Terri on (YUM!) Vanilla

I like Vanilla. I like Terri’s writing. Together? It’s all good!

Vanilla. According to the International Ice Cream Organization (a dream company to work for, if ever I heard of one), the number one ice cream is vanilla, which garnered 29% of the fave-vote. Surprisingly, chocolate could not touch vanilla’s popularity, with only 8.9% of those questioned claiming it as favorite. Honorable mention goes to butter pecan and strawberry, tied at 5.3% favoritality.

Vanilla is an orchid. And like most orchids, it’s persnickety about its bloom.

Native to Mesoamerica, the vanilla plant blooms but one day a year and on that day, bees—specifically, the Melipona bee—and maybe some hummingbirds pollinate the plant and cause the big green beans to start growing off the flower, almost immediately. If the flowers are not pollinated on that one day they wither and die, with nothing but their graceful fragrance left behind. Once European conquistadors were done…conquistadoring, they brought the vanilla plant back to Europe. From the late 1500s on it grew in popularity throughout the cultured gardens of Europe. Only the conquistadors forgot to bring the appropriate bees and hummingbirds. The plants flowered but did not pollinate until 1841, when 12-year-old Edmond Albius, a plantation slave on Réunion Island, discovered how to hand-pollinate vanilla by doing the work himself and physically mating the plant’s male and female parts.

To this day, most vanilla is painstakingly, carefully pollinated by hand. Vanilla beans are most hearty when left to mature on the vine, and can take up to nine months to reach full maturity. Then they are boiled and sweated and dried and cured; it takes close to a year for a bean crop to be ready to use. And that’s not even taking Cyclone Enawo into account.

Enawo tore through Madagascar’s vanilla crops in 2017, causing vanilla prices to soar to nearly six times their normal prices and sparked a crime wave in Madagascar as cases of cured vanilla beans were hijacked. Real vanilla is second only to saffron in cost (yes, even after Enawo), which will be discussed in a later post. So if it is so expensive, how has it come to be used in roughly 18,000 commercial products, with a bottle in almost every home pantry?

Most—99%, some sources say—of the products we use that have vanilla in them are actually made using synthetic vanilla. The main flavor compound of vanilla, vanillin, or 4-hydroxy-3-methoxybenzaldehyde, is quite easy to replicate in a lab and when heated, the taste differences between real and synthetic vanilla are nearly indistinguishable. Ice cream makers? That’s a different story since there’s a marked difference in taste if the synthetic stays cold. They’ve borne the brunt of Enawo too, with some creameries halting production on their vanillas until the prices return to normal.

For those with real vanilla—with beans in their hands—remember, those babies are packed with all sorts of goodies. Vanillin has been shown to help lower cholesterol, and the bean contains potassium; together, they boost heart health. There is an array of B-vitamins tucked into this bean, helping keep skin healthy and metabolism chugging along. Aromatherapy fans often use vanilla oil in a diffuser to help combat depression. But! Vanilla oil can cause rashes, so take care not to rub too much essential oil on your skin. And drop spent bean casings into sugar so the remaining vanilla essence can infuse the sugar with its goodness, to make a rich vanilla sugar you could eat on…anything. It would make a shoe taste better, but I digress.

Vanilla. Who knew? It’s a winking code word for something bland and basic, but vanilla’s not so vanilla, when you get the bigger picture.

Terri on Fennel Seed

Here’s the Bartender’s reflections on fennel. We’re a bit behind because her computer decided to go on strike for several days… She’ll catch up. But in the meantime, mmmm, fennel seed!

Originating in the sunny Mediterranean, fennel seeds are now grown around the globe and find their way into everything from savory sausage to breath fresheners to fusion treats.

This herb—a member of the carrot family—grows from seed to bulb, and the plant can be used nearly in its entirety. Toast and grind the seeds for general cooking, saute or roast the bulb, and gather the pollen to make a delicately licorice-y topper on your favorite pasta, that you toss with the fennel fronds for added flavor.

Because of its licorice taste, fennel is often confused with anise, but they are not the same thing at all. Fennel, as stated, grows into a bulb. Anise seed grows into a bush that looks sort of like Queen Anne’s Lace. The only part of anise that is edible are the seeds, while fennel gives of its whole self. Anise is somewhat sweeter, so it lends itself more readily to sweets and cookies, while fennel fares better in heartier, more dinner-y food…though fennel has been known to find its way into the occasional cookie. And at last! Here’s the similarity you’ve all been waiting for: Fennel and anise do belong to the same family of plants, the Apiaceae, so they’re sort of…cousins. Identical cousins, I think you’ll find.

For those of you who don’t get that joke, make friends with Nick at Nite. Get back to me. I’ll wait.

