Feb 9, 2021

Spice and Empathy; looking back at 2020

Last summer I visited my parents in Maine in the midst of the pandemic. We got tested beforehand and stayed out in what's called "the little house" which is a 2 room tiny house built in the 1970's by a man named Everett, after he'd had a fire in the big house but couldn't fix it up, even with the insurance money. (My dad came along and bought the big house, burned but still standing, and Everett stayed in the little house till he died. At least, I think that's the story.)

It's a great place to stay in the summer, the curtains billowing, and my mom set us up with freshly baked bread and homemade jam and a coffee maker. Linden slept in a crib but mostly in the small bed with us, all of us waking up at dawn to eat bread and jam. We barely went into the big house, except wearing masks to walk to the shower, and it was strange, but there were plenty of bubbles and wildflowers and blueberries to go around.

I helped harvest some of the wild oregano flowers that we gather every year for Curio's blend Herbes de Romance. It's always a battle with the bees, since the field practically sings with their buzzing, and you have to touch the flowers to gather them and be careful not to simply grab a bee in the process. The flowers don't taste so much like oregano as they do of the fields - a combination of grassy herbal floral sun and raw apple. It's not a Mediterranean fragrance, it's distinctly New England - there's even something like a hint of flannel in the fragrance but I'm not sure what that means (does a fuzzy herb have different fragrance properties than a smooth one?). The rest of the harvest was managed by my parents, since, without a whole lot to do, they enjoyed the assignment, just as they did the balsam harvest earlier in May. 

I bought them a dehydrator and they churned out pounds of the dried flowers. We'll run out before this summer I'm sure, but it's a reminder that some cycles remain constant in this dreadful time.
I'm pregnant with our second, and feeling quite whale-like already at six months. After reading Linden a story the other night I felt I couldn't get up from the bed and said jokingly 'Help! I'm stuck' to which Linden replied 'Mama let me help you!' reaching out her tiny two almost three year old arms and I melted into a puddle on the floor next to her crib. She has a baby in her belly too sometimes, or backaches and tummy aches, in some kind of unconscious effort to understand and make sense of the world. 

Where do we learn empathy? And why did 2020 feel like the year of endeavoring to communicate empathy to friends and family when all ANY of us wanted to do was to give a hug? Sensory, non-verbal cues seem to play an important role – I’ve noticed this not only as a mom, but as a cook. It's not all that profound, but has taken on extra significance over the last year, like a long extension of sending food when a family has lost a loved one and you can’t be there.

At Curio we were touched by the hundreds of sweet messages written in the gift-memos. Words of support and encouragement to us as a business were so unexpected and appreciated, like a stranger offering you a seat on a crowded train. We were touched by the gifts customers gave each-other—not just pre-arranged gift sets, but long lists of spices, as though in lieu of being able to cook together or share a meal, a fresh pantry cupboard might bring cheer. It was an uplifting glimpse into the kindness culture that has developed in response to an otherwise deeply unkind set of circumstances and cultural reckoning that we’ve been experiencing. I’m honored that our spices played a small role in providing empathy during this pandemic – not just the expected role of making food less bland. 

The certain order of the natural world puts me at ease; watching the bees go from flower to flower, humming along doing the work that’s wired into their DNA. Each summer looks about the same, late July the field next to my dad’s lily garden turns a dusky purple with the oregano flowers, and that familiar scent fills the air. The bees collect the pollen and bring it back to their hive, located in the ground somewhere unknown to us; they feed their fellow bees, they continue their short bee lives in their ongoing insect community. The herbs and flowers thrive and spread, making new plans for a summer to come. 

Knowing those oregano flowers are in one of our spice blends that gets mixed here by hand, packaged into jars and then shipped all over the country to make meals a bit tastier creates another sort of community, and I’m happy to be a part of it.