cardamom-spiced meat loaf
Photo: Ann Stratton
Ever since I met my Indian husband, the scent of cardamom has infiltrated my kitchen cabinets. I use it so much that it's migrated from way in the back to the front row, and I reach for it so often that sometimes I don't even bother replacing the lid. During the past year or so, I've noticed that the outside world has begun to smell a lot like my cabinets. Cardamom is everywhere: In a chocolate dessert on a transatlantic flight. In Daniel Boulud's coffee-cardamom petits pots de crème. In an Indian chef's "American" meatloaf. In hundreds of recipes on FoodNetwork.com. In a plastic spoonful of chickpeas recently handed to me for tasting as I pushed a cart through a supermarket (a promotion for spice mixtures). In a slew of recent cookbooks, one of which said, "You might think that cardamom had a publicist this year, it has so completely blanketed the food world."

My husband, who grew up eating cardamom in traditional ways, is forever requesting infusions of it into my everyday cooking. Since both of my parents are from North Carolina, region of rice and spice, I don't find the combinations entirely jarring. A recent cardamom-grits experiment (cook Quaker quick grits with ground cardamom, salt, black pepper, a split chile, and a ton of butter) was a satisfying variation on breakfast with my late grandmother Lulubelle and her spinster sister, Eppie, who sometimes sipped bourbon while stirring the grits.

I can only imagine how these apron-clad homebodies might have reacted to cardamom in their skillet, let alone to an Indian relative in their kitchen. I suppose that after getting used the the idea, they'd have tasted my nouvelle southern and offered the nice Indian fellow a whiskey. For all I know, Lulu and Eppie never tasted "foreign" foods like bagels or enchiladas or seaweed. But inevitably, had they been exposed to them, the would have come around. Food is the first step. When it comes to eating, what's intimidating or alien can quickly become absorbed into the household recipe file, taking it's rightful place at the table, in the scrambled eggs, the shortbreads, the casserole. Why? Because it tastes good. Anyway, what was Lulu and Eppie's southern cooking if not African fusion?