Spices

My Onkle Heiner was a ski trooper in the German army and was shot through his left biceps in 1917. For two years, he continually squeezed a rubber ball in his left hand until bone, flesh and nerves healed completely. The scar on his arm was white on both sides and the size of a silver dollar. He was my favorite uncle.

He emigrated to the United States in the mid nineteen twenties and married my mother’s sister, Elsa. They had a daughter who died young and a son, Willy, whom I idolized growing up. Heiner worked as a foreman in the Hummel Brothers sausage factory in New Haven, Connecticut and was strong and solid as an oak. He loved kids and let us pick from the fruit trees in his backyard, climb fences, and slide down his cellar door. There was always a twinkle in his eye that meant forthcoming delights like squeezing four kids on to the floor of the Ford’s rumble seat, close the lid and take us for a ride in a rainstorm. The rain pelting the tin above us, the rumble of the engine in the humid interior, the closeness of our bodies in the darkness was indescribably joyful. Double scoops of maple walnut ice cream afterwards was frosting on the cake of contentment.

My favorite times with him were when I helped him clean machines and prepare for the next week at the factory on Saturday mornings. I was eight or nine the first time and fascinated by the gleaming machines and refrigerators holding huge slabs of meat. He told me I shouldn’t know what went into a hot dog and then showed me anyway. It was fascinating but shocking, and I will not share it with you. Let me just say that if you think your hot dog tastes like eyeball, you are probably right.

The Hummel brothers came to the United States after a rigorous apprentice program in Germany with an excellent understanding of the role spices play in sausage making. This they passed on to Onkle Heiner who proudly displayed the spice closet in a sunny corner of the factory floor. Even though it was tightly built, I could smell the contents eight feet away. It was breathtaking. There  were familiar and mysterious aromas fighting for attention by the receptors in my nose. It was overwhelming. I sneezed three times before the door opened and I saw the boxes, bags, and bottles arrayed on eight-foot-high shelves.

My uncle let me sniff a dozen varieties, naming them and their countries of origin. I remember a few. Saffron and smoked paprika from Spain. Ground anise seed and oregano from Italy. Cinnamon powder from Ceylon. Ground ginger from India. Annatto powder from the Caribbean. And cracked fennel seed, allspice, and garlic from Germany. A budding stamp collector, I knew where those countries were, so I soon associated the shape, color, taste, and home country with each spice’s smell. I couldn’t wait for my uncle to unlock the spice closet Saturday mornings. At first overwhelmed by competing aromas, I began to distinguish individual scents and, in my mind, associate them with pictures of stamps and imagine being in those marvelous places. I traveled the world in that spice closet.

Heiner was born in 1899. In his nineties, he told me he wanted to live to 101 so he could tell Saint Peter he lived for three centuries. Saint Peter had other ideas; Heiner passed on when he was 98.

Whether by plan or coincidence, over the years my work took me to many of the places I imagined in the spice closet. I now realize how fortunate I was to have an uncle who understood the power of aromas to stimulate the other senses and enhanced my library of known scents. Now retired, I have more time and inclination to turn another olfactory page and enjoy memories of times and scents past. With age, one becomes more easily amused, and I can sniff the time away. My nose doesn’t require recharging, booting, a bigger screen, or an outlet, and all the inputs are free. Most of the downloads come from the twentieth Century. And that’s a good thing.

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