While we enjoy fennel seed for its flavor, when we eat it we get the bonus of several health benefits. Fennel is naturally high in fiber—a tablespoon of fennel has about 2.3 grams of fiber in it, which is between 6-9% of daily recommended fiber, depending on your caloric needs—and can help keep your digestion on track. You can steep seeds in hot water to make tea which can, again, help with digestion and other digestive issues (bloating, etc). Fennel is loaded with a wide range of minerals, so it adds to our overall health and wellness, assisting in immune system health, maintaining eyesight, and helps promote good bone and cardiovascular health. And so on. Plus! Barring an allergy, there are no ill effects associated with fennel consumption, and if you eat some, your breath with smell freshy-fresh.

It may not be the most common herb in our pantries. But things can change, and there are about a hundred different reasons why more fennel = a better way of life. What are you waiting for?


Terri on Spices: Black Pepper

There are two spices that dominate the American tablescape; crisp white salt is, of course, the first thing we think of in shakers across the country. The second spice, the yang to salt’s yin, is the brisk, bracing flavor-punch of black pepper.

Black pepper has been woven into the fabric of our culture for roughly 4000 years. Mummies were buried with pepper in their nasal cavities to help keep the body preserved. Greeks used it as currency. It was used as an offering to the gods, and as a bartering tool to placate the barbarians at the gates of Rome. And we all pretty much agree that it tastes great. But what is it?

Take a good, long whiff of freshly-cracked black pepper. Sneezing aside, what did you notice? It’s kind of…what, spicy? Pungent? Did you ever happen to notice that it also smells slightly floral, or at least vegetal? That’s because our beloved spice is actually a fruit.

Peppercorns are the berries that grow on the flowering vine Piper negrum, which can grow to 30+ feet tall and produce a whole lot of berries. While it’s been determined that this plant is native to India, Piper negrum has grown well when introduced into non-indigenous, tropical regions from Viet Nam to Brazil. Black pepper comes about when the berries are harvested, cooked, and dried to fragrant, grind-ready, wrinkly perfection.

Inside these little wizened flavor nuggets lives a compound called piperine, which has shown promise in helping treat a host of ailments, from stomach upset to depression to the Big C. Phytonutrients in pepper’s outermost layer help boost metabolism, which in turn helps keep the body moving and grooving in summary order. And the oil from black pepper, with its condensed nutrient/piperine payload, also helps with arthritis pain, lowers cholesterol and helps regulate blood pressure.

So do yourselves a favor. Get thee to a pepper mill and a bottle of whole corns (the good juju dissipates more readily out of pre-ground pepper, of course) and give yourself a dose of tastes-good-and-good-for-you. You don’t have to stick it in your nose to reap the benefits of black pepper that even the ancients recognized, four millennia ago. Just enjoy the extra bite in your salad, and move on.

Terri Peterson

Terri on Turmeric

So happy to have Terri Peterson’s knowledge and insight on our spices. Here she is on Turmeric:

The turmeric flower is a majestic bloom. The petals are pointed and can be snowy-white, or magenta, or variegated. They’re stacked one on top of the other to make a stalky bloom, all nestled inside a vibrant green cloak of meter-high leaves.

But we don’t eat any of that. (Side note: We could. We just don’t, as much. And I digress.)

Turmeric is known for its stem, its gnarled and wooden-looking underground stem system. It’s a rhizome, which means it sends out stems horizontally underground from its nodes, which once again begs the question: What won’t we eat? And who’s the first person who looked at a clump of turmeric stems and said, you know, dry those babies out and grind ‘em down, and dinner is on!

But looks are deceiving. Peel the turmeric and suddenly you’re holding a handful of gold. The swollen stems are built to store the energy from the sun and convey it from plant to plant; it’s as if the body of the rhizome holds a bit of the sun itself. Turmeric imparts a pungent, earthy flavor to food, so you have the sun and the earth in one tablespoon, which is not a bad thing to spend a little bit of money on while spice shopping. And it’s been touted for its medicinal properties, too.

Ayurvedic medicine has long employed turmeric as an antibiotic and anti-inflammatory agent, and globally it’s used in a tremendous array of folk preparations. Archaeological digs have uncovered pharmaceutical preparations with turmeric in them that date back to 2500BCE, though turmeric didn’t move into the sphere of Ayurvedic wunderkind until 500BCE. Current research into turmeric shows great promise in its ability to temper the effects of arthritis, Alzheimer’s, and even some cancers.

