The Cinnamon Curtain

When it comes to Southern foods you’ll find me a hide-bound traditionalist. Never can I envision myself breading fried chicken with whole wheat flour, using yellow corn meal for bread or making banana pudding without vanilla wafers. Some might find my inflexibility evidence of xenophobia, but I’ll squelch that rumor right now; my kitchen is a global nexus when it comes to ingredients as well as recipes. As a matter of fact, I do have yellow corn meal on hand for polenta as well as garbanzo beans and tahini for hummus, three types of tortillas and four types of olives, not to mention dozens of other foods you won’t find in most Southern kitchens (anchovies spring to mind). I even own a wok, and not one of those little sissy Teflon jobs you plug into the wall; mine is big and butch, seasoned well from over a decade of use.

Most people feel the same way about their culinary heritage as I do. The foods we eat as children are those that comfort us, dishes that ease our minds and appease our tongues. When we’re grown-ups, these are the recipes we try to recreate, be it grandmother’s pozole, the bread-and-butter pickles someone once brought over for Thanksgiving or the adobo your Filipino neighbors shared with you after school. These dishes take care in their preparation, and people who want to share that memory with you offer with them a parcel of their past in a spirit of bonding. But the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and at one time or the other, you’re going to find yourself faced with a host’s cherished memory that makes you wish you’d brought more wine; the house is beautiful, the children are sweet, you love them both, but that jalapeno tuna casserole just ain’t a’workin’.

It’s all a matter of geography. I understand that. While my accommodation with exotic recipes goes a long way, I’ll never feel entirely right using cinnamon in a savory dish. I’ve been told time and time again that cinnamon makes a good match with meat is because it enhances the odor either cooking or cooked. Well, of course it does; cinnamon is distinctly aromatic as is clove, which I’ll stud a ham with before baking as much for the tangy smell as the punctuation on the seared scored fat. But adding clove to a meat dish is just as inconceivable to me as adding cinnamon because clove is also associated with sweets on my palate. Since the vast majority of spices come from South-East Asia, they’re widely used in savory dishes throughout the region, and well into India, the Middle East and North Africa. But on the northern shores of the Mediterranean and beyond, using spices with meats and vegetables drops off considerably. You’ll find notable examples of such recipes from Spain, Italy and Greece, but in northwestern Europe and beyond the practice diminishes even further. As a man of western European ancestry, moreover a Southern American, I’m simply unaccustomed to using spices (with the notable exception of peppers of every type) with meats.

Yet God in His Wisdom has chosen me to share my life with people whose roots are from Asia Minor and the Levant, or near enough to hop, skip or jump on it in the case of Jake, whose ancestors are from Crete. I’ve heard these people argue over food (there’s never a mere discussion), indisputable evidence of their passion for eating. Most times, I’ll sit back and bite a knuckle, but I’ll go to the Welty Library every now and then a look up an ashta recipe to throw in the ring just to liven things up, which it invariably does. Mind you, I’m grateful for the connection. The eastern Mediterranean is a crossroads of the world, and to know people who love those cuisines is a gift, but their inclusion of cinnamon in savory dishes is a cultural barrier that I have trouble with.

Still, I’ve persisted in experimenting with the savory side of cinnamon, and I’ve discovered it goes well with pork, which is certainly neither kosher nor halal when it comes to most Middle Eastern recipes. I probably find it agreeable with pork because pig is often seasoned with sugar in this part of the world (brown sugar finds its way into almost every aspect of barbecue), and my mind finds seasoning pork with cinnamon appropriate. Call it an outworking of culinary free association or flat-out call me crazy (I’m used to it), but cinnamon with pork works for me.

Pork Meatballs with Cinnamon

To one pound lean ground pork, add a tablespoon cinnamon, a teaspoon of cayenne, and a tablespoon each of salt and black pepper. Mix in one beaten egg, a heaping tablespoon of tomato paste, a half cup of bread crumbs and a half cup of very finely chopped white onion. Form into balls (I like big ones; be hush) and cook in a light oil (you can use olive oil, but it’s not necessary) until firm. Serve over rice (couscous is nice if you happen to have any) sprinkled with chopped parsley or chives (sesame seed is a nice touch). These keep beautifully.

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