About a year ago, I started working at a spice shop.
At first, I couldn’t get enough. I had never been around so many spices in my life, and in such quantities- it was beautiful. I’d gaze into a massive pile of Persian Lime Curry, full of tart Omani black limes and maple-scented fenugreek leaves, and with a tiny metal scoop fill jar upon jar until I had filled hundreds, lined up in military neat rows, little canisters that contained a full sensory experience compressed into one half-cup glass jar. We made thousands of jars of everything in the shop, which was ground fresh on the spot in a tiny, hot room in the back and delivered to us in massive silver mixing bowls the size of sleds, like various fragrant piles of sand.
The smell, yes, was almost always phenomenal, but what amazed me was how sensual spices are. I wanted to plunge my entire hands, up to the wrists, into the piles of spices that I was working with and really feel them. I wanted to pack together handfuls of sticky, ground sumac and build sandcastles. I could see every grain of granulated garlic as it interacted with every other grain of granulated garlic as I poured thousands and thousands of them together and watched the way they fell into jars, watched their current, their speed, their viscosity.
When I stocked curry, or turmeric, my hands and fingernails were stained yellow for days. I joked about jaundice. My sleeves became casualties as well, and I learned quickly not to wear clothes I actually cared about. Everything would end up coated in a fine layer of spice dust anyway, but I loved taking it home with me. My clothes smelled, then my hair smelled like cinnamon, and even my car. I found stray whole nutmegs in all my pockets, cinnamon sticks, stringy hunks of dry ginger. I had peppercorns in my shoes. I have always loved and been sensitive to smells, so when I began to work overtime and the overwhelmingly delicious fragrance of the shop itself normalized and faded away, I was grateful my palette had now cleared itself to allow me to smell individual scents with even more precision than before. Oh yes, the smells.
There was one cinnamon in particular, the Saigon cinnamon, that I loved interacting with. The strongest and spiciest of all the cinnamons, it’s an immediate favorite for most of our customers who have never smelled anything but the typical grocery store cinnamon, usually the much more moderate and sweet Korintje, from Indonesia. It smells like a Red Hot candy, they say, or Big Red gum. And when they taste it, they can’t believe that cinnamon can naturally be so sweet, and so hot. Chew on a chip of the bark to freshen your breath, we say as we offer them a piece, but be careful. It’s hotter than some chiles.
The Saigon cinnamon is ground there in the shop, and when it’s being ground, everybody knows. You’d walk into the back to find a box of Moroccan Thyme and immediately be greeted by a ruddy haze that burned your eyes and forced dry coughs from your chest. There’d be sweetness on your tongue, even though you hadn’t eaten for hours. I loved being the one to receive the first bowl of freshly ground Saigon, the reddest, the fieriest, the Medusa of cinnamons. My mouth would salivate as I put the powdery substance into jars, the stuff that could not be tamed and that puffed up in temperamental clouds that you’d inevitably inhale every time you tried to contain it.
One day, I hated it. It was like a switch had flipped, and overnight I went from being unable to get enough, from sneaking bites of spicy, chewy cinnamon bark chips and letting my eyes water as I packaged gift boxes, feeling the spot where the cinnamon stayed nestled under my tongue burn and sear, to feeling my mouth fill with the kind of saliva that can only mean you’re about to vomit as soon as I caught whiff of the stuff. I stopped what I was doing, and I hurried past the cluttered mess that was our shop during the holiday season, past the man in the respirator mixing smoked paprika into bowls as big as sleds and into the bathroom, where I spat saliva into the toilet for a few minutes and then returned to my job.
From then on, I couldn’t work with the cinnamon. The Korintje was ok, but I still avoided it, and the Ceylon was the least offensive, being floral and citrusy and nothing like the monster that is Vietnamese cinnamon. I held my breath when a customer asked me to make them a bag or to refill their jar because they just couldn’t get enough. I hated the way my hair smelled when I came home at night, and I scrubbed my scalp in the shower only to come home reeking of it again the next night.
I grew tired, and I hurt. My patience with customers wore thin. I worked 50 hours a week with my worst enemy, trying not to make eye contact with the always-full cinnamon shelf. I missed my period, but I wasn’t eating well or sleeping well. All that time spent with the public, trying to make so many people happy at once, was stressing me out. Lines of people waiting to purchase gifts would snake out the door of the tiny shop, and our boss would try and appease the anxious customers with cinnamon sticks that we usually handed out to kids. (“It’s like a lollipop! It’s sweet, and not spicy at all.” Kids all over town were hooked, and would beg their parents to take them back to the spice shop to get a cinnamon stick. More than once, I witnessed kids throwing tantrums outside on the sidewalk because their parents tried to take them past the spice shop without stopping in for their usual treat.)
Then, Christmas came. Everyone got spices as gifts. I spent time at home with my mom, feeling tired and sore and like I was about to get my period any day. Then, a few days after on my dad’s birthday, we were out to eat and I had the strongest craving I’ve ever had in my life. I was about to tell the waiter at dinner that I would have the salmon, when the hamburger shoved its way into my brain and stomach with such force I thought I would die if I did not sputter the words “HAMBURGER, MEDIUM RARE PLEASE.” I was like a possessed woman. My mother, noticing the strange demon that had momentarily taken hold of me, quietly mentioned she hoped I wasn’t pregnant.
The next day, I confirmed I was.
I kept going to work. One by one, spices became unacceptable to my sensitive palette and stomach. The earthy tang of turmeric joined the Saigon cinnamon on the list of things I needed to avoid if I wanted to keep my breakfast down, then cumin, then barbecue blends that were heavy on paprika. Mediterranean oregano was not ok, but Mexican and Fancy Italian oregano were. The intensity of the spices was ramped up. I smelled everything, including things that would otherwise be masked, like the customers’ perfumes, their deodorants, their boxes of takeout that they toted around like relics of their leisurely brunches. I smelled when they passed gas, or when their breath was bitter and foul. And with my clothes and hair and car constantly bearing the scent of the shop, I wasn’t even free when I went home.
All I wanted was not to smell.
I went back to work the day after I wasn’t pregnant anymore. I still wouldn’t look at the cinnamon, but one by one the other spices left my “no” list. The smell of the cinnamon still nauseated me, and I wondered how I ever liked it in the first place. It was brash, vulgar. It held nothing back, no subtlety, it had no modesty. It was all-clothes-off within the first half minute of the striptease, no foreplay, straight to the orgasm filth. It was disgusting.
I stayed at the shop for most of the year, but then I left when other things became more interesting.
Now, I’m back.
And I shyly reintroduced myself to the Saigon cinnamon the other day, asking it to forgive me for being so judgmental, but explaining that I just couldn’t handle it last year. I told it I would keep my distance, but that I wanted to be able to be near it again. So I tried. And amazingly, it is the same cinnamon I smelled when I first entered the shop last year. It elicits none of the nausea and the anger that it used to. But it still sits high on a shelf where it can keep watch over me, where it can, if it needs to, tell me what I need to know before I even know it myself.