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Nutmeg (Muskatnuss)

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Family Story

Can you tell a family's history with the contents of its spice drawer? This little plastic container of Fuchs brand nutmeg has been with my family for 25 years. I bought it for 5 deutsche Marks and 49 Pfennig at the supermarket near the small town in which we lived in Germany. You can see the price tag still on there--we were still several years away from the European Union and the Euro currency. The conventions of written German were different then too--'Muskatnuss' is written not with the double 's' of today's German, but instead with the sharp s (ß) which to English speakers looks like a funny 's.' Who can cook without nutmeg? It's probably no one's favorite spice. It lacks the cachet of saffron or the universal appeal of cinnamon. But it adds that gewisse etwas, that je ne sais quois, to so many foods, from the savory (spinach soup) to the sweet (eggnog and pumpkin pie). So when we moved to Germany, I had to have some nutmeg to start up my German kitchen. I had to learn to cook in German. Not only the language--but also the numbers: centigrade (oven temperatures), centimeters ( pan sizes), and grams, liters, and kilograms (weighing, not measuring, ingredients with a scale). Not an easy undertaking, but no one in my family starved. And today, back living in the United States, I am as comfortable cooking 'auf deutsch' as I am in English. This little container of nutmeg has been with me through my life in Germany, and then through three more moves back here in the United States. Of course, I long ago used up all the original nutmeg! I just replace it with new spice. The original contents of the container travelled a long way to reach me in Germany. Nutmeg originated in the so-called Spice Islands, now called the Moluccas (Indonesia). It has been prized in European cuisine since the 16th century, and of course for many thousands of years in the lands where it is native. Nutmeg has been the cause of several conflicts as Europeans sought to monopolize growing and trading it. As a child I lived in The Nutmeg State, where wily peddlers were said to whittle nutmeg-sized pieces of wood which they would sell to the unwary for high prices. (Connecticut) As a teenager living in West Africa in the 1970s, I honed my creative cooking skills with nutmeg. Many American foods favored by young people were not available in Cape Coast, Ghana in those days, so I had to learn to make up my own yummy snacks. One of those was nutmeg toast. Just mix some nutmeg with sugar, top generously buttered bread with it, and put it under the broiler until the gooey stuff caramelizes. So, yes, a spice container can tell many a tale. Both the container itself and the spice it contains. I included a German mug in the photo I took of my nutmeg.


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