“I’ve always been interested in geography,” Al says.
Al grew up in Maryland, near the Atlantic coast. He spent much of his childhood fishing and crabbing with his family on the Chesapeake Bay. “I was always fascinated [with the outdoors]. I loved to fish, and in order to know where the crabs were, I had to understand all the little creeks and coves and all the depths and . . . tidal movements,” he explains.
Al attended Cornell University in New York, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in agricultural economics. However, his interest in skiing, not agriculture, led him to his first job: “I went up to Vermont and got a ski patrol job up on one of the mountains.”
Al then began working for his family’s meat-packing business, Goetze’s Meats, a now-defunct Baltimore institution. There, Al learned about spices. “They use a lot of spices in meat manufacturing. Paprika is used in coloring sausages and frankfurters, and cloves are used in curing hams.”
Today, Al works for McCormick & Company, the largest spice company in the world. Like Goetze’s Meats, McCormick was a Baltimore institution. Today, the company has its headquarters north of the city, in Sparks, Maryland.
Al is responsible for all of McCormick’s foreign-sourced spices and herbs. He and his team are in constant contact with farmers and local distributors in more than 40 countries, often in the developing world.
In order to locate and purchase the most fragrant spices, Al frequently travels to learn the conditions of the market and the farms, and to ensure the quality of the spices. Many spices are grown and harvested in tropical climates, and Al has visited such diverse farming areas as Madagascar, Indonesia, China, and the Middle East.
MOST EXCITING PART OF YOUR WORK
“We get to see the real country,” Al says, “which is really fascinating. Most of these places are absolutely gorgeous . . . absolutely incredible.”
Al also enjoys the adventure of native cuisine. “I really enjoy the culture of the foods. I’m always experimenting. I can remember my early trips to China, we’d go to huge meals with 12 people around the table,” he says. “There’d be dishes on top of dishes. . . . I didn’t recognize a single thing on the table . . . and no one was going eat a thing until I tested everything.”
“Everything” included foods such as camel hooves, cobra blood, and fried scorpions.
“They actually don’t taste bad,” Al says of scorpion—so long as you watch out for the stinger before eating one.
MOST DEMANDING PART OF YOUR WORK
Traveling is not for everyone, Al says. “You have to be careful where you’re going—you can’t just go anyplace, and you have to do some research ahead of time.”
On a trip to central Java, Indonesia, last year, Al felt earthquakes as Mount Merapi, a volcano, erupted less than 32 kilometers (20 miles) away.
Determining the economic market for spices can also be demanding. “The other thing that can be nerve-wracking can be . . . trying to estimate where the market’s going to be [and when to react].”
HOW DO YOU DEFINE GEOGRAPHY?
“Geography is all about the world we live in and all the features of [the planet] that we’re on. I look at it [as everything] from the tops of the mountains all the way to the bottoms of the seas, and everything in between. . . . Lump it all together.”
Al’s position requires him to look into both physical geography and human geography. Familiarity with other cultures is a necessity in the spice trade, an industry that goes back thousands of years—often in the same spots that Al works in today. “I like to look at what I’m doing as the next chapter in the long history of the spice industry,” he says.
“We take in various aspects of the spice commodity itself. From the spice market to the geographic side . . . weather is probably one of the most important variables,” Al says.
Each day he studies the weather of the Eastern and Western Hemispheres. Then he communicates with local farmers, businesses, and customers. This helps him develop a clearer idea of weather patterns and market conditions, and gain an understanding of each area’s spice production.
SO, YOU WANT TO BE A . . . SPICE TRADER
A love of travel and different cultures is a must, Al insists.
Academically, Al encourages pursuing a degree in agricultural economics. It will prepare you for both areas of the spice trade—the business side and the agricultural side.
Al encourages those interested in international trade to spend time overseas, where you can learn about different markets and cultures. A colleague of Al’s got his foot in the door through serving in the Peace Corps. He made strong contacts through the experience, and is now “an instrumental co-worker” in Indonesia.
Bland Indian Food?!
Indian food, perhaps best known for its startling ability to scorch the taste buds of unassuming Western diners, has not always been so fiery. Portuguese spice traders took capsicum seeds to India sometime in the 16th century. Prior to that, the spice was only known in the Caribbean and Central America. Today, India is the largest producer of red peppers in the world, manufacturing 1.2 million tons of dried chilies annually.
Loads of Cloves
Most of the worlds cloves produced today are used in the production of kretekIndonesian cigarettes.
Arabs often add ground cardamom to their coffee to make gahwa, a strong, floral drink and a symbol of hospitality to guests.
the art and science of cultivating land for growing crops (farming) or raising livestock (ranching).
all weather conditions for a given location over a period of time.
dried flower of a tropical evergreen tree, used as a spice.
edge of land along the sea or other large body of water.
a coworker or partner.
a good or service that can be sold or traded.
small inlet or bay in a larger body of water.
flowing body of water that is smaller than a river.
a style of cooking.
learned behavior of people, including their languages, belief systems, social structures, institutions, and material goods.
to preserve meats by using salts, sugars, spices, and smoking.
consumer, or someone who buys something.
no longer in service.
nations with low per-capita income, little infrastructure, and a small middle class.
varied or having many different types.
having to do with money.
to explode or suddenly eject material.
to guess based on knowledge of the situation or object.
person who cultivates land and raises crops.
to cause an interest in.
material, usually of plant or animal origin, that living organisms use to obtain nutrients.
study of places and the relationships between people and their environments.
the gathering and collection of crops, including both plants and animals.
place where an organization or project is chiefly located.
half of a sphere, or ball-shaped object.
type of seasonal plant often used as a medicine or seasoning.
the study of the way human communities and systems interact with their environment.
activity that produces goods and services.
production of goods or products in a factory.
central place for the sale of goods.
animal flesh eaten as food.
something that is needed.
exhausting or scary.
red, powdery spice derived from dried peppers.
organization that sends volunters to underdeveloped countries to work with industrial, agricultural, educational, and health programs.
study of the natural features and processes of the Earth.
art and sport of gliding across snow on long, narrow boards strapped to the bottom of the athlete's feet.
group, often organized by local industry, that provides emergency rescue and medical services to skiers and other people trapped in mountains or back-country areas who are unable to seek help.
tasty and aromatic plant substances used in cooking.
rise and fall of the ocean's waters, caused by the gravitational pull of the moon and sun.
buying, selling, or exchanging of goods and services.
movement from one place to another.
existing in the tropics, the latitudes between the Tropic of Cancer in the north and the Tropic of Capricorn in the south.
piece of data that can change.
an opening in the Earth's crust, through which lava, ash, and gases erupt, and also the cone built by eruptions.
state of the atmosphere, including temperature, atmospheric pressure, wind, humidity, precipitation, and cloudiness.
repeating or predictable changes in the Earth's atmosphere, such as winds, precipitation, and temperatures.