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Here's the rub: A blend of seasoning shops in Boulder could get spicy

When you teach a writing class focused on food — as I did at the University of Colorado for almost a decade — you run into a lot of young food fanatics. And I noticed an interesting phenomenon among them. At first, students enrolled because the class sounded easy (easier, say, than "Postmodern Gothic"), but over the years, more and more of them were turning up because they had spent time overseas — a semester in Italy, volunteer work in Latin America, a vacation with parents in France, a trek in the East — and at some point in the trip had come to a startling realization: They had never tasted food before. Not really. The stuff they'd grown up eating — fast, frozen, supermarket tasteless — simply wasn't food. Cultural, historical and anthropological insights followed, and they began to ponder why we as a culture are so food-illiterate. But the jolt that started all of this was simple astonishment. Who could have known that food — not just food in fancy restaurants, but ordinary daily things like bread, tomatoes, cheese and strawberries — could taste so good? Who knew that when an Italian said pizza, he was thinking of a thin, crackling crust, sun-warmed slices of tomato rather than paste-thick sauce, and blobs of dizzyingly fresh bufala mozzarella? Or that there were dishes like the paella of Spain, for which tomatoes were grated rather than chopped, and that was taught over generations, from mother to daughter? One student wrote about the thrill of finally being trusted to prepare paella for the family with whom she stayed — but only after many days of affectionate tutelage. Other students wrote about street food, fresh fish eaten dockside and, oh, those Italian figs.

What was happening in the classroom was happening around the country, and it didn't take long for awareness to spread to another essential element of cuisine: spices. Here and there, someone stumbled onto a small shop run by an aficionado in a hidden corner of a city, or visited an Eastern market, or a Mexican shop, and with the first whiff understood why sixteenth-century sailors took to the seas, braving sickness, hunger, wind and storm, mountainous waves, in search of spices. Why Europe was so insatiably hungry for pepper, nutmeg and cloves that these substances were worth more than gold. And why people once thought spices were either divine or the work of the Devil, and used them in great feasts, religious rituals, to embalm their dead, and as a metaphor for things incomprehensibly beautiful and sensual.

Many years ago, then-Westword reviewer John Kessler mentioned Penzeys spices in one of his articles, and I promptly sent away for a catalogue and ordered pepper, cinnamon, cumin and a whole bunch of things I'd never known existed: ajwain from Pakistan, Syrian sumac berries, black cumin from India (an admission: Many of these things went stale on the shelf because I'd no idea how to use them). It was a thrill getting the Penzeys package in the mail, and the outfit always slipped in an unexpected little present — cinnamon sticks, or a jar of celery salt. My husband could never understand why I went to all this trouble when there were perfectly good spices in the supermarket, so I finally forced him into a sniff test: a tin of faded red supermarket powder versus Penzeys' Vietnamese Cassia. Oh, he said, as the rich, sweet fullness of the latter hit his nose, and he never quibbled again.

Mike and Janet Johnston started Savory Spice in 2004.
Mark Manger
Mike and Janet Johnston started Savory Spice in 2004.

Penzeys began as a small shop in Wauwatosa, a town outside Milwaukee, called the Spice House, which was owned by Ruth and Bill Penzey. "They had their home on the street just behind the shop," says Barb Heinen, who used to live in that town. "I always had the sense that they were really hippies at heart. They had that laid-back look, and they would give you all day if you wanted it." As she remembers an early visit: "We had just moved back to the States from Paris, we were expecting a baby, and in the midst of a remodel, I was trying to get the shopping done and not in the perfect spirit. I go running into the store to pick up a couple of things, and Ruth said, 'Everybody has to stop and come outside with us. We're going to gather around and dedicate the saffron plants; we've written a song; we have a lute player.' It was so at odds with how I was feeling that I burst out laughing. It was just beautiful. That's them in a nutshell."

Son Bill Penzey spent his youth working in the store, but he was made of more businesslike stuff. In 1986, he launched a venture of his own, beginning with a mail-order catalogue — which now has hundreds of thousands of customers — and attempting a homey magazine called One, which never succeeded. But in the last decade, the company's outlet stores have been proliferating throughout the country, with 46 of them either open or about to open in over twenty states. At this point, Penzeys is worth many millions of dollars.

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