So how do you get more of this into your life? Drink some turmeric tea. Eat more curries. Shred the raw root and add it to carrot soup, or mix it with spiced steamed milk (coconut, preferably) for “golden milk”. Fans of golden milk claim it can improve memory, lower cholesterol, and temper blood pressure. Make sure to mix a little black pepper in there because the piperine in pepper binds with the cucurmin in turmeric and blocks it from being absorbed by the liver, so it travels all that much more readily through your blood stream. (If you want to get technical, piperine increases cucurmin’s bioavailability. Dig it.) It can even be baked into savory sweets, though you do have to ask where the health benefits begin and end in the face of butter and sugar.

Pro tip: if you do cook with turmeric, don’t wear white, unless you live for the dare. It’s used as a dye for a reason.

Terri on Cinnamon — Spices of Peace!

I won’t be the only one who writes on Spices of Peace. I asked my friend Terri Peterson (hey, you remember the bartender from the Bartender and the Priestess don’t you, and the photographer from pics of days gone by) to write about each of the spices. She does cook. And she does research. and here she is!


Cinnamon. It can be a dose of powdered comfort delivered on a pillow of sugary-melty buttered toast. It can be the aromatic nosegay in savory dishes like banh mi or a lamb tagine. Or it can be the brain-melting heat in self-inflicted torture candies like Red-Hots or Atomic Fireballs. They’re all delicious (if perhaps a little bit sweat-inducing), but what is this fantastical spice that can go from sweet to heat without batting a proverbial eye?

It’s tree bark. When you break most foods down to their taxonomies they can sound kind of weird (for example, corn, at its most basic level, is part of the Poaceae family and Poaceae are, of course, grasses; enjoy your next plate of grass on the cob and you’re welcome) but you don’t even have to go that far down the “how did this evolve” hole for cinnamon. You just have to find the right tree and peel the outer layer off. Et voila!

Most cinnamon in the United States comes from the Cinnamomum cassia tree, which is found in Asian countries like Vietnam and Thailand. Cinnamomum. Say it with me. Cinnamomum. Adorable. Was this tree named by a four-year-old? I digress. Purists will argue that true cinnamon comes from the Cinnamomum verum in Sri Lanka, once known as Ceylon. But, there are something like a dozen different trees that produce the spice, so it’s time to put the ordinal ranking of cinnamon aside and enjoy it for what it is—a savory-sweet dried quill, possibly pulverized into powder, that was scraped off a tree’s inner bark.

Cinnamon’s heat is not a man-made effect, either, spawned in some hellish test kitchen with a dream to make candy lovers cry. It’s all tree. Cinnamomum trees naturally produce an oily compound called cinnamaldehyde (even that sounds adorable!). Cinnemaldehyde can be measured on par with the milder hot peppers on the Scoville chart, which measures the fiery compound capsaicin, the culprit in peppery heat. In the interests of comparison remember, a jalapeno is a milder hot pepper on the Scoville chart. When the oil is extracted and concentrated, the heat rises. When the bark is dried and ground to powder, and then further tempered by other ingredients, the spicy heat is less noticeable. But it’s there.

So what do we do with this magnificent reddish-brown sneaky heat flavored tree dust? Why, bake it into cookies or saute it into Greek meatballs with a spicy tomato sauce, or sprinkle it on your cappuccino, of course. Wars were fought over cinnamon, lands captured, ransoms demanded. At one point in history cinnamon was valued at fifteen times its weight in silver. With a spice this valued, versatile, and delicious, we owe it to our forebears to enjoy cinnamon with the gusto of a spice pirate on holiday.

Making Sure Cinnamon Sugar Doesn’t Become Cinnamon Saccharine

Today completes the first week in Spices of Peace. It’s been an interesting week, thinking about how to incorporate spices without getting cutesy. How to keep drinking my Constant Comment tea and not make everything about Cinnamon when Peace is about so much more.

One of the things I’m seeing because this year it turns out that one of my favorite years of Peace poems has started on the same day of the week and has the same number of days in it. They are prayers from a more innocent time. So far, they’ve sparkled with the beauty of winter. It’s been fun to post them and to share Nanso Cleaver’s beautiful Peace Mandalas with the world…

But times and politics are different now. And 6 years later, I’m a different poet, far more of an activist… 6 years older and far less to lose..

I love the notion of embodying Peace… and I will struggle to find the line between honoring these wonderful spices and getting too kitschy about. After all, I have no interest in becoming the Pumpkin Spice of Poets… People need our support. Winter is still gorgeous, if a bit rainy this year. And Peace is still dearly sought after.

As always, thanks for reading with me. Thanks for working for Peace.


Spices for Peace 2019

My year of honoring painters and sculptors is finished. I am so grateful to all the artists for sharing their wonderful work and allowing it to inspire my daily poetry and delight your eyes and soothe your souls. I have loved offering these pieces done by people in my personal universe, a gentle reminder that we are blessed beyond measure by the people we know. I’m very grateful to Ed Mickens who curated the year. Thank you for coming on this journey with me and I hope you’ll stay with me for 2019.

