(This article appeared in the December 2002 issue of North Shore Magazine. Julia Child, mentioned in the story, was still alive and still ordering from The Spice House. The title I gave the story was “Always in Good Taste,” but it was run with the title “With a Hint of Spice.” For those of you who may not be in the Chicagoland area but who would like to take advantage of the glorious offerings of The Spice House, you can access their catalog at http://www.thespicehouse.com.)
The heady fragrance of black pepper and cinnamon began to tease my senses while I was still a block from the store. As I entered the attractive Evanston shop, a rich, almost intoxicating blend of aromas enveloped me, drawing me into the warm, woody interior, towards the walls and shelves of jars filled with tantalizing delights from the four corners of the earth. Before me was an astonishing array of lovingly prepared, freshly ground herbs and spices—from ajowan seed to za’atar, and everything in between. No wonder Julia Child loves this place.
The Spice House, owned by Tom and Patty Erd, is a second-generation, family-run business that has as its chief goal offering simply the best herbs and spices available. Fortunately, you don’t have to be Julia Child to have access to this level of quality. While numerous top chefs and food experts do shop there, the doors (and web site) of the Spice House are open to all.
The Spice House was founded in Milwaukee in 1957 by Patty Erd’s parents, Ruth and Bill Penzey, Sr. They had worked for a local food company, but wanted to have their own business, so began delivering coffee and a few spices to local restaurants. In time, as the business grew, they decided to discontinue coffee and focus on herbs and spices.
Patty has been working in the trade since she was eight years old—she had to work weekends to get her allowance. Years later, when Tom Erd, a machinist, started dating Patty Penzey, he found himself spending a lot of time “working with his girl friend’s dad,” getting the hands-on training that would turn him, too, into an inveterate spice man. “Interestingly,” Tom notes, “though Patty has been doing this longer, I’m the more spice-oriented of the two. I do all the grinding, blending, and ordering. Patty is more on the administrative side of the business.”
Of course, that is not to say that Patty is not solidly involved in all aspects of the business. She explains that, “While I would be happy to be only an administrator, the most important thing we do to make our business successful is take care of the customers. That means I have to spend time in the shop, meeting customers, helping them, finding out what they want. Also, a shopkeeper’s personality is a big part of what keeps people coming back.” In addition, Patty writes the extensive catalog, which not only describes their many offerings, but also includes explanations, suggestions, bits of history and lore, recipes, and anecdotes.
Every aspect of the business, from the hands-on approach of its owners to the careful preparation of the product, reflects the love the Erds have for what they do. Both describe their work in relational, rather than economic, terms. They recognize that people make a special trip to the Spice House because they are cooking for those they love, or chefs come because they want to give their customers something better. Tom and Patty Erd feel that this connects them to the love, or to the desire to please. “We want to make sure that we always have the best stuff,” Patty notes, “to make the special trip really worth it. We are a part of one of the world’s oldest and most meaningful traditions, the breaking of bread,” she continues. “I’m sure it sounds corny, but that gives us the most wonderful inner satisfaction.” Tom adds, “We don’t make a lot of money, but if we did, we’d lose our character.”
When Patty’s parents retired in 1992, Tom and Patty bought their Milwaukee store. In business for 44 years, it remains the busiest of the Erds’ three stores. The Evanston store was opened in 1996, and their Old Town location was launched in 2000. Though they rely on talented and well-trained staff (often cooking professionals or students at area cooking schools), Tom and Patty circulate constantly among the three locations.
At the cozy Evanston store, Tom leads the way from a small, crowded office that overlooks the shop, down steep, stone steps to a basement filled with the latest shipments—bundles of cinnamon bark from Vietnam, huge bags of pungent Malabar pepper from India, mountains of sage from the Balkans (“This is the best sage in the world,” Tom enthuses, rubbing a leaf between his hands to release the volatile oils, then waving it under my nose). Boxes are piled to the ceiling, and Tom points out the government labels, from North Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Europe. The labels identify when and where each spice was picked, to ensure quality and freshness, which many governments, for whom this may be a major export item, protect fervently and rigidly.
