I want. For example, I already have a piece I’ll share about how I spent an afternoon researching why we call pepper “the king of spices.” It was after my book was published, and it’s not really a full essay on its own, so I didn’t know where to send that weird little piece of research. But it’s perfect for a newsletter sent to people who are into cooking and spices. There’s also more content I wrote for my book that, for various reasons, isn’t in there, and there’s stuff like the pepper piece that I researched or discovered after the point I could made edits, and that information has had no where to live. Until now.

If vegetable- and spice-based recipes, digressive writings on spice, and the occasional miscellaneous post (probably about my dog) sounds worthwhile to you, I’ve set the subscription cost at $5/month, or $40/year. (That’s $20 less than 12 paying monthly!) If you can’t swing that, or just don’t want to, some posts will be free. 

It’s called “A Spice Odyssey,” which was one of the titles I proposed my book be called. I like it because it’s a) a pun b) a pop culture pun and c) gets at the wandering, digressive nature that I envision this newsletter will be. I am aware it’s the subtitle of a book about spices from 2014 (so not a very original pun) and the name of an episode in the Nintendo anime series Kirby: Right Back at Ya! In the episode, characters compete to create the spiciest dish, and when Kirby eats the “Superspicy Curry” he becomes FIRE KIRBY—but it’s actually just heartburn from the food. 

I’ll wrap up with something I learned researching my book. What we call The Great British Baking Show here in the U.S. is called The Great British Bake-Off in England. When I was working at The A.V. Club I noted the switch and looked up the reason: “Bake-Off” was copyrighted in the United States, so the name had to be changed when England shipped it here. I found out the story behind the copyright when I dug into the history of sesame seeds for the book. There’s not a ton to say about sesame seeds, and the chapter felt skimpy, so I was perusing an old American Spice Trade Association pamphlet that informed me sesame seed wasn’t really a thing in America until the late 1950s. Over five years sesame seed imports doubled. Why? Reader, I found out: Because of a competition put on by Pillsbury to promote its flour, called “The Pillsbury Bake-Off.” People sent in their recipes (which, I assume, had to include flour) and Pillsbury staff sorted through them, choosing 100 contestants to gather and bake their recipes in front of a live audience—not far off from the Great British Bake-Off. In 1955, the winning recipe was “Open Sesame Pie,” and it sparked off sesame seed-mania in the States, so much so that (according to Pillsbury) there was a sesame seed shortage. And that is why you’ll read about The Great British Bake-Off, but find it on Netflix under The Great British Baking Show.

Should I end every post with pie? Maybe.