#7: The Singe of Cinnamon

Cinnamon-oh-min-oh-my!  That was a working title for this blog post.  I’m still unsure as to which title is better.  Oh well.  Welcome one and all to another action packed post of United Tastes of Erica!  ‘Tis that time of year, once again, when leaves change colors and stores bombard us with whiffs of pine, pumpkin, and cloves. But what would a seasonal bouquet be without a few sticks of this week’s topic?  Let us dive into the number one autumnal odorant extraordinaire, Cinnamon!

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The. Singe. Of. Cinnamon.

So, what is cinnamon exactly?  UrbanDictionary.com defines cinnamon as “The equivalent to a ginger, just more attractive and usually has a soul. Commonly found in the North Eastern part of the United States and Western Canada. Freckles are prominent and usually in large numbers. Some cinnamons are found wearing obscene clothing, beware. Large families are usually together in one area of the country of this breed.  Differences between the two are skin tones, which are usually a shade darker than most gingers and the cinnamons are more aesthetically pleasing.”  Well, there you go.  Wait, wait, my producers are informing me that UrbanDictionary is NOT a credible source.  In that case, off to Wiki!  *insert superman emoji here*

Cinnamon is a pungent bark harvested from the inner layers of Cinnamomum trees So cinnamon sticks are really just thin tubes of tree bark that you can grind up and use as a spice.  Isn’t life strange?  Cinnamomum trees grow in the Indies and Southern Asia, also known as The Magical Lands Where All Good Things Grow.  I mean, seriously, is it just me or do all of our spices come from here? (flashback to posts #3: Black Pepper, #4: Sriracha, and #6: Green Tea)  The top 5 producers of cinnamon are Indonesia, China, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Madagascar.  There growers peel off layers of the inner bark, process it quickly to prevent microbial growth, and let it dry.  The rolled appearance of cinnamon sticks is a natural occurrence from the structure of cellulose.  One fun fact that I stumbled upon while doing serious internet research (read: Googled for 30 minutes) is that there are two spices sold as “cinnamon” in the United States.  Cassia cinnamon is the more common variety, with a darker color and more pungent taste.  When you buy cinnamon in the grocery store, this is what you are getting.  True cinnamon or Ceylon cinnamon runs for a higher price due to it’s rarity.  It is light color and more delicate flavor than cassia.  They have different flavor profiles and appearances when rolled.  Know your cinnamons.  Don’t be a fool.

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History. Shmistory.

Cinnamon was a veteran player in the spice trade games.  The ancient world was OBSESSED with the stuff.  Chinese medicine men treated diseases with it in 4,000 BCE.  Egyptians used in in embalming recipes as far back as 2,000 BCE.   Greek Lesbian poet Sappho describes cassia in a 7th century BCE poem (hey girl… #callme).  Ancient classic rocker Neil Young wrote his hit single “Cinnamon Girl” circa 400 BCE (okay, I may be off by a few centuries with this one).  Cinnamon even makes seven appearances in The Bible.  HOLY SPIRITED TREE BARK BATMAN!  My favorite of these verses is from Proverbs:  “I have decked my couch with coverings, colored spreads of Egyptian linen; I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloes and cinnamon. Come, let us take our fill of love until morning; let us delight ourselves with love. (Pr. 7.16-18)”  Moral of the story? Put cinnamon on bed, get laid. #truth #2600yearsofhistorycan’tbewrong #singitNeil.

The origins of cinnamon were a mystery in the western world, brought to market by secretive Arab spice traders.  Christopher Columbus searched for it in the Americas (ASSHOLE); Gonzalo Pizarro of Spain sailed for it (couldn’t find it); Portuguese explorer Lourenço de Almeida finally hit the jack-pot by landing on Ceylon in the early 1500’s.  A custody battle between the Dutch and the Portuguese ensued shortly after, with a final resolution that Ceylon would spend holidays and every other weekend with Portugal.  By the 17th century cinnamon was the number one money making spice for the Dutch trading mogul, The Dutch East India Company.  Eventually the British Empire set their sights on the spice trade and massive wars were waged.  Gradually people stopped giving a shit and let McCormick have the island (Some of these facts may or may not be facts).

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I found this on deviant art by some guy named Jackosan. It is a mini house. Made of cinnamon sticks. My gingerbread house plans this year just got a whole lot spicier….

Jingle. All. The. Way.

When brainstorming marvelous topics for this week, one stood out as particularly confusing.  Why in the name of Saint Nick is cinnamon so fucking popular during Christmas time?  As soon as Labor Day passes the fall holidays are thrust upon us.  Pine makes scent sense because of Christmas trees and evergreen wreaths.  Cloves are often used in Thanksgiving hams and cookies.  Pumpkin has connections to Halloween hooligans and Turkey Day pie.  Despite these other fragrances, cinnamon has been ranked as the most “Winter-y” scent (read official scientific study here).  To my frustration little is written on cinnamon’s holiday origins.  Either no one has the answers or no one cares.  Well, I’ll give it my best shot.  One theory I have conjured relates to the antimicrobial properties of cinnamon.  Spices have long been used to prevent the growth of microorganisms.  Cinnamon contains high quantities of cinnamaldehyde, which has been shown to significantly reduce the growth of some pathogens, molds, and yeasts.  Cinnamaldehyde penetrates cell walls and cell membranes, while also damaging enzymes responsible for protein synthesis and DNA replication.  It was common practice in Europe to spice meats and sausages with cinnamon to increase the shelf life during cold months (once the price of cinnamon fell in the 18th century, that is).  Could this over-spicing during the fall and winter have led to a holiday association?  Perhaps. Whose to say.   Nowadays we know cinnamon as a key player in pumpkin pie, gingerbread, cinnamon rolls, and Yankee Candles.  God Bless America.

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Chemistry. Geek. Happy. Hour.

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For all my food chem geeks out there, check out this badass cinnamaldehyde hoodie available at YellowIbis.com (click photo for link)

Cinnamon is a pretty easy odor/flavor to replicate because of its chemistry.  About 90% of its characteristic smell comes from cinnamaldehyde, pictured in the awesome sweatshirt above.  Not many foods have a signature molecule that provides the majority of its profile.  By synthesizing cinnamaldehyde, flavor chemists can produce pretty believable cinnamon counterparts.  Real cinnamon extract has other molecules too, such as ethyl cinnamate (fruity, strawberry, and balsamic), methyl cinnamate (ginger), borneol (woody, rosemary, savory), coumarin (vanilla), benzaldlhyde (almonds), eugenyl acetate (anise, cloves, basil), and dihydrocapsaicin (chili burn).  A growing field in food science is the pairing of food and wine based on flavor chemistry.  One of my favorite books delves into such combinations in detail. Taste Bud Molecules by Francois Chartier provides hundreds of recipe ideas and food combinations based on shared organic molecules.  I can tell you from experience that they WORK.  I use his book constantly to create new dishes with complementary profiles (preview the book on Google books here).  The complexity of cinnamon’s natural components makes it a versatile spice.  Just how versatile? Well, it is internationally known.  Europe spices jams and drinks with it, the Middle East marinades meats in tanjine and curry with it, and Asia dusts poultry, pork, and tea with it.

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Cinnamon around the world. And yes, I made this graphic.  Paint skills ftw.

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The. Cinnamon. Challenge.

No, I have not done the cinnamon challenge.  No, I am not planning on ever attempting said challenge.  For those of you living under a rock since 2006, the cinnamon challenge is a viral internet phenomenon.  The rules vary, but the most common version has a victim putting 1 tablespoon of cinnamon in their mouth and attempting to swallow it (without water) in under 60 seconds.  Practically no one completes the challenge – more often the victim starts coughing, sending cinnamon clouds billowing.  Occasionally the person even vomits from gagging.  YouTube was flooded with the filmed attempts.  It occurred to me that taking the challenge myself would boost blog views, but would also propagate what I call “painful food play” (No, this is not a porn fetish.  Wait… it actually might be,,, don’t Google it).  I refuse to participate in events that turn food into torture.  Eating is a sacred act that I take seriously.  No ghost peppers will enter my temple.  Nor will 40 hot dogs be crammed into my stomach to gain fame.  Keep your 2 lbs. burgers for another reckless youth.  I take food seriously.  So I have done the next best thing – I found someone who HAS completed the cinnamon challenge.  As a special treat for you, my dear readers, I present a one-on-one exclusive interview with a Cinnamon Challenge Survivor.  Let’s call her “E.”  E was kind enough to spare a few moments with me to rehash her near death experience with the killer tree bark.  E attempted the Cinnamon Challenge a few years ago and failed, but would not be beaten.  She successfully completed the challenge on her second attempt.  Not many have lived to tell the tale, so I was grateful for the opportunity to pick her cinnamon soaked brain:

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Exclusive United Tastes of Erica Interview with a Cinnamon Challenge Survivor

UToE:  So E, what were the first things that ran through your head when you put the cinnamon in your mouth?

E: Um. Probably “oh…oh god my lungs hate me.” Then I coughed a lot

UToE:  Was it the spice or the dryness that really put you in hell?

E:  Let me try to recall how I felt… The dryness. It like absorbs all your saliva then your mouth is like the Sahara and when you try to talk dust flies out like you’ve been in a grave for a million years.

UToE:  Ooooo a la Billy from Hocus Pocus?

E:  Essentially ya

UToE:  Do you ever have trauma flashbacks when attempting to consume cinnamon products in the present?

E:  I don’t eat a lot of cinnamon on a daily basis but every now and then I’ll inhale right before I take a bite of a cinnamon roll and panic ensues.

UToE:  What made you retake the challenge a second time?

E:  I wanted to conquer it.  And when I want something, I get it.

UToE:  And finally, would you recommend the cinnamon challenge to friends and family? Why or why not?

E:  No definitely not. Unless they were an acquaintance who I didn’t really care about. It could fuck up your lungs and shit.

E is correct about the dangers of the challenge.  The risks involved stem from possible inhalation of spice.  If cinnamon enters the lungs or lower wind pipe infection and inflammation will follow.  This inflammation can grow into pneumonia or a collapsed lung. WHOA. Hardcore dangers.  So why do people inhale?  The spice is tree bark, which is high in cellulose and hydrophobic.  The body reacts to a mouthful of cinnamon much like if the person was drowning.  The gasping is caused by a central nervous system reaction that is difficult to control.  In summary, I would not attempt it.  But if you do, feel free to post the video link on my blog.  Some of them can be freaking hilarious.

Down. Memory. Lane.

When I was a youngin’ I HATED cinnamon candies.  I had a burning disdain for the burning abominations in my mixed grab bags.  Those bright red fuckers spiced all my precious Hershey’s kisses into inedible junk and reeked up a storm.  Hot tamales, red hots, and hard candies were bad enough, but nothing sucked worse than Wrigley’s BIG RED.  Why in the name of God was this gum so popular?  To answer this, I give you a trip down memory lane (please try to ignore the sweet, sweet heteronormativity.  Apparently people weren’t gay back then.  George Michael and Freddy Mercury were just really stylish…)

The 1980’s hit jingle that haunts us in our sleep

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This rockin’ gem of 1990’s cable

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Ne-Yo’s hip 2008 remake, because wishes do come true

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After viewing those masterpieces of television advertising, what do you think?  Show your loyalty to your favorite by voting in my fancy blog poll.

To be fair, I had never actually TRIED Big Red gum… But I knew I would have hated it.  This past spring I had my first piece during a sensory lecture and it wasn’t half bad.  I actually sort of enjoyed it.  I purchased another pack for intense blog field research and have been chewing it all week.  It turns out that this stuff is pretty great – no wonder it has been flying off shelves since its creation in 1976.  Another childhood favorite is cinnamon toast crunch.  Did anyone eat this stuff?  I did not, as I was obviously a ridiculously fussy gremlin spawn.   More recently on the market is Snickerdoodle Ice Cream Sandwiches by Skinny Cow.  These things are life-changingly good, with cinnamon ice cream smashed between two oatmeal cookies.  I had one for breakfast yesterday.  #noshame.  Speaking of delicious foods with cinnamon….

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Life. Changing. Recipes.

This first dish was one I made in high school after watching an episode of Everyday Italian (#heyGiardia #callme).  I have tweaked it over the years and consider it my own, but props to the original inspiration.  The pancetta and parmesan showcase cinnamon as a savory star.

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Cinnamon Pancetta Carbonara. Click photo for link.

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The next recipe is a playful snack for my less ambitious readers.  I’m not always so gourmet you know!  I took the flavors of a s’more and turned it into a party mix, with a nutty cinnamon twist.  Add a mason jar, festive fabric, and cinnamon stick for a great homemade gift.

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Cinnamon Campfire Party Mix. Click photo for link.

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My favorite recipe of the week is my take on a carnival must-have.  I wanted to create a less sweet, more refined Monkey Bread.  Is that even possible?  Make it for yourself and you be the judge.

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Monkey Bread with Pears, Dried Cranberries, and Balsamic

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Au. Revoir. Mon. Amis.

This has been fun.  A big shout out to my poppa and sister for their help with photos.  Many thanks to my momma and assistant C for their recipe brainstorming and taste-testing.  And of course thank you to my new followers on The Facebook!  We are up to over 200 likes, so that is pretty cool.  Jump on the bandwagon here. Everyone is doing it. You know you want it.

Tune in next week when I tackle my favorite condiment, mayonnaise.  Expect an emphasis on emulsifier science and nutrition know-how.  Along with some serious noms.

Until next time, Bon App Y’all.

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Sources de la Info

The All-Mighty Wiki

The History Channel

how stuff works: cinnamon

amazing global agriculture data source

more on cassia vs. ceylon

Research paper on seasonal scents

Cinnamon challenge science

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3 thoughts on “#7: The Singe of Cinnamon

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