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.