What adds the refinement is the something extra -- the necklace, the tattoo, the perfume, the turban.
And so it is with spices.
I really got into spices about a year ago because they represented a new frontier of taste sensitivity and alchemy.
Cooking is visceral, intuitive. Pastry is precise, fastidious. Spicework is more mysterious and abstract than both. Spices add the element a pinch of complexity here, a dash of nuance there. To me, they can hold memory and personality more than chicken or bread or a cookie (even a madeleine).
I chomp fennel as a breath freshener and dip hard-boiled eggs in fennel seeds and salt after a morning workout. Szechuan peppercorns, of course, go in mapo tofu, but also, once, an ice cream made even more shivery. Cumin is the obvious choice for an Indian-swaying dish, but also plays a more subdued role in Asian and Mexican dishes.
I like the pop of mustard seeds and the way they act as natural emulsifiers. White pepper reminds me of Chinese restaurants, red pepper flakes of pizzerias.
I use turmeric to stain the shells of hard-boiled eggs, and cinnamon to roasted apples, bananas, pears. Star anise boiled in soy sauce is so familiar to me, I often don't even recognize it as it is, but rather as a scent of my youth.
Garlic powder and powdered ginger are my secret weapons, a marinade's addictive X factor. I bought fenugreek on a whim, and marveled when it filled my kitchen with the smell of maple.
Since my mother is from Madagascar, I use vanilla pods with abandon -- cut up in my French Press, pulverized whole in my smoothies. I must feel those black spots on my tongue.
And like my jewelry and scarves and makeup and perfume... I use some spices a lot, and some not at all. Though I own them, I have yet to use juniper berries. Nigella tastes too bitter. I can respect celery seed for its assertive celery-ness, but never think to include it.
I organize my spices on a kitchen rack, stadium-style. You can also put them in a drawer, though the bottom containers will be covered. My dream is to house my spices in a shallow drawer, the type architects use to protect their blueprints.