Astonishingly, it’s come to that. Here comes 2019.

For quite a while, I’ve been curious about Spices. Some of you may find that odd, since I don’t really cook —but, of course I do eat! Spices are interesting in and of themselves — they have engendered great trade routes, have been the genesis of both the building and losing of considerable wealth, and have probably caused more than a few skirmishes. And, oh, they trend well: They’re for healing and for aphrodisiacs, ask any celebrity! And who knows what else? Hopefully we will as we pass through the year.

It seemed to me 2 things: first that Peace isn’t something that happens in our head or our hearts, we must embody Peace. Might Peace have a taste? Or many tastes? Which brings me to my second notion that Peace may taste different in different cultures and traditions and we would do well to experiment to see how they add to our understanding. Walk a mile in another’s shoes. Eat a week in another’s mouth!

But returning to my not cooking, it didn’t seem likely that I could pull this together. I have friends who cook and bake (as I have friends who paint and sculpt), and then I remembered I have something else, I have a newish friend, Penny Patterson who together with her husband Greg and their family owns Spices Inc, one of the largest on-line spice vendors. They hand blend and hand fill their Spice requests. It’s a lovely company. And local. Go read about it! Go support it.

Penny agreed to pick 52 spices for me. There will be spice blends as well. And maybe some minerals — what, after all, is life without salt? Perhaps some herbs. I can’t imagine a year without rosemary! We’ll learn the difference. But for the moment, let’s call them spices. One spice a week, mostly seasonally appropriate. I will provide links to their site and maybe others in case you want to learn more about the spice. 2019 began on Tuesdays; so will our weeks. Penny often has recipes on her site you’ll be able to find with the link.

Many of you cook or have fondness for certain spices. You may want to share memories or recipes with your fellow readers.

I will probably keep the musing format the same, but offer more information on a blog over at Sacred Village, my website dedicated to the notion that life and our connections to it and to one another are sacred. What is more sacred or more celebratory than eating? What breaks down barriers faster than shared meals?

What is spicier and more delicious than Peace? It will be interesting on this journey to see how spices stir up our understanding that Peace requires Justice. That Peace requires Joy. That Peace requires deliberate effort.

I’m very excited about this year. I hope you’ll hop on our Spice Caravan for Peace and come along to see what we can learn. Imagine slowly introducing our palates to the soft teasing quality of some spices and the explosive nature of others. Life, Eating, Peace are all sacred endeavors. Let us commit to 2019 with a full heart, an open mind, and a curious palate! Together, let us Peace!

ps. I’ll see you back here tomorrow for some information about our first spice!

Peace and Industrious Beauty

Who knew? There are about 5,000 kinds of dragonflies and damselflies identified. For their names alone they’re worth celebrating. They’re ancient, ancient, ancient. Damselflies are on every continent but Antarctica!

They zoom around and we’re enchanted. I’m not sure why this bug is better than other bugs… but they has been depicted as early as cave art!

Probably for no other reason than that they’re beautiful.

But we see the dragonflies glint (they’re far the showier of the two) as they flit and forget to notice how busy they are. They’re very effective predators.

Wow, Ann’s learning a lot about bugs (in very little doses!)

Here’s to the Peace of Industrious Beauty! May we clothe ourselves in Beauty as we go about the business of Peace.



Being Ready for the Explosion of Peace

Part of our work for Peace — for anything — is getting ourselves ready. We want to be clear what we want to do and do the things we need to do to be able to do that one thing.

Because when those amazing moments come, when everything is lined up, and then comes together, we have to be ready to move.

Making Peace is what we’re meant for. Sharing Love. Noticing the Beauty. Feeling the Wonder. Dancing to Life’s Music. We yearn toward it. And eventually, if we do the work, our strength and the right moment will collide and Magic will happen. So will Peace.

Find the Peace: Right Here and Now

Tiny little pieces of Peace can be right in front of us. It’s our job to recognize them. The Beauty that exists in our world is an invitation to notice and share the wonder.

There’s a moment of Peace for us when we notice the wonder. There’s another when it’s shared. In that mutual moment, there is Peace between people. We need to look more widely and more deeply to find the Beauty and the Wonder and appreciate it. We need to share what we notice others. How is it that we don’t do more of this? We are built to be amazed. It might be healthy to keep stretching our capacity for Wonder at the glories of this World.

Natural Beauty is free for the gasping! Created Beauty may not be free but should be shared as widely as possible.

Practice Wonder. It’s practicing Peace. It may be its most important spiritual discipline.