Mom, why does the pantry smell?

K was curious yesterday. Curious about what he was reading in his book. Curious about the spider happily spinning beside the house. Curious about the sky, and the clouds, and the huge, fat raindrops that soaked him to the skin. Curious about how first The Man We Call Dad, then Mama, then B all come down with the same cold but he somehow escapes it (and hopefully will continue to escape it).

Most of all, he was curious about why the pantry smelled. The pantry usually smells of cinnamon and chocolate chips and rolled oats and other good things, but on this particular day, the pantry just didn’t smell like the pantry, according to K.

That would be my fault.

Yesterday, I posted about our day’s harvest. I harvested several herbs amidst the vegetables, but instead of mincing them into herby rolls and ice cubes for the freezer, I decided to try something new. New to me, at any rate — people have been putting up herbs this way for millenia, I’m sure.

So without further ado, and with my big book of spice lore close at hand, I started hammering nails into one of the pantry shelves. Yes, it’s true, I defiled my beautiful pink and green pantry. It was for a good cause, you see. It was so I could take these gorgeous and lush herbs:

And dry them for use all winter. The kids helped me wash them and sort them into small bundles that could be tied with string, and then we hung them up on the nails and left them to dry.

Don’t the little bundles look adorable against the pink and green of the pantry? I think they look adorable.

They’ll hang that way in the pantry, with the door shut to keep out the sunlight, until they are fully dried and ready to be crumbled into my collection of adorably cute cork-stoppered glass jars from the dollar store. Each jar has a different shape, which makes spice identification easy once you’ve lived with the jars for a while (and we have lived with these jars for a very, very long while now). Of course, it does make it challenging for others to use spices at our house, since none of the jars have labels anymore, but I figure it just makes for a more thrilling cooking experience. Certainly a more hands-on experience, as one must sniff to determine if this particular jar holds this or that.

And sometimes get it wrong, but hopefully not inedibly wrong — after all, isn’t all cooking nothing more than a giant, hands-on edible chemistry experiment?

I recently finished reading Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men, by Leonard Sax. One of things he discusses in the book is how many things we learn today are divorced from the hands-on reality of that thing. When learning about clouds and cloud formations, teachers are much more likely to show pictures in a book than to take their class outdoors to lie on their backs and stare at the sky for a few hours. We’ve experienced that phenomonon first-hand. When learning about the agricultural practices of the Iroquois and Algonquin tribes, K’s class built a plasticene model of the Three Sisters: corn, beans, and squash, rather than attempt to grow those three simple-to-grow plants in the classroom. K was frustrated, because he knew from planting our own indoor garden starts that those particular plants will sprout up quite nicely on a sunny windowsill. He was so frustrated by his teacher’s lack of real-world instruction, in fact, that he promptly planted up three pots and brought them to school so that his classmates could share in the fun of growing the Three Sisters for themselves.

What does this have to do with drying herbs?

Everything.

When we cook with fresh herbs, the kids have a very concrete idea of how our food and its flavours have come straight from the natural world. But when we cook from a little glass jar of spices… well, where, precisely, did those spices come from? Why do we have four jars of ground up green stuff that all smell different? Why are some jars different colours? Why do some jars just stop smelling strong and potent and just start smelling musty and stale after a while? All very good questions, but how to answer them in a way that makes sense — the kind of sense that you know in your fingertips and your toes, not just in your memory?

So I decided it was time we fill some of those jars for ourselves.

This summer, we planted quite a few herby things in the garden with an eye towards K and B’s developing skills in the kitchen, their growing knowledge as gardeners, and the union of the two. Learning by doing sticks with you for a lifetime, after all, unlike most book learning (and we do like books around here). So we did. We tried it for ourselves.

After washing and sniffing and tying and hanging our herbs, we closed the pantry door to keep out the sunlight, but with the constant comings and going in the pantry, the door gets opened quite often, letting out wafts of herby goodness each time. Herby goodness that completely altered the usual smells found in our pantry. I was surprised K didn’t immediately associate the smell with the hanging herbs. We had examined them and bruised them and sniffed them thoroughly before hanging them to dry, but still it took an elapsed hour or two for the smells to mingle and spread before he figured out that herbs are fiercely aromatic. So fiercely so, in fact, that they’ll overwhelm all other scents in the pantry.

Being told that herbs smell wasn’t enough. Even smelling a few herbs for himself wasn’t quite enough. It wasn’t until we let the scents completely overwhelm the pantry and he stood there sniffing and sniffing and sniffing that he fully understood — herbs are aromatic. Very aromatic.

It’s funny how the best learning happens when you dig in and get your hands dirty.

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