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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.
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.
And now Penzeys has come to Colorado, with a store it opened in Littleton in 2009, another one that opened in Arvada earlier this year, and an outlet on the verge of opening on Boulder's Pearl Street Mall. There's just one problem: Colorado has had its own homegrown spice purveyors since 2004, when Mike and Janet Johnston opened Savory Spice on Platte Street. They soon acquired a host of devoted customers, and more stores followed: at Lowry, in Littleton and Colorado Springs, and in Boulder, where partner Dan Hayward opened the shop in 2008, just a block and a half from where Penzeys now plans to open its own. But the Johnstons, too, have bigger ideas: They're franchising the Savory Spice concept and taking it national, with shops in Texas, North Carolina and California.
Mike Johnston, who started out in the fine arts, learned the trade at another Penzeys-connected spice shop, the Spice House in Chicago, owned by Bill Penzey's sister and brother-in-law, Patty and Tom Erd. "Even though the job paid only $8 an hour, I instantly found it satisfying," he says. "The act of blending spices and watching the different-colored ingredients meld into a new color was similar to painting, in a way, and the grinding of cinnamon sticks through essentially a wood chipper made the job pretty manly, too!" He grew intoxicated with spices, and he and Janet — who had absorbed her husband's love of food and cooking — decided to open a shop of their own. After some consideration, they chose Denver as the location. Savory Spice carries extracts, dried herbs, all kinds of spices (including several varieties of pepper and cinnamon), whole nutmegs, black garlic, a large and continually growing selection of curry blends, and many gourmet salts.
In the sixteenth century, Portuguese traders routinely seized and hanged Muslim spice merchants; in turn, the traders suffered continual challenge by the Spanish for control of the spice trade. Later, the battle was between the Dutch and the English, with Dutch merchants in 1623 torturing and murdering Englishmen on the island of Ambon in the Moluccas for cloves. Contemporary spice wars involve no bloodshed, but they can be almost as savage.
In April, the Milwaukee Journal ran an article about a new Food Network show called Spice & Easy, to be hosted by Janet Johnston: She and Savory Spice had been discovered when the stars of Road Tested visited Denver. A day later, an article about Spice & Easy appeared in the Denver Post, dubbing the Johnstons "Denver's new TV kitchen stars." Two days after that, Bill Penzey sent out an extraordinary e-mail to Penzey customers in the area. He spoke of his excitement about the pending move to Colorado, but added, "I also understand that there is another company that sells spices in the Denver area, and with our opening in Boulder and Colorado Springs, there have been negative statements made about Penzeys, about me, and about my motivations for coming to the area. That I am doing this because I want to be the 'Wal-mart of Spices'.... The fact is this 'Denver' business was started in Chicago in the middle of the night when its founder used his key, took Patty and Tom's blend book to Kinko's, and photocopied the entire thing." Penzey also mentions a lawsuit, now settled, and contends that Johnston got the idea for a Denver store from a contest sponsored by Penzeys asking customers where they would most like to see a shop located.
Mike Johnston confirms that a lawsuit with the Spice House was settled six years ago "amicably and confidentially," but will not comment directly on Penzey's accusations other than to say, "We are certainly disappointed that this is the way he has chosen to compete with us." He adds, "The seasonings we sell are created by us. They are our recipes, and we stand by them." As for the contest, Savory Spice was registered with the Colorado Secretary of State a few months before Penzey printed its catalogue questionnaire and long before the results came in.
Whatever Bill Penzey's reasons for locating in Colorado, this is not the first time he has moved into territory where a thriving spice shop already existed. An article in the Chicago Tribune in 1999 announced, "The spice wars are about to break out in Chicago," and described plans for a Penzeys in Naperville. The Tribune quoted Patty Erd about those plans: "I actually feel terrible about it.... My brother has an $8 million-a-year business, and we have two little stores. It was kind of an unspoken agreement he would stay away from Chicago." A month or so ago, a Penzeys opened in Winter Park, Florida, down the street from a year-old Spice and Tea Exchange franchise.
"Penzeys Spices has every right to sell their product anywhere they see fit, as does anyone who is in the business of selling spices," says Janet Johnston. "We were, of course, very worried when they opened a shop a block and a half from our shop on Main Street in Littleton after we had been open for three years. But since then, our business has never been better. Between the support of the local merchants on the street and our dedicated customers, our sales were up close to 21 percent last year and are up over 25 percent this year. My mother told me when they first moved in that competition is good; it's like when they put more than one gas station on an intersection."
It's a long way from the legendary sources of spices to the Johnstons' bright, well-appointed kitchen, where the six episodes of Spice & Easy were shot (the Johnstons are waiting to hear if more will be ordered). On the screen, Janet Johnston adds zip to everyday foods — ribs, mac and cheese, fries — through an expert use of spices. She puts wasabi in her slaw and cumin in her burgers, curries her fritters and adds real vanilla-bean seeds to a strawberry milkshake. Along the way, she imparts a fair amount of information about spices — but more important, she demystifies their use and shows how a teaspoon or two, or an unexpected combination, can bring a dish alive. I've used cinnamon forever, of course, but it had never occurred to me that five-spice powder might be a good companion for it before seeing the show. It doesn't hurt that Johnston is a beautiful woman, and clearly and sensually in love with food: She's unafraid to hoist a dripping burger to her lips or — after an ironic "Oops" — to rapidly consume chocolate chips accidentally dropped on the counter. She has a sense of humor, too, which I hope will get more play if Spice & Easy is renewed. And she's so damn happy in the kitchen. "See," she croons, regarding one of her finished creations, "I told you. I told you how pretty it is."
Spices have been domesticated. You no longer have to seek them out in dusty little emporia known only to the cognoscenti; tastes you savored in foreign places are now available here. It's no surprise that sellers should wish to expand their markets: Spices aren't that expensive, it takes a lot of volume to make a profit, and no matter how dedicated, the average home cook can only use so much pepper or nutmeg in a year. Which means you're unlikely to run into anything like Ruth and Bill Penzey's original Wauwatosa Spice House these days, and the aggressive tactics employed by chain stores and big boxes must surely be more and more tempting to sellers. Still. Set that aside. Compare the taste of cassia from China or Vietnam with that of true Ceylonese cinnamon. Watch a pinch of saffron turn your rice golden and inhale the scent. Place a whole star anise in the palm of your hand, consider the elegant shape, think about how it might taste with, say, apricots. And spare a grateful thought for the traders, both ancient and modern.