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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A word about spices

A picture of long pepper, one of the spices
traded by the seaport of Broach from
India to the Roman Empire.  It looks
like odd pine cones, but smells and
tastes better.  Trust me.
Yesterday a second box of spices arrived in the mail, this one from Penzeys.  I made room for them in my newly organized spice drawers and basked in the glory.  And then I remembered all my friends who don't own many spices and I felt a bit sad.  So, I thought I'd write about spices here.  As an archaeologist I feel well qualified to write about the history of the spice trade.

When people think of the spice trade they think of colonialism and more specifically the British Empire.  However, the spice trade has much deeper roots than that.  For thousands of years people have wanted tasty food.  Do you blame them?  Why have bland mutton stew when you can have tasty mutton stew?  To be completely self serving and insert a bit of academe into here, I'm currently working on an article talking about the interactions of hunter-gatherers with agriculturalists.  But the following bit talks about the spice trade.

"The ancient seaport of Broach linked India to the outside world starting from the 1st century A.D.  Despite its relative inaccessibility, the preponderance of material wealth from this port shows that merchants braved the shoals and difficult currents to have access to the Indian interior and the lucrative position of supplying material wealth to distant states.  Many products, such as spices (e.g. nard, spikenard, costus, longpepper) were supplied to Broach during the first to fifth centuries A.D and were probably gathered by Indian hunter-gatherers (see Stiles, 1993 for more info)."  (from as of yet unpublished Crabtree, Stefani publication).  

So, from this we gather that Rome was venturing to India to get things to make tasty food!  Spices were so valued from then on that in the French court in the middle ages you could seduce someone with pepper; indeed pepper weighed more ounce per ounce than gold.  People killed and died for spices.  And of course, let's not forget our buddy Christopher Columbus who was trying to find a passage to India not for gold and silver but for spices.  (If you want to read a good novelization of the spice industry, The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie will do well).

So, we have at least 2,000 years of history (there are many many more years of history, dating back back back to Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Chinese etc) here riding on our shoulders of our ancestors going to all lengths for tasty food.  So why then do so many people own three "spices:" iodized salt, lawrey's season salt and some lemon pepper (and if they're being adventurous some dried parsley)?

I think they just don't know about spices and are afraid to experiment.  Also, how intimidating is a grocery store spice aisle?  First of all, it's put right next to the canned frosting.  I avoid this aisle like the plague.  I have a weakness for rainbow chip frosting and I try to not buy it.  Also, the aisle smells like canned frosting.  This is a very odd smell.  It's a blend of high fructose corn syrup, red dye #40 and failure.  So while you're trying to imagine what will really bring out the flavors of that juicy rib eye you just bought you're smelling a nightmare.  No wonder you can't quite picture it!  Finally, spices in the supermarket are expensive.  I almost choked once when I popped over to the supermarket because I ran out of something and found that the store brand of it was $12.  I'm sorry, TWELVE freaking DOLLARS?!?!  It's ridiculous.  

Thankfully I lived in Boulder the last few years so I got to learn about the glory of Savory Spice Shop. I remember the day it opened and how excited I was!  This place is a friendly, inviting space.  When it first opened I was broke; my then-roommate (amazing chef Susanna Minichiello) and I would go smell (and taste!) the spices and we wouldn't get kicked out!  It smells like the best restaurant you've ever been to.  They get fresh ingredients, grind their spices daily and blend things by hand.  The proprietor in the Boulder shop looked exactly like Judge Reinhold (I find that comforting) and is the nicest, chillest man alive.  I'm pretty sure he is the chillest man in Boulder who does not run one of the now-ubiquitous "Medical" marijuana stores.  

So, best of all, the spices there are less expensive than at the supermarket.  By a lot in many cases.  Sure, some things are more expensive (fancy cinnamon at Savory versus a giant plastic canister of cinnamon that was ground by child labor in 1972 that you can buy at your local supermarket) but by and large you're going to save money.  Why?  The spices you buy there are fresh so you don't need to use as much--a little can go a looooong way in flavoring food.  Also, that's all they sell (well, and a few spice related gadgets).  Specializing can be an optimal way of doing things, minimizing costs by increasing efficiency (yes, for you anthro geeks, I definitely just wrote about Optimal Foraging Theory here).

True, when I go in I spend $50 on spices, but that's because I write a list and buy everything at once.  Also true, you are more likely to notice spending $50 on spices when you go there because that's all you buy.  When you go to the supermarket and are buying $150 of groceries and $50 worth of crappy spices you won't notice because it's in the rest of your gargantuan bill.

Moral of the story: buy good spices.  Your ancestors will thank you.

So where to buy them?  Well, like I said, I love Savory Spice Shop, but there are others that I frequent as well.  I recently began a love affair with Penzeys; I don't like their Boulder store layout as much as Savory (and their sales clerks don't look like 1980's heart-throbs), but their spices are absolutely top-notch, they are a tried and true company and I buy their spices frequently (as is evidenced by the package I just got from them).  I will have links to all of these at the bottom.  I also recently discovered the Milford Spice Company.  I am very impressed with their blends!  And when I go to Seattle I go to the World Spice Merchants (I don't like how they package their spices though, and transfer them as soon as possible to glass jars).  I'm picky.

Readers: do you have some favorite spice shops I should try out?

Also, I just figured out how to see the "stats" of who has viewed my blog.  300 views yesterday (and that's not counting me)!  I hope you are enjoying it.  I just fixed the "comment" box so that anyone can comment (including anonymous readers) so feel free to post.

So, the spice shops:

I hope this brings a little spice into your life!  Hahaha!  Pun definitely intended!


  1. And don't forget fresh spices from the farmers market or ones yard/kitchen . . .

  2. I LOOOVE Penzys! Discovered them when we lived in Scottsdale and we just discovered on here on the way to the beach! I wish I knew more about spices and their uses but I haven't ventured there quite yet. I have a pretty good collection but to me they are all just your run of the mill spices, I tend to lean to the italian ones. Love the history lesson! Thank you! I want to know more. Your work fascinates me, being the out of commission history geek at heart. Awesome post! Thank you! And I will look into your other links as well :)

  3. What a fun concept to link your two interests and give more context to our eating too. -Susanna

  4. Stefani,
    You are a doll! Thanks so much for the kind words about Savory Spice Shop, it is so appreciated. So, the eighties hearthrob must be Dan at Boulder. You probably have made his day!
    Thanks again and thanks for your business,

    Janet C. Johnston, Founder
    Savory Spice Shop
    2650 W. Main St.
    Littleton, CO 80120
    (720) 283-2232