A World of Spice

The scent of butternut squash roasting in curry, coriander, and cumin is filling my kitchen, a layer of comforting protection from the bitter cold outside.  Some people express their love through song or poetry, I express my love by making soup.  My parents are coming to visit me for Thanksgiving, and I want to greet them with some hot, homey butternut squash soup and cornbread.  Unexpectedly, though, the scent of these spices is bringing back a strong memory from my childhood, also infused with curry and cold weather. 

I was very young, no more than five or six years old, and we were driving from Utah to Northern California.  Donner Pass was snowed in, and we couldn’t get through without chains.  We turned around and stopped at every town looking for a motel room, but they were all filled up.  Finally, we found a roadside motel with a vacancy sign, and I walked into the lobby with my dad.  The room was filled with warm air coming from a nearby kitchen, and I had never smelled anything like it.  It was tangy and smoky and exotic, and I was kind of scared.  A man came from a back room.  He didn’t look like the people I knew from my east bench Salt Lake neighborhood.  He had dark skin and hair, a booming voice, and kind eyes.  My dad explained that we desperately needed a room because of the weather.  He smiled, expressed sympathy, and said that of course he had a room for us.  He and my dad started chatting.  This was nothing unusual–my dad chats with everyone.  It doesn’t matter who or where, my dad will strike up a conversation, and most of the time says to me afterwards:  “that was a heck of a nice person.”  This man invited us to celebrate some special occasion with his family, but my dad declined.  I must have been staring at this stranger, because eventually he looked down at me, introduced himself, shook my hand, and gave me a peppermint candy.  For years I retained the memory of that encounter, the memory glued to my mind by the smell of that cooking.  Years later, as a BYU student, I went with my roommates to Bombay House on University Avenue, and finally understood.  The man in the California motel was Indian, and his family was celebrating with curry.

My life is filled with spices now–the high noted curry from Sri Lanka, the coconut undertones of Indonesian food, Afghan Kabuli Pilau with its raisins and carrots, tamarind paste, miso, fish sauce…  I travel to work, learn, play, breathe, and live.  I’m a proud American, but I’m a citizen of the world.  Travel is a submersive activity; it thrusts you into unexpected sights, jarring sounds, surprising tastes, and every kind of smell.  Travel forces you to adapt.   I give myself one “getting off the airplane day of cranky” and then I’m an explorer.  Even though I’m an introvert, I learned from my dad that you can talk to anyone about anything.  After a lengthy conversation with a young Japanese woman about African tourism in a Roman restaurant, I remembered my dad talking to a long-haired and bearded biker at the top of a pass in the Montana Beartooth mountains about how much the biker loved his Harley.  Each of them was “a heck of a nice person.”  The one constant I’ve learned from my travel is that you can never make assumptions about people.  You can’t assume that everyone is trustworthy, even though most people are, because you’ll eventually become a victim.  Likewise, you cannot assume that everyone is a villain because you will become paralyzed.  Hold tight onto your purse (I put my valuables in a backpack pocket that zips open next to my back), stay close to crowded areas, and wear your walking shoes.  Then eat, browse, explore, learn, and talk.

My life is defined in some ways by my international ties.  Like many Mormons, my mission was formative.  It forced me to rely on my own wits.  It also gave me the confidence that I could get myself out of sticky situations with a little ingenuity and gutsiness.  It taught me that people constantly surprise you, and it continued my dad’s lessons of how to talk to strangers.  My undergraduate degree in Russian shored up the ground experience I had on my mission in St. Petersburg.  My two graduate degrees in law and security studies were focused on principles of international relations, international law, humanitarian law, and a regional concentration on Central Asia.  But that bookwork did almost nothing to really prepare me for a career in post-conflict justice reform.  For this career I have to rely on the lifelong skills that started in that motel room in California and continued through my life of wanderlust:  listening, learning, smiling, being open, being smart, being careful, talking, trying, failing, and trying again.  So as I sit here smelling curry, coriander, and cumin, and waiting for loved parents, I am asking myself: How did I get so lucky to have a life like this?



  1. This is a glorious post, Karen; it fills with with memories, regrets, and excitement. How much of my experience of the world around me is tied to my ability (or, unfortunately, sometimes my lack of ability) to fully explore and be open to its food–its smells, tastes, and cuisine, and the people who prepare it? A huge amount, I realize. I’ve much to be grateful for in my travels, but I’m also envious of those–like yourself, I suspect–whose nose and palate is greater than my own. Thank you for sharing this early Thanksgiving reflection with us!

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    Beautiful, Karen. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Marvelous, Karen. I’m sure your dad will be grateful for this reflection.

  4. I will cherish the taste memory of salt-encrusted fish and creamy Italian desserts in a small cafe right outside of Vatican City, sitting and laughing with this lovely author wherein we serediptiously met halfway across the world.

  5. J. Stapley says:

    Loved this, Karen.

  6. Karen – you had me at Donner Pass, okay, no at Butternut Squash Soup – then the pass, then a Dad who chats with everyone (it drives my mom crazy, she’ll mutter under her breath, “There he goes talking to strangers again.”) – then at world travel. I haven’t traveled nearly as much as you, but even in our local places we find similar experiences. I was the Mormon girl in staunchly Catholic territory. Their food, their customs, the scents, the incense, the ashes, the herbs. My best friend was from Mexico – her mother’s chicken soup has never been replaced in my taste buds. Two years ago I had the second international experience of my life – the first happened before I turned 2. Now in mid-life I returned to the land of my birth – walking shoes, rucksacks, and hopes ahead. I got robbed, but didn’t know it for hours – I also was rewarded with tastes, smells, and insights.

    This beautiful post said it all better than I could. I thank you for writing it and reminding me what a lucky girl I am.

  7. Thanks all! Russell, I realized after I wrote this that I focused too much on foreign travel. Come back to DC….I’ll introduce you to more exotic tastes, a la northern Virginia. EmJen, at first I thought you were describing a romantic evening out, then I realized it was me. :) Thanks for bringing the (what’s the opposite of bromance?) to Roma! Carrie, sounds like you had a lucky childhood with good friends. Hope your next traveling experience is still tasty, but crime free…

  8. Thank you, Karen. I loved this in so many ways.

    I can’t smell mint, oregano, rosemary, or hyssop without going to different places around the Middle East. Tandyr naan is Kyrgyzstan. Now corn in all its forms is Mexico. And my spice cupboard is filled with dozens of bottles from around the world so I can recreate old favorites and learn the scents of places I haven’t been yet. I cannot express how lucky I am.

  9. Bro. Jones says:

    Awesome post, thank you. My spice cabinet is full of obscure spices, some memories of family recipes, others from new culinary traditions I’ve adopted. I love picking up one and sharing a story with my daughter that I associate with a particular spice or fragrance.

  10. Beautiful essay, Karen. Thank you. The imagery, scenes, scents. Smells and aromas bring the past to the present with such ferocity and clarity. At least that’s my experience. And I also loved this: “. . . I learned from my dad that you can talk to anyone about anything.” This has been one of the delights of my life. Even, or especially, when I might otherwise keep to myself. Talk. People are so wonderful. Our lives are so rich, rare, and interconnected. I discovered this, in large part, by engaging in conversations with complete strangers. Thanks again for this heart warming gift.

  11. Where’s the recipe?

  12. I feel extra special that some of that soup is waiting for me to warm it up for lunch.

    I share your love of travel, and the ways it opens unlike anything else, and that food is also my love language.

  13. ErinAnn, it’s a little different every time, but basically, I put a package of cut up fresh butternut squash (maybe 1.5-2 squash? My supermarket sells it pre-cut and I’m lazy) into a ziplock and add a teaspoon of salt and a scant tablespoon of curry and coriander, and a heaping tablespoon of cumin. Then I add enough olive oil to turn the spices to a thin paste and coat all the squash. Seal the bag and massage the squash. :) Pour the coated squash onto a jelly roll pan and put in a 400 degree oven for about 30 minutes or until the squash is soft and starts to caramelize a bit. In the meantime, caramelize some onions (1-3 depending on how much you like onions) in olive oil in a stock pan. (This time I fried them in a little bit of bacon drippings to add a deeper flavor to the soup.) I also fortified a box and a half of chicken stock by boiling a couple of smoked turkey necks in it for about half an hour, but you can use regular chicken stock. After the squash comes out of the oven and you’re about ready to assemble the soup, add a heaping tablespoon of garlic to the onions and let them soften for about a minute (but not brown.) Then add the squash to the onions, and pour in your fortified stock. Boil for about 10-15 minutes to combine all the flavors, then blend until smooth and velvety with an immersion stick blender. Check for seasoning and add salt as needed. Now, you’re either done, or….if you’re going for decadence, you can stir in 1/3 to 1/2 cup of heavy cream and then check again for salt. Bon Apetit!

  14. Beautiful scenes and thoughts. Thank you for writing and sharing this. Much to think about here. How, indeed, “did I get so lucky to have a life like this?” That’s a question that will preoccupy me as we head into Thanksgiving, even if my own “story” (see, Adam Miller, Letters to a Young Mormon) about my career and life has changed drastically from what I always thought it would be as a child, in my education, and in my first decade of work in my field. Thanksgiving, for me, needs to be about the task discussed by Adam Miller of ceding the story I had carefully crafted for myself during two decades of education to whatever the new/real story is that will flow from the hand of Providence.

    This post prompts introspection about this concept and reminds me of the importance of true “thanksgiving” even in the tricky process of discovery.

  15. Thank you for the recipe. I need to use up some acorn squash and wanted a new approach.

  16. The PangWitch says:

    i’d heard before about “travelogues” and “thanktimonies” at fast meeting. never quite knew what they meant until now. thanks!

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