It's in the Genes: the Biology of Food Preference

There might be a reason you love a good curry and can’t stomach spinach. A group of European scientists have begun work on a project that could eventually explain everything from your insatiable sweet tooth to your superhuman tolerance for spicy foods. New research on the “genetics of food preferences” suggests our tastes and distastes for certain foods may have their origins in our evolutionary histories, and that our genetic makeup may actually dictate which foods we find attractive, and which ones we abhor. The project – officially called Marco Polo (after the explorer who famously travelled the trade route centuries ago) – examines DNA from a number of cultures and communities along Eurasia’s historic Silk Road in an effort to determine how genetic variation translates to palatal differences within and across cultures. And while Marco Polo’s orchestrators still have significant work to do before the project sees its conclusion, early research has already turned up some interesting results which could, given time, lead to advancements in food science and changes in the direction of food industry research.

The Silk Road is home to ongoing research on the genetics of food preference.

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Edible Souvenirs: A SH Old Town Tradition

There is a tasty tradition at the Spice House (at least in our Old Town store), which we typically celebrate with the return of a manager or another from vacation or travel.  Many of us spend a good amount of time taking food very seriously, and our connections as spice retailers often bring about opportunities to sample a lot of seriously high quality food and treats from kitchens around the city.  So, from time to time it is refreshing, as a change of pace, to lower our standards a bit and indulge in something that is not overtly culinary, but still very delicious:  snack chips.

What is your favorite, oddly-flavored variety of snack chip?

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Trends

I recently attended a culinary conference in New York which was titled The Fashion of Food. There were some extremely interesting feature sessions, many about food and fashion being subjects of trends, fads or cycles. It is sometimes hard to discern what is the real deal and what is a flash in the pan trend that will not stand the duration of time. It occurred to me, as I listened to a wide variety of speakers discuss a diverse selection of food topics, that words fall into the same category.  They go through trends, sometimes going mainstream, as when a word once newly created had enough use to get added to the Webster Dictionary. Sometimes they are overused and abused to the point that they become outed, or even banned by editors. The website , Serious Eats recently put out its secret list of banned words. Continue reading

Culinary Space Design and abc kitchen

abc kitchen, New York

At the IACP conference in New York this spring, I had the opportunity to attend a panel discussion at the Bon Appetit test kitchen. This was held at their newly designed kitchen, which I believe served as more of a showpiece kitchen for hosting functions, than an actual test kitchen. The panel contained designer Adam Farmerie, David Rockwell, author of the book Spectacle, Matt Lightner of the newly opened Altera and restaurant consultant Clark Wolf. Perhaps restaurant design is not a subject I had given much thought to before, so their thoughts about design were quite enlightening to me. Continue reading

Winter Food Festivals

Spice House managers Paige and Tracy recently traveled to the Icewine Festival in Ontario, an annual celebration of a rare vintage. This wine, produced exclusively in cold wine-growing regions, is made from grapes that are left on the vine past the

usual harvest time. They have plenty of time to dry and shrivel slightly, concentrating the juice, before winter freezes them. Picked only at night when the temperature drops below -10C, each grape produces one drop of thick, intensely flavored juice. This is fermented into a marvelously sweet and complex wine worth celebrating. The Niagara region, which is covered in small, often German-style vineyards, goes all-out for three weeks in January, with a street fair of food and wine, ice sculptures, and a cocktail competition. Many of the 60+ vineyards in the area participate in the fun, with tastings and food pairings of their own vintages of icewine (including an icewine paired with homemade marshmallows and another served with spit-roasted pig and icewine applesauce). Despite being outdoors in Canada in January, it’s a cheerful if well-coated and -scarfed crowd that moseys from vineyard to vineyard in the fresh frigid air.

Manager Tracy at the Icewine Festival

This is by no means the only winter-specific culinary fun. Most food festivals are held in more clement weather