Right about now, in keeping with time-hallowed practices of past years, I’m supposed to warn you to throw out your old spices.
Food writers have Thanksgiving traditions too.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the trash bin. An office conversation about the oldest spices in our cupboards led to wondering what our readers would say. What if we asked for the stories of the most senior spices they found in their cupboards?
The cards, letters and emails poured in. More than 60 people took the time to share their finds. We were surprised – then powerfully reminded of the ways cooking for your loved ones matters, and all the ways food is more than fuel.
A jar of ancient allspice, its lingering scent summoning memories of the cook whose hands first put it into a spice rack, can warm your heart in a way than can’t be measured in tablespoons.
Consider them a time capsule. Rub them a little, breathe in, and in special cases a genie of memory can appear, bearing faces, voices and scents loved in another time.
Fresh spices taste better; that advice remains unchanged. Their aromatic oils haven’t evaporated, dimming their flavorful power. I am not suggesting you serve food seasoned with nostalgia instead of fresh-ground nutmeg.
Yet I must confess that these stories forced me to change my position on old spices. Toss ones that have no scent or life to them – unless you have a reason not to. At worst, they take less room than that lamp you don’t want to get rid of because it’s from your favorite uncle.
I have come to believe that spice cabinets can hold things more precious than jars.
Here are their stories:
My spice is from the turn of the century. Not the last one – the one before it.
My great-grandfather, Carl Wilke, was a canal boatman. You know, packet boats, Albany to Buffalo.
His daughter, Alma Wilke Sahr, my grandmother, had them in her kitchen and used them in her baking. She explained to me that they were very old and had come from her father’s business. They shipped wheat along the canal to New York City and it was unprofitable to return empty.
Hence the crates of nutmegs. One crate broke open, rendering it undeliverable. I guess everybody in the Martinsville section of North Tonawanda got free nutmeg, with enough left over to last our family 100 years. (Grandma was born in 1890 and remembered the incident from her youth.)
I’ve never used mine. I have five, but there are more. I plan to donate mine, with this story, to the North Tonawanda History Museum sometime soon.
– Susan Gardner, North Tonawanda
When a friend called about your article, she probably thought your staff writer had visited my house, as I had recently emptied my spice cupboard.
The bottles of flavoring were in the house when I moved in, more than 40 years ago. (It was my ex-husband’s grandmother’s house.) I never used any. I just liked their uniqueness and reminders of the past.
A few years ago my dear friend Rita said that she buys all new spices when she begins her holiday baking. How could anyone toss a can of baking powder that is missing only a teaspoon or two? Cornstarch – a box could last me years.
I will follow Rita’s advice and buy new this season. Holiday baking deserves fresh ingredients. Do I know how long the “new” spices have been waiting for me on the shelf at the store? No, but they will probably be fresher than mine.
– Judith Heppner, North Tonawanda
I found Old Sturbridge bouquet garni packets, a souvenir of a visit to Old Sturbridge Village from when we lived in the New York City area 1955-59. Our boys, in their 50s now, were babies.
These went with us to Japan when we were stationed there and returned with us to Buffalo in 1963, where they’ve remained in the back of the cupboard ever since.
– Lyn Beahan, Snyder
When cleaning out my spice cabinet several years ago, I found a tiny hand-woven basket tucked in the corner. It contained four brown nuts: “Nutmegs – Grenada,” the tag said. I then remembered relatives visiting this Caribbean island in the ’60s: This was one of their gifts.
Since then, the fragrant spice has topped holiday eggnog, apple crisp, cookies, squash, etc. A very solid, hard pecan-shaped nut, it needs to be ground fresh for its wonderful fragrance – much stronger than the canned variety.
My remaining nutmeg has lasted more than 50 years. I thank Uncle Hank and Aunt Flo for their lasting gift when I use them!
– Eileen Heinze, Ransomville
Your request made me chuckle because my daughter teases me about the age of my spices.
The oldest are two 1-ounce tins of McCormick spices. The apple pie spice is stamped 55 cents, and the allspice is stamped 49 cents.
I believe they’re from the mid-1970s, when I first set up housekeeping. And when you open the tins, the spices still smell wonderful!
– Sharon Green, Buffalo
On a built-in spice rack over the sink an empty tin container of French’s ground turmeric (faintly fragrant) hugs one corner: purchased in 1964 for my very first kitchen. Anchoring the bottom shelf – a refilled glass Spice Islands jar bearing a tattered label for chervil, provided by my mother for the same kitchen. A mottled tin of Sabbathday Shakers Herbal Blend from a circa 1988 trip to Maine backstops another shelf. From 1985 a box of 25 London Herb & Spice Co. comfrey teabags flaunts its illustration – too pretty to open.
A lemon-scented pelargonium’s going strong in a northwestern windowed corner. Finally found a place to make my rosemary happy. Basil’s inside for the winter; still need to pot up a clump of chives. Time for a new bay-leaf wreath.
