A museum-quality spice collection

When is an herb too old to use? Just ask my husband.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor

The world’s oldest ham has been preserved since 1902 and is a popular museum exhibit in Smithfield, Va. The world’s oldest spices are in my kitchen cabinet and seldom get a second glance.

Now and then I try to throw away one of the ancient spice tins, jars, and bottles crowding two cabinet shelves, and my husband stops me.

“Spices don’t go bad,” he says. “Those are still good. They’re too expensive to throw away.”

Actually, some of them weren’t that expensive. One of my dill containers cost only 49 cents; it was purchased by my mother when the first Bush was in office and she flirted with a crab cakes recipe. I have other hand-me-down spices with ink-stamped prices, including my grandmother’s ginger, rosemary, ground cumin, and mace.

And what was my sweet grandmother doing with mace, anyway? I thought mace was a weapon.

From the looks of all of these spices hogging valuable real estate in the kitchen cabinet, you’d think I was vying to be the next celebrity chef. The irony is that I rarely use anything besides salt and pepper, and when I do attempt a new recipe, I buy fresh spices to enhance my chance of success. Therefore, when I decided to eat salmon three times a week – a resolve that lasted exactly two-thirds of a week – I bought a $5.99 bottle of mustard seed for a recipe that camouflages the fishiness of fish.

I still have the bottle of mustard seed, minus one teaspoon. I’m sure it’ll remain in my cabinet and be passed down to my children, who also have grown up hearing the kitchen myth that spices don’t go bad and are too expensive to toss – ever.

My sister Winnie is drowning in heirloom spices, too. She just moved to a new house and lugged a giant laundry basket of seasonings with her.

“Maybe you should just start from scratch in your new place and buy some fresh spices,” I suggested, though I knew it was futile. “Turn over a new bay leaf, so to speak,” I said as I studied a small jar containing two curled brown bay leaves that looked as appetizing as splinters.

“Those bay leaves are fine,” Winnie said. “They’ll taste good to you in a stew this winter.”

Her paprika’s metal lid had goo buildup similar to what I see atop my fridge and budge now and then with a putty knife.

“I’m sure this paprika is flat by now,” I said as I moved to toss it. Winnie intercepted it and gave it a sniff. “This paprika is perfectly good,” she said. “I’ll just sprinkle twice as much on my deviled eggs.”

And I’m sure I’ll eat and enjoy said deviled eggs right along with the bay-leaf stew – and the 1902 ham, if I get a chance. 

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