Tom relates that purchasing is the hardest part of the job. There are a vast number of vendors, and sometimes they get only one or two things from a given vendor. For example, the cinnamon bark comes from a vendor outside Hanoi, and it’s the only thing they order from that vendor. An intoxicating and vividly red paprika comes from another vendor, this one in Hungary. He has to deal with dozens of vendors, and often orders directly from growers.
In a side room, Tom demonstrates the grinding mills, and shows the mesh screens used for sifting spices, to guarantee consistent texture. The fragrance in the room is almost overwhelming. Tom explains that he must, in fact, wear a respirator when grinding and blending, because it does become too much—not just the smell, but the particles in the air. In addition, the store is vented, to keep the fragrance from being overpowering. “We order pepper and cinnamon by the ton,” Tom explains. “We’ll grind a ton or more of cinnamon just in the two months before Christmas. That puts a lot of volatile oils, and a lot of spice, into the air. You just can’t breathe that for long.”
In addition to pure herbs and spices, the Spice House offers a number of unusual blends. Among the most delightful, and successful, combinations are the Chicago Blends. Try Back-of-the-Yards Garlic Pepper, Bronzeville Rib Rub, Argyle Street Asian Blend, Old Taylor Street Cheese Sprinkle, Pilsen Latino Seasoning, or one of the other blends that reflect the flavors of Chicago’s varied ethnic neighborhoods. “The beauty of these seasonings,” Tom notes, “is that they make exotic fast. They’re real time-savers.” Unique to the Spice House, this line of blends recently garnered the Erds an invitation to speak at Mayor Daly’s birthday party, where ethnic Chicago was the theme—and President Clinton was a guest.
Neither honors nor speaking are unusual for the Erds. They lecture regularly at Kendall College, at the Newberry Library, and for the American Institute of Wine and Food. In 2000, they won the Evanston Small Business of the Year award. That same year, Patty was inducted into Les Dames d’Escoffier, an organization that promotes the achievement of women in culinary professions.
The Erds bring to their lectures, and to their business, the accumulated expertise not only of long history but also of their continuing efforts to stay on top of things. During the years that Ruth and Bill Penzey still owned the store, Tom and Patty worked in restaurants (and, Tom notes, both can “hold their own” in the kitchen). Membership in most of Chicago’s food societies helps them stay up to date on industry trends. They read constantly, and try to learn from everyone—from the regular mom cooking for her family to high-end chefs to the ethnically diverse shoppers of the changing city. In addition, top food writers such as John Thorne, Paula Wolfert, and Kitty Morse, who are also customers, share their discoveries and ideas with Tom and Patty.
The Spice House is a great place to ask questions. Even if Tom or Patty aren’t there, the staff is experienced and knowledgeable. But here are some general guidelines from the Erds—regardless of where you picked up your parsley, sage, rosemary, or thyme. First, you want to store your herbs and spices in good containers. Volatile oils are what give herbs and spices their flavors, and air and humidity are the enemies. So glass or porcelain containers with tight-fitting lids are a wise choice. Properly stored, herbs and spices can last one to two years. “Reds” (paprika, chile) are the shortest-lived spices. They hold up better in the refrigerator, as do sesame seeds and poppy seeds. Things that clump, such as garlic powder, may also benefit from refrigeration, unless you use it quickly. Whole spices, such as coriander and black pepper, will last for years, but deteriorate more rapidly after they are ground. (That’s why the Erds grind their spices fresh every week, and why they offer spice grinders for home use, for customers who prefer to buy whole spices.)
Two tests for freshness are appearance and smell. If your herbs have turned from green to gray, they will have little flavor. Also, if herbs or spices no longer have any scent, they won’t help your food.
“People are cooking differently now,” Tom observes. “There are so many things they want.” Fortunately for us, there is a place to pick up the Spanish saffron, Chinese five-spice powder, or Arabic ras al hanout demanded by new recipes, as well as the best available examples of the old standards. (Even salt exceeds expectations—try the slightly moist sea salt from Bretagne, France.) Tom and Patty Erd have succeeded brilliantly at creating a haven for those who are searching for the highest quality for their own culinary endeavors. At the Spice House, everything is always in good taste.