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Cardamom in the Chemistry Lab

Posted Jan 27 2009 8:20pm

I just read Ambrosia and Nectar’s wonderful post about carrot and cardamom mash, which reminded me of one of my favorite stories from college, which happens, yes, to involve cardamom…

The story occurred during the semester I was taking Organic Chemistry, along with 40 or so other students who all (myself included) spent the final month of the semester living in the organic chemistry lab in total terror while trying to identify two unknown compounds (our laboratory final exam). The process, of course, involved a battery of tests and spectroscopy, but we all hoped to be fortunate enough to be assigned a compound that came with a ‘physical hint’ of some form – like the bit of liquid in the test tube Andrew received, which immediately diffused an intensely foul reek throughout the entire lab. The rest of us were less than pleased, but Andrew was delighted – “It’s sulfur! I have a sulfur-containing compound!”

Anyway, I was taking a much-needed break from the windowless four walls of the lab, pouring over my notes outside on a fresh spring day, when my studying was arrested by the sound of my name at shouted volume. I looked up to see my friend and classmate, Ryan, running towards me at top speed across the campus, carrying something carefully in his hand. “I know what my compound is!” Ryan proclaimed. (By now, the entire campus also knew that Ryan knew what his compound was). “I know what it is! Smell it! Smell it! What does it smell like?” I took the test tube, wafted it before my nose, and sure enough, the brown powder within bore a distinct scent of cardamom seeds. I looked at Ryan quizzically: “Cardamom? Is it cardamom?” “Yes!” Ryan replied, yelling again – “and I had to ask you because you were the only person I knew who cooked!”

Unfortunately for the story, his compound didn’t turn out to be cardamom after all (despite our momentary euphoria, we were both eventually slightly suspicious of the notion that our professors had really given Ryan a spice for his compound when the rest of us has substances like 3-methyl benzanol), but regardless I will never forget Ryan’s cardamom-inspired flight across campus. Ah, the magic of food, and the sensory memories it invokes – even in a college chemistry lab.
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