– Sarah Slavin, Buffalo
My curiosity was aroused by your old spice challenge, so I decided to check the back corners of my spice cabinet. To my dismay and embarrassment, my fingers encountered something very sticky.
It was a small bottle, labeled Saffron, Goya Foods, 10 grains, 79 cents.
Inside, on the bottom of the bottle, was what looked like a tangled pile of tiny orange twigs, which gave off a faintly unpleasant odor. I have no idea how long that bottle had been sitting there, but I do remember that about 40 years ago, after a trip to Spain, I decided to make paella.
Although I am a frugal person, and am reluctant to throw anything out, I have tossed this bottle with no regret or guilt.
– Eleanor Howard, Williamsville
Do I have old spices? Boy, do I have old spices!
Probably the oldest is from my mother’s cupboard – it is a mixed spices box from the Watkins Co. (Mom has been gone about 50 years.) She used to use these spices for canning her own pickles. I don’t do “pickles.”
I believe all of those “older” spices were from my mom’s cupboard. At first I probably thought I might use them. And then I said to myself “Self, they were mom’s. And they don’t take up much room.”
And they stayed in the cupboard and were mostly forgotten about.
– Marlene Bowman, Eden
You asked about old spices – I know I have spices from my mother (died in 1974) and grandmother (died in 1973), but only one has a price on the bottom.
I have a tin can of ground mace, 1∂ ounces, McCormick, marked 57 cents. I would guess that I should probably throw all these out, but I still do use them from time to time. And the allspice still has a good smell!
They remind me of my mother and grandmother, who immigrated from Germany in 1895; she was 18. She was a widow by the time I was born, and she lived with us. We lived in a two-family house on the East Side – she had the upstairs flat. She baked kuchen every Saturday – plain, and with fruit – apple, peach, plum, cherry – fresh or canned. She also baked great pies.
– Ellen Kennedy, Buffalo
Dorothy Boeck from Lewiston wrote in to share that she’d surveyed her spice rack and found stick cinnamon, dill seed, thyme and cream of tartar.
At 99, she’s still cooking the green bean casserole for Thanksgiving dinner.
“I will be 100 years old on Jan. 21, 2013. I live alone, do my own cooking and some baking,” she wrote.
“I’m from the old school – don’t throw anything away. You might use it sometime.”
– Dorothy Boeck, Lewiston
Here’s a picture I took of a spice found in my husband’s late aunt’s green metal recipe box. It has to be at least 50 years old along with some recipe cards from “Meet the Millers,” a television show that was on during the ’50s. The ground cardamom seed still has a faint smell of the spice.
Honestly, I have not tried any recipes. I have kept this recipe box because of recipes she used to make. I was looking for one recipe in particular. She made the most scrumptious pineapple cuts. A whole sheet pan full. Absolutely delicious.
Some recipes in the box are part of my Polish heritage. A recipe for pierogi is very simple. There is a recipe for czarnina soup which I enjoyed many years ago as a child. When some people find out it’s made with duck’s blood, they decline to eat it. (My mother used to tell us it’s chocolate soup.)
Some of these recipes are handwritten. There’s something nostalgic about holding a recipe actually written by that person, imagining her in the kitchen on Wilson Street preparing it. To me, at least, it’s a way of connecting the present with the past.
– Elaine Muchowski, Orchard Park
I chuckled with rich humor reading your request for any elderly spice tins that may be still lurking in our cupboards. I’m guilty – but up until not too long ago I had quite a few Ann Page spices. (I think my husband disposed of them while I was away).
I have kept an empty tin or two for posterity and perhaps a collector that may or may not pay me a million for this priceless collector’s artifact. I do, however, have several old Durkee tins and an Acme Ideal tin of pickling spice that has an inked letter and numbers on the bottom along with an embossed code. I have a tin of French’s curry powder that has a 59-cent price tag stamped on it. I also have an old McCormick tin of white pepper that has a paper sticker tag of $2.09 on it.
Anyhow, I will keep my old tins of spices as their usefulness wears thin with each passing year. I really do love to cook and bake, but until Kitchen Crashers comes to my home, I’m afraid those spices will just have to wait with me.
– Rhonda Goldfuss, Lockport
I have a Rubbermaid container filled with spices I never use because they are old, but which I can’t bring myself to throw out either.
Most are from the 1980s. Three are in tins: McCormick thyme from 6/3/1981; Price Chopper paprika with a paper sticker marked 79 cents; and Durkee ground cloves with a price stamp of $2.79.
I moved to Albany in 1981, got my first apartment, and started buying spices. I think part of the reason I have kept these is a reminder of those years, especially the Price Chopper paprika. I did most of my grocery shopping at Price Chopper when I lived in Albany.
I moved back to Buffalo in 1989, so the paprika was purchased sometime between 1981 and 1989. I imagine I bought the cloves when I made my first pumpkin pie on my own; perhaps I bought the paprika when I made my Aunt Marie’s scalloped potato recipe.
I suppose I will throw these away someday, but for now they remain tucked away in their Rubbermaid container.
– Maureen Brady, Buffalo
Did I laugh. I went to my spice drawer and found turmeric by McCormick from 1962 at 39 cents. I know the date because I only ever bought one of these spices because I had just gotten married, and my then mother-in-law said I had to have it.
I never used it. I was a new bride and she was telling me everything I was supposed to do. All the things listed on the back of the can my ex-husband would not eat. So the can was never opened until I saw your notice in the paper.
I had a very demanding mother-in-law at the time. There were a lot of things I was supposed to do and never did. Guess that’s why I got divorced in the first place. I grew up a lot since then. I’ve been married to my current husband almost 43 years. He never even knew I had this spice. This has been great fun remembering everything she said I had to do.
– Lurene Nicotera, Hamburg
I have items that are so old, I have no idea when they were purchased. I keep them for nostalgia.
These spices remind me of a time right after college when I first started “really” living on my own. I loved cooking in my tiny apartment kitchen. Great memories, great dishes and lots of fun!
– Sharon Raimondi, East Aurora
Over 30 years ago, six single teachers, friends who loved good food and loved to cook started a “gourmet club.” We called ourselves the Group A Gourmet Club, the top of the line, the Grade A foodies. Six times a year, for nearly 15 years, we cooked meals from all over the world, regional American meals and dinners from the best-selling cookbooks at the time. Each member picked a theme, set the menu, sent out the recipes to the other five members and invited two more people with adventurous palates to join us.
It was quite a journey. We had an Eastern European-Transylvanian dinner on Halloween one year. We all came as vampires and frightened the neighborhood children when they came trick-or-treating as we ate cold cherry soup and a spicy Romanian chicken dish. We celebrated Mardi Gras with oysters and gumbo. We even had a disastrous Thai dinner, long before there were Asian grocery stores and ingredients were hard to find, that left me chasing a coconut around the kitchen with a hammer and nail.
Sadly, retirements, an untimely death and winters in Florida gradually ended Group A’s gourmet adventures. (I did marry another member of the group, my husband Joe).
But I can still go to my spice rack and open the 25-year-old bottle of Zatarains gumbo filé, take a sniff and bring back Mardi Gras night. There is the Ann Page Jamaica allspice that must have been used for our Carribbean night after we all returned from Easter break in the sunshine. The faint aroma still in the bottle brings back a rush of memories.
I wish I could say the same for the sticky, old and nearly full bottle of juniper berries. With its faint smell of pine, I can’t imagine what they were used for. But there they are on the shelf, in the “you never know” row, waiting for another culinary inspiration.
– Susanne Roberts Amico, Amherst
These have to be at least 40 years old. I found them about 25 years ago while going through some of my mother’s things and have been using a little of both the allspice and cloves during the holidays every year since. (Plum pudding with hard sauce and krupnik, Polish honey and spice liqueur, for Christmas, and cranberry relish at Thanksgiving.)
Not only are the tins very retro and cool, but it makes me feel as if my mom is right there with me in the kitchen and surprisingly, they are both still quite aromatic, especially the cloves.
– Eddy Dobosiewicz, Buffalo
My spice story is about a full tin of turmeric, distributed by Danahy-Faxon Stores. I found it in my mother’s kitchen, no price or date stamp, but I think it could have been purchased in the 1950s.
What is so unique about this tin are the marketing statements on the sides of it.
“Danahy-Faxon stores are home-owned stores!” “All managers and some assistants are partners.” “Danahy-Faxon men serve you with the spirit of and for the rewards of proprietorship.”
Can you imagine doing that today?
– Betsy Payne, Corfu
In 2000, when cleaning out my mother’s personal items after her death, I left her spice box where it was. It felt like it was meant to stay in the kitchen cupboard of the farmhouse where two generations of our family had lived.
Twelve years later, after reading in The Buffalo News about spices, I decided to see what was left of that box. With my husband, I drove the two hours last week to my mother’s Pennsylvania farmhouse and retrieved the spice box.
The old shoe box is soiled and deteriorated, but still interesting. Its contents tell of what mom enjoyed baking most – pies – and another passion, canning in the fall.
I looked first for the gold-colored Colman’s Mustard container. It now has a rusted top. The front says “Made in England, double superfine, for pickling, salads, medicinal, etc. Mustard plaster or poultice – Adults.” The directions for making the poultice are there as well. Yes, my mother used poultices on all of us, and this is quite likely the mustard she used. I know she kept it “just in case.”
There are 25 other containers of various ages, some discolored, others with rusted tops. Some are marked 30 cents (McCormick ginger), French’s pickling spice marked at 45 and 30 cents, and French’s powdered alum at 95 cents.
The spice box is priceless, full of memories of mom’s kitchen, her flour-covered Hoosier cupboard, and tasty, best-ever pies. It will stay with me.
– Barbara Long, Clarence