May 29, 2017

Spinning the Wheel of Flavor

Seven years ago I packed a large suitcase full of specialty glassware, napkins and floral tape and flew to Anaheim, California. I didn't want to go but my dad persuaded me, telling me even if I didn't win that "it was all part of the adventure." And no, I didn't win (or even come close), but it was an adventure, and it has changed the way I think about flavor.
Saffron and water on paper

My presentation was ok. I told a story about the origin of processing plants for human consumption, creating alchemy with a plant's volatile oils to delight our taste buds - but my espresso shot out of the machine in an embarrassing manner and the cappuccinos were thin without a trace of art. Yes this was the U.S. National Barista Championship with fifty of the country's best baristas, and no, I didn't nail it.

But, I did study my butt off. My bosses helped me practice after hours,  and I poured over the coffee taster's flavor wheel with caffeinated intensity, honing my sensory skills so that each adjective matched what (hopefully) I might deliver in the cup. Notes of jasmine with an undertone of salted caramel was the goal. A woody aroma with bitter aftertaste the result.

Spice wheel painting

For those who haven't seen one, a barista competition involves preparing twelve drinks in fifteen minutes: 4 espresso, 4 cappuccino and 4 original "signature" beverages using your chosen espresso blend. They all have to be in different serving ware, narrated according to your theme or story, and delivered flawlessly with compelling and original knowledge of specialty coffee. Each barista is judged by four sensory judges and three technical judges who swarm around you with clipboards, scribbling down your destiny. If you win your country's competition, you go to compete in the world championship.

The flavor wheel is not just used for coffee. There are flavor wheels for cheese, wine, perfume, chocolate, even cigars. It's a way of illustrating with colors and describing with words the diversity of aromas that exist for a particular edible (or sniffable) thing. It creates a lexicon that anyone can use to delve deeper into the senses. Since our taste buds can only distinguish sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami, it's a way to understand the nuances and complexity of flavors for which our olfactory system was designed.

My initial sketches for the spice flavor wheel

Flavors can be broken down into chemical compounds with structures that can be imitated in a lab; for example a compound called eugenol creates the dominant flavor in cloves and the lesser-known flavor in sweet basil. Isolating these compounds means that they can be used to create artificial flavors instead of having to use the real plant; imitation vanilla is the most famous. And while I certainly appreciate the consistency of artificial flavors - I'm not a purist, I eat junk food sometimes - it's the delicate nuances that can't be re-created that give food the most meaning and memory. The placement of the spices on the wheel is according to my interpretation - not to science - but science plays a role.

So what is the flavor wheel for? If you think of it as a map, the wheel can be a useful tool to see the relationships between spices. For example, black pepper and chile peppers are in the same neighborhood (and both confusingly called 'peppers,' thanks to Chris Columbus) because they produce a hot sensation in your mouth. Woody spices like juniper, with its piney notes, are near to resinous spices like mastic because resin spices are the sap of certain species of trees.

The colors reflect common associations with the senses - red for hot, green for vegetal, brown for earthy. One difference from other flavor wheels is the blurring from one color to the next. I don't believe in there being strict boundaries for flavor, despite being able to isolate them in a lab. The blurring of the watercolor paint pigments exhibits the same blurring of one flavor to the next - the warm, pungent notes of mustard into the aromatic heat of ginger. It's not a how-to manual but I think a flavor wheel can be a really fun tool when used with an open mind and sense of creativity.

I'm offering a new class at Curio this June called "Spice101" where I go into these ideas in more detail, with plenty of tasting and smelling. There will be a bit of history and a bit of science but more than anything a focus on demystifying spices and igniting inspiration for cooking. It will be a colorful and delicious class. In the meantime, tip those hard-working baristas, and let me know what you think about this new flavor wheel!

Feb 28, 2017


The country is still a blur of scents and colors that fills my head. The scents remain vivid in my memory—the steamy perfume of ylang ylang blossoms through the taxi window as we rattle down a dark bumpy road, the sweet fragrance of cured vanilla beans that's so thick and heady that I crouch down as though to tie my shoe, too dizzy to stand.

Dec 28, 2016

Heat to last the winter from Meggie's Farm

It seems fitting that Kris and John Maguire were in the jewelry business before they started growing peppers. They started the farm after retiring from their family-run jewelry business and since then have been cultivating at least fifteen varieties of peppers (amongst other unique veggies), many of which they dry and process into delicious ground spices. The farm is named Meggie's after their eldest granddaughter.

Sep 16, 2016

September Postcards

Owls Head, Maine

Dear August,

Thanks for the rose hips. I am glad I found an old zip-lock bag on the beach so that I could a) recycle it and b) use it to collect rose hips. It's September now and I am still in the process of making the darn jam, but it's going to taste great, especially with a touch of Madagascar vanilla bean. Rose hips are full of vitamin C which will help once the inevitable winter head-cold hits. I already miss you, since you're my favorite month of the summer, but October is pretty great, too.


New Orleans, Louisiana

Aug 1, 2016

Jun 25, 2016

Rainbows / Seaweed

We're coming up on the one year anniversary of a historic victory for gay rights. But then again, we are all still reeling from the mass murder in Orlando.

When I re-read a favorite poem recently, thinking about those lost in Orlando, I just sat and wept into my Norton Anthology.

Apr 20, 2016

Pollen Count

As I'm coming up on the one year anniversary of incorporating Curio Spice Company, I've been reflecting on one of the questions I've been asked a lot: "how did you get into this?" Sometimes I answer with a story about a poem I wrote in college about the saffron crocus (an esoteric beginning to a spice business), other times about farming.  But a recent study of bees and bee pollen made me realize this simple fact: I like to collect tasty things and bring them home to share.

There are other species besides humans and honeybees who collect. Male bowerbirds build elaborate nests and collect piles of objects of similar colors to attract their mate. Leaf cutter ants have entire societies built around the duties of cutting and collecting leaves for the ant colony. Collecting behavior ranges from the need for food storage to attracting mates to well, in my case, collecting spices because they make me feel alive.

Mar 31, 2016

A Beautiful Mess

I had a dream last night that I wandered into an open field. It was bright green and looked out over a lake. I sat down in the tall grass and put my head on my knees.

It's a strong contrast with where I sit right now at my messy desk with piles of papers and a half eaten banana, a cup of coffee I had to heat up in the microwave. When I finish my desk work I will head into the commercial kitchen (home of Curio manufacturing) which is in an industrial area of Somerville; the one window in the kitchen looks out over a car junkyard, smashed up sedans whose airbags have deployed; a spooky stillness hovering amidst the glinting metal.

Feb 2, 2016

Help with the Refugee Crisis in the Aegean

Blue water, black sand, fragrant thyme. Octopus cooked on a grill, eaten only with salt and lemon. The inspiration for one of the Curio Spice blends, Aegean Salt made with Chios mastic, lemon and thyme, came from the clean, bright flavors I tasted while traveling through the Greek Islands in 2010.

View from Samos, 2010