I wouldn't say that I had a tough life, just not the norm, and certainly not ordinary. I was raised with rather unusual cultural circumstances. Circumstance that I’m much more appreciative of now. My half Dutch-half American Indian mother, who was a foster child for a while after her mother died, ended up reunited with her Dutch father who married into a Mexican household that consisted of a huge family of fourteen. She grew up, married and had two kids. Then I grew up learning about my mom’s American Indian ancestors, my Opa’s Dutch customs, and often replying in Spanglish to my Abuela. It was an interesting environment. But this was my family. Years later after splitting with my birth father, my momma remarried into a Japanese American family. Whoa! A new language was introduced and with that there was new traditions, new kinds of foods, and new kinds of spices. We ate octopus. And lots of seaweed. And I always got Botan rice candies. I would dress up in my hard wooden Dutch clogs and dance the The Chicken Dance. And Lil’ Dutch Maid Almond Windmill cookies were a staple. There was tamales and homemade tortillas and albondigas. And there was always Té de canela. Good food, good people- interesting life.
But as I grew older, I started wondering if there was common ground between all these different cultures, ideals, and even foods I’d experienced growing up. I wanted to find myself within all the weirdness. I wanted to find something that made sense and was permanent. And it was cinnamon. Meals, desserts, drinks, holidays, it didn't matter who was in the kitchen, or which kitchen I was in, cinnamon always felt a part of it.
Cinnamon is universal and comes in many names. In Spanish it’s canela. The Dutch say Kaneel. Shinamon was how my Japanese step-grandma Toyo said it. But it was all the same; sweet, spicy, warming, comforting. And it is the smell that will always be home to me were ever I roam-whether in tea, some kind of bean paste, or those traditional holiday Speculaas cookies.
And as I’ve grown and studied, I’ve found that more ties together the culinary world of the cinnamon that I know and love with the tie that has always existed within different cultures around the world. History goes, that in the early 1500’s the Portuguese traders discovered cinnamon, the little evergreen tree native to Ceylon, and conquered its island kingdom, enslaving the people and taking control of the cinnamon trade for almost a century. Eventually the Ceylon kingdom allied with the Dutch in the mid 1600’s and overthrew the Portuguese occupiers. The Dutch defeated the Portuguese but held the Ceylon kingdom in their debt for their military services. So once again, Ceylon was occupied by European traders handing the cinnamon monopoly over to the Dutch for the next 150 years. Ceylon then was taken over by the British in the late 1700’s after their victory in the Anglo-Dutch War, but by early 1800, cinnamon was no longer an expensive and rare commodity as it had begun to be cultivated in other parts of the world, and other delicacies such as chocolate and cassia began to rival it in popularity.