This was a monumental day – the breathtaking total solar eclipse over North America marked the passage of time with an extraordinary syzygy of celestial bodies. Yet today also marks the passage of my personal time through seemingly expired pizza spice. Bear with me here…
Pizza in Israel is like nowhere else. First of all, it’s served on a piece of cardboard instead of a plate. Second, that spice! תבלין פיצה tavlin pizza (pizza spice) comes in little packets you tear open and sprinkle onto your hot slice for a serious flavor boost.
Although it’s never quite the same, they do sell a similar spice mix in stores. I bought this jar at the recently opened A-to-Z Kosher Market on Union Turnpike in Queens over 10 years ago, and I’m still using it – but it’s not that I use it sparingly and never finish the jar. I’ve finished it many times over, although without ever quite emptying it. Today is its ten-year “best by” expiration anniversary, and a perfect time to celebrate this perpetual palimpsest.
You see, years ago I read of ramen houses in Japan that keep jars of seasoning for making their broth (I’m sorry I can’t find the original source – I’d love a lead if you know it). Instead of using them until empty and then refilling, they add spices before the jar is empty, thus melding the old with the new. Some spice jars have been topped off in this way for centuries.
I’m no Lior Lev Sercarz (his Spice Companion is a very worthwhile reference), but I think he would appreciate how one can infuse their identity or a given moment or place into a blend of spices, even for something as mundane (and wonderful) as pizza. I add as I go, but I never let it empty. There’s no formula or recipe, it’s just whatever I’m into at the time. Sometimes rare finds, sometimes just finishing off another container: toasted sesame seeds, chipotle powder, za’atar, berbere, grains of paradise, maple sugar, bacon salt, smoked paprika, chili flakes, cumin, garlic, porcini powder, smoked sea salt, ras el hanout, crispy shallots, and let’s not forget MSG and sugar (which make the original so delicious).
Thus my pizza spice is always changing, and always presenting a snapshot of my tastes (or my pantry) at a given time. It also reflects my mindful approach to eating and cooking. Good cooking is marked by its consistency, being able to perfectly reproduce a dish every time. It speaks to the expert control of the cook in manipulating his or her ingredients and tools. I also value the idea that no moment is ever repeatable, everything is to be experienced in its own present time. I love being presented with an opportunity to savor the serendipity of a once in a lifetime event, like today’s eclipse, or of a once in a lifetime dish. Thus my seasoning is dynamic, complex, ever-changing, and yes, maybe just a little stale (probablistically speaking, there’s a not-insignificant chance that some of the original spice is still in the jar). That, too, is part of the experience.
I was excited to bring back a few of the native pizza spice packets home from my last trip to Israel for when I want the authentic experience. But whenever I want my personalized snapshot of spices, I reach for my inscrutable living custom blend.
UPDATE Jan. 31, 2018 : I recently discovered Enrique Olvera and his Mole Madre sauce. At over 1,500 days old and counting, this is a dish he also describes as living. Mole is a complex sauce to begin with, and Chef Olvera reheats and refreshes his every day with new and different ingredients, primarily focused on what’s in season. At his world class restaurant Pujol, Olvera offers up a beautiful contrast. The complex sauce is served about as simply as possible, ladled on a dish with a smaller portion of that day’s freshly made Mole Nuevo in the middle.