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Terri on Spices: Black Pepper

There are two spices that dominate the American tablescape; crisp white salt is, of course, the first thing we think of in shakers across the country. The second spice, the yang to salt’s yin, is the brisk, bracing flavor-punch of black pepper.

Black pepper has been woven into the fabric of our culture for roughly 4000 years. Mummies were buried with pepper in their nasal cavities to help keep the body preserved. Greeks used it as currency. It was used as an offering to the gods, and as a bartering tool to placate the barbarians at the gates of Rome. And we all pretty much agree that it tastes great. But what is it?

Take a good, long whiff of freshly-cracked black pepper. Sneezing aside, what did you notice? It’s kind of…what, spicy? Pungent? Did you ever happen to notice that it also smells slightly floral, or at least vegetal? That’s because our beloved spice is actually a fruit.

Peppercorns are the berries that grow on the flowering vine Piper negrum, which can grow to 30+ feet tall and produce a whole lot of berries. While it’s been determined that this plant is native to India, Piper negrum has grown well when introduced into non-indigenous, tropical regions from Viet Nam to Brazil. Black pepper comes about when the berries are harvested, cooked, and dried to fragrant, grind-ready, wrinkly perfection.

Inside these little wizened flavor nuggets lives a compound called piperine, which has shown promise in helping treat a host of ailments, from stomach upset to depression to the Big C. Phytonutrients in pepper’s outermost layer help boost metabolism, which in turn helps keep the body moving and grooving in summary order. And the oil from black pepper, with its condensed nutrient/piperine payload, also helps with arthritis pain, lowers cholesterol and helps regulate blood pressure.

So do yourselves a favor. Get thee to a pepper mill and a bottle of whole corns (the good juju dissipates more readily out of pre-ground pepper, of course) and give yourself a dose of tastes-good-and-good-for-you. You don’t have to stick it in your nose to reap the benefits of black pepper that even the ancients recognized, four millennia ago. Just enjoy the extra bite in your salad, and move on.

Terri Peterson

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Terri on Cinnamon — Spices of Peace!

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.

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Making Sure Cinnamon Sugar Doesn’t Become Cinnamon Saccharine

Today completes the first week in Spices of Peace. It’s been an interesting week, thinking about how to incorporate spices without getting cutesy. How to keep drinking my Constant Comment tea and not make everything about Cinnamon when Peace is about so much more.

One of the things I’m seeing because this year it turns out that one of my favorite years of Peace poems has started on the same day of the week and has the same number of days in it. They are prayers from a more innocent time. So far, they’ve sparkled with the beauty of winter. It’s been fun to post them and to share Nanso Cleaver’s beautiful Peace Mandalas with the world…

But times and politics are different now. And 6 years later, I’m a different poet, far more of an activist… 6 years older and far less to lose..

I love the notion of embodying Peace… and I will struggle to find the line between honoring these wonderful spices and getting too kitschy about. After all, I have no interest in becoming the Pumpkin Spice of Poets… People need our support. Winter is still gorgeous, if a bit rainy this year. And Peace is still dearly sought after.

As always, thanks for reading with me. Thanks for working for Peace.


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Spices for Peace 2019

My year of honoring painters and sculptors is finished. I am so grateful to all the artists for sharing their wonderful work and allowing it to inspire my daily poetry and delight your eyes and soothe your souls. I have loved offering these pieces done by people in my personal universe, a gentle reminder that we are blessed beyond measure by the people we know. I’m very grateful to Ed Mickens who curated the year. Thank you for coming on this journey with me and I hope you’ll stay with me for 2019.

Astonishingly, it’s come to that. Here comes 2019.

For quite a while, I’ve been curious about Spices. Some of you may find that odd, since I don’t really cook —but, of course I do eat! Spices are interesting in and of themselves — they have engendered great trade routes, have been the genesis of both the building and losing of considerable wealth, and have probably caused more than a few skirmishes. And, oh, they trend well: They’re for healing and for aphrodisiacs, ask any celebrity! And who knows what else? Hopefully we will as we pass through the year.

It seemed to me 2 things: first that Peace isn’t something that happens in our head or our hearts, we must embody Peace. Might Peace have a taste? Or many tastes? Which brings me to my second notion that Peace may taste different in different cultures and traditions and we would do well to experiment to see how they add to our understanding. Walk a mile in another’s shoes. Eat a week in another’s mouth!

But returning to my not cooking, it didn’t seem likely that I could pull this together. I have friends who cook and bake (as I have friends who paint and sculpt), and then I remembered I have something else, I have a newish friend, Penny Patterson who together with her husband Greg and their family owns Spices Inc, one of the largest on-line spice vendors. They hand blend and hand fill their Spice requests. It’s a lovely company. And local. Go read about it! Go support it.

Penny agreed to pick 52 spices for me. There will be spice blends as well. And maybe some minerals — what, after all, is life without salt? Perhaps some herbs. I can’t imagine a year without rosemary! We’ll learn the difference. But for the moment, let’s call them spices. One spice a week, mostly seasonally appropriate. I will provide links to their site and maybe others in case you want to learn more about the spice. 2019 began on Tuesdays; so will our weeks. Penny often has recipes on her site you’ll be able to find with the link.

Many of you cook or have fondness for certain spices. You may want to share memories or recipes with your fellow readers.

I will probably keep the musing format the same, but offer more information on a blog over at Sacred Village, my website dedicated to the notion that life and our connections to it and to one another are sacred. What is more sacred or more celebratory than eating? What breaks down barriers faster than shared meals?

What is spicier and more delicious than Peace? It will be interesting on this journey to see how spices stir up our understanding that Peace requires Justice. That Peace requires Joy. That Peace requires deliberate effort.

I’m very excited about this year. I hope you’ll hop on our Spice Caravan for Peace and come along to see what we can learn. Imagine slowly introducing our palates to the soft teasing quality of some spices and the explosive nature of others. Life, Eating, Peace are all sacred endeavors. Let us commit to 2019 with a full heart, an open mind, and a curious palate! Together, let us Peace!

ps. I’ll see you back here tomorrow for some information about our first spice!

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Peace and Industrious Beauty

Who knew? There are about 5,000 kinds of dragonflies and damselflies identified. For their names alone they’re worth celebrating. They’re ancient, ancient, ancient. Damselflies are on every continent but Antarctica!

They zoom around and we’re enchanted. I’m not sure why this bug is better than other bugs… but they has been depicted as early as cave art!

Probably for no other reason than that they’re beautiful.

But we see the dragonflies glint (they’re far the showier of the two) as they flit and forget to notice how busy they are. They’re very effective predators.

Wow, Ann’s learning a lot about bugs (in very little doses!)

Here’s to the Peace of Industrious Beauty! May we clothe ourselves in Beauty as we go about the business of Peace.