What little kid doesn't love playing with the salt and pepper shakers at restaurants? Honestly, Sam is so obsessed with them that sometimes I hide them just to avoid having to deal with the issue. He'll sprinkle little piles of pepper on a napkin and eat it by the fingerful. He seems to appreciate it when I put cinnamon in his morning oatmeal, and he's always preferred strong flavors: olives, sharp cheese, bacon.
So, a few Monday mornings ago, during breakfast (which, around here, can take an hour), I was cleaning out the spice cabinet, trying to organize my piles of containers from the DeKalb Farmer's Market in Atlanta (a magical place where each container is around 50 cents or less, and from where I still import all my spices to California via friends and family). And I thought, hey...why not let Sam taste a few of these? Now, maybe I've been in California a little too long; it seems like everyone is always doing tastings, mainly of wine, but also of olive oil, beer, whiskey, coffee; it's practically expected that you'll spend part of your weekend sipping a very miniscule amount of some substance and then responding with highly cultured opinions. Regardless, I was inspired.
I grabbed a little plate, placed it in front of Sam, who was sitting at the kitchen counter, and announced that we were having a Spice Tasting. We started with cinnamon, which is pretty inert. I put a tiny pinch on his plate, and he stuck his index finger into it and popped it into his mouth. Then another flash of inspiration: why not involve the other senses, too? I told him the name of the spice clearly, held out the container for him to smell, handed him a whole cinnamon stick to inspect, and then wrote "cinnamon" in sharpie on an index card.
Then we repeated this with cloves, nutmeg, ginger, and allspice. If I had any corresponding whole spice sitting around (a whole clove, the big fat nutmeg, the ginger root), I gave him one to handle. After he had tried all five spices, I asked which he liked the best, and he pointed to the cloves and said, "MORE!" So we added some cloves to his morning oatmeal, and, man...those oats disappeared fast.
The next day, Day 2: I announced that it was Spice Tasting time, and we tackled some savory spices this time: basil, parsley, thyme, rosemary, dill, oregano. For the first time, Sam rejected some. He tried the rosemary and instantly made a face and said, "Noo." Same with the dill. (I just said, "Okay, cool! No rosemary or dill. We'll try again some other time!") But he adored the oregano. Then we reviewed the index card words from the day before, which he was totally into. (I mean, "nutmeg" is a pretty great word.)
Day 3. We tackled different types of salt and pepper (black pepper, white pepper, cayenne pepper, kosher salt, Maldon flaky sea salt, and also garlic and onion powder). Sam, of course, adored Day 3. I've never seen a person consume so much white pepper. It made me sneeze just watching him. He kept saying, "More!" and ultimately ate a small mountain of white pepper. The crunchy little pyramids of Maldon made him chuckle. And the cayenne? I gave him the tiniest, tiniest little pinch of it and told him it would be spicy. He tried it, raised his eyebrows and grinned, and then said, "More!" I said, "Really?" He considered this and then said, "Noooo." We both laughed a lot.
Day 4. Indian spice day. Garam masala, cumin (seeds and ground), turmeric, Indian fennel seeds, paprika, cardamom pods, curry powder. The standout winner was the garam masala, which Sam insisted on sprinkling on his oatmeal. (Hey, it's a little weird, but I wasn't going to argue.) The cardamom was also a serious contender.
Day 5. Anything else that I could dig out of the pantry: sumac, anise seed, caraway, lavender, and saffron.
Day 6. Fresh herbs: parsley, cilantro, thyme, mint, basil. Maybe not the best idea. Sam decided that he loves basil and ate my potted basil plant down to nubs within a few days. And fresh mint? Let's call it an addiction.
Day 7. Seeds: flax, chia, poppy, and black and white sesame seeds. These were all a big hit. (So was the word "flax.")
The most interesting part of this experiment was how Sam started asking for spices during other meals. He'd point to the spice cabinet, and I'd give him a few options to choose from. On Day 3, he ate his fish with a huge dose of white pepper (I'm not sure how he made it through dinner without sneezing). On Day 4, he ate his steamed broccoli with cardamom sprinkled on top (read: seven pods worth).
Now, before you get all impressed and begin to perceive that I'm raising a perfect eater: I'm not. Sam is not picky, which I'm grateful for, but we have our own challenges. The eating process is very, very slow around here. We're working on independent eating and breaking bad habits of feeding him; he hates to get messy and he is not a fast eater. So mealtimes can be extremely slow and frustrating. But activities like this accomplish a few things: 1) they help to diffuse the stress that often builds around our meals; 2) they kindle a love for food and diverse tastes and smells (for Sam for the first time, and for me to renew my interest in food and creative cooking); 3) they orient Sam's palate and mind to the world of food that's available to him, as he makes connections between how our senses perceive objects through their written and spoken names, smells, textures, shapes, and tastes. And, in more ways than one, they make our eternal mealtimes a lot more palatable.