A Reprieve From The City's Unique, Uh, Summer Perfume

Why we make time to pop into a spice shop or two.

August 31, 2017 ● 4 min read

By Cassandra Landry | Photo thmacx via iStock 

There's this sensory parade in my commute, as I'm climbing the stairs out of the mouth of the subway, that goes like this: urine, urine, disinfectant, garbage, caramel, urine, exhaust. 

That little blip of caramel wedged in the onslaught of the street? That's thanks to a candy shop on the corner, and it makes my day every single time. I want to live in that slipstream of caramel air snaking its way through the ceaseless fug of downtown. When you're trying to decide if it's best to breathe through your mouth or just give in and inhale deeply through your nose, it feels like a miracle. 

Some cities get walloped with thick summer air more than others—we feel you, New York—when steam grates belch hot fog and every smell that ever was is suspended in mid-air. Summer's olfactory assault is an undeniable feature of the season, and part of what we love about it, but damn: sometimes we could use a break. Know what smells awesome, all the time? Spice shops.  

“The spices want to be where you want to be,” Lior Lev Secarz told a small gathering of people clutching his book, The Spice Companion, in a basement in San Francisco. This was sometime last year, when Secarz was touring his new tome. It was rainy that night, and humid. Bowls of spiced popcorn stood on tabletops next to neat towers of little jars full of blends for guests to take home. Spices don’t want to be crammed into a forgotten cabinet, he continued, going stale in the dark; they want to breathe, to be out in the world. Everyone nodded, and wrote this down. 

Secarz is the owner of New York City’s La Boîte à Epice, and scent—how it defines our relationship to flavor and affects our memories—is a cornerstone of his work in the spice business. Born and raised on a kibbutz in Northern Israel, he's the kind of person who can wax poetic on the black pepper harvest of 2016 (“the best in recent memory”) and spin tales of his far-flung suppliers (one of whom lives on an island only visited by boat every two months) in one breath. His favorite smell, more beloved than front-runners like cinnamon or cardamom, is rain.

Courtesy La Boîte

"I stop every time it rains. Today, when I landed, I smelled it," he told me in the minutes before he got up to speak. He gestured towards the wet windows. "Even from the airplane, there's something in the air. I especially love it in Israel, but that's also because it's very emotional: as kids, after the rain, we'd put rubber boots on and run in puddles. It's such a complex smell, and it's better than any fragrance I know of." 

He was a chef first, which shows in more ways than his palate; he dislikes when people are unorganized with their time, and doesn't believe in boredom. There is always something to do, to discover, to think about. His challenge at La Boîte is to teach people how to think differently about spices, to consider their seasonality and flexibility. His go-to adage, which appears in the book and he repeats in his talks, concerns the use of salt and pepper. While most recipes end with instructions to season with salt and pepper, when what they mean is season with sodium and heat, Secarz writes. What that means is up to the cook. 

"I want to have them think. I want to have them puzzling with what to make. I can provide them with some answers but like a lot of things, it's a journey that you have to do with yourself," he explained. "Spices have the ability to really take you places without going anywhere. They create emotions that are hard to capture. How do we take that and translate it into a blend? It's an experience, a memory— how do you evoke that?”  

These are the central questions Secarz seeks to illuminate through what he calls spice therapy: custom spice blends designed after the lives of his clients (for a deep-dive on the experience, read this fantastic piece in The New York Times Magazine from 2013).
 "It’s such an intimate experience. People really love this idea of somebody analyzing them and who they are, and how they cook and what they like," he said. "It's allowed people to explore the process of everything that I do—the sourcing, the blending—and gives them the understanding that it's beyond food." 

The nice thing is, whether you find yourself standing in a spice shop seeking answers or just want to stick your nose into something otherworldly for a minute, no one will judge you. Come for a salve from that guy who held his armpit in your face for five stops, stay for a custom life-altering blend. Baby steps. 

In New York City, pay Secarz a visit at La Boîte à Epice and pick up biscuits and custom spice blends made for chefs like Eric Ripert, Daniel Boulud, and Ana Sortun. Consider it fairy dust for your cooking. In Northern California, San Francisco's pristine Spice Ace and Oakland's funky Oaktown Spice Shop are our preferred summer sanctuaries; in Los Angeles, hit up The Spice Way LA in Studio City for a sensory vacation. Spice House in Chicago is a beloved, brick-walled storefront in Old City.