John Currence is the chef-owner of six restaurants in Mississippi. The winner of multiple James Beard Awards is one of the leaders in Southern cuisine, and he believes in getting back to the roots of how the culinary culture of the South came to be. In an excerpt from his latest book, Big Bad Breakfast: The Most Important Book of the Day, he discusses the prevalence and provenance of his current flavor obsession: cumin.
Chefs go through cycles of fascination. Whether it be a texture, dish, ingredient, ethnic cuisine, herb, spice, style of service, and so on, it matters not. We all have our moments with food. For a very long time now, my obsession has been cumin. And while that may strike some as an odd fascination (and don’t get me wrong, it isn’t like I’m working it into nooks and crannies where it has no place), my fascination is more with cumin’s history. Cumin pops up as a central player in cuisines all around the world. From Mexico and India to the Middle and Far East, it is a common player in the spice cabinets of all of these regions.
Cumin can quite literally be traced to the beginning of written history. A pair of inscribed stone tablets of recipes from Babylon, dated circa 1750 B.C., known as the Yale culinary tablets, references cumin. Egyptians used it as a cooking spice and in the mummification process. Numerous civilizations have employed it for medicinal purposes while also using it as a flavoring agent. To this day, cumin is a table spice in a number of countries, including several on the western coast of Africa, just as salt and pepper are in the United States.
And this is where my deepest fascination lies: Why doesn’t this spice play a bigger role in the food of the South? A significant number of the ingredients that we take for granted as being indigenous to the United States, and that make up the core of ingredients that you think of when considering Southern food, are actually only here as a result of the West African slave trade. When slaves were loaded in the ships, so was food to feed them. A significant amount of that was foodstuffs indigenous to their homeland. Okra, lima beans, black-eyed peas, peanuts, sorghum, watermelon, and sweet potatoes, to name a few, are things only on this continent (originally, at least) as a result of the African slave trade.
Many of the dishes we consider our own, too, stem from Liberian and Senegalese traditions. Okra gumbo, hopping John, cala, hoecakes, and many others have their origin there. The cumin that spiced so many of those dishes, however, did not make the crossing with them.
Instead, Caribbean spices (such as cayenne and paprika) and western European herbs took center stage in the seasoning and flavoring of New World food. Cumin, which admittedly some people find a little distasteful, took not just a backseat, but a totally different ride in getting to the American palate. It is a latecomer, but definitely working its way into vogue. And while I don’t think we will see a mutiny in the way gumbo is seasoned in south Louisiana, and neither do I see cumin shakers becoming common on family tables, my favorite spice is definitely elbowing its way to the front of the crowd.