When The Hub and I met, we quickly discovered that we had one
thing in common: Our mothers made the most bland spaghetti sauce in the
It’s saying a lot that we found such common ground early on,
because our childhood food histories were so different. He grew up eating
smoked fish with the head still on. As a kid, I thought all fish were
rectangular and crunchy. His mother cooked things like Duck a L’Orange and beef
brisket. Mine leaned toward fried chicken and pork chops.
But our contrasting tables intersected at spaghetti sauce. His
mother and mine were twins in that regard.
The similarity started with an attitude about herbs and spices
that was like marriage vows: They should last until death do you part.
It didn’t matter that a jar of oregano was so old that it smelled
like pencil shavings. Their mantra was herbs do not go bad. And they were too
darned expensive to just throw away.
My friend Sheri Castle, the Chapel Hill cookbook author, once
told a group to replace their herbs and spices “if you’ve had them since your
wedding.” A voice from the back shouted, “Which wedding?”
Yes, Sheri’s talk was taking place in the South, if you couldn’t
Also, my mother and The Hub’s thought that garlic salt was as
good as garlic. They could skip all that peeling and crushing. So what if the
stuff turned a little brown and had to be scraped from the jar with a fork? It
doesn’t go bad.
In one way, my mother was right about not replacing her herbs,
even about the garlic salt. She used so little of both that how they tasted
She’d wave the jars of garlic salt, oregano and basil in the
neighborhood of the simmering sauce, then close them before any flavor could
sneak out. “You don’t want it too spicy,” she’d say. This approach made her
sauce taste like sloppy joes.
Two to three tablespoons of oregano, a heaping tablespoon each of
basil and marjoram, two or three bay leaves and a palm-full of real garlic go in
my spaghetti sauce. The other day, I even added a couple of teaspoons of aleppo
pepper, a Turkish dried pepper with ancho-like heat. There’s no mistaking my
sauce for sloppy joes.
The Hub and I still debate whose mother’s spaghetti sauce was the
most flavorless. I contend my mother’s wins, because his mother actually put
canned mushrooms in it. Mushrooms, to my mother, were instruments of death.
I wondered how long, ideally, one should keep herbs and spices -
although, for me, storage (of herbs and chocolate) is not a problem.
According to “The Food Lover’s Companion” by Sharon Tyler Herbst
and Ron Herbst (Barron’s, 2009), it’s six months for crushed or ground herbs
and spices. They will retain flavor longer in airtight containers, so use glass
jars with screw tops. And store them in a cool, dark place. Not over the stove.
That is not a cool, dark place unless you never cook. Whole spices, like
nutmegs, will hold their flavor for up to a year. Now you know.
I wondered if people still clung to their herbs and spices as if
they were Krugerrands. One acquaintance said she had jars with A&P labels
on them (there hasn’t been an A&P around here in decades), then quickly
added that she thrown out those spices.
“But they don’t go bad,” she said.
OK. Fine, people.
No, herbs and spices
don’t go bad - not in the sense that when chicken goes bad, it could
really hurt you. Except that bland food is almost as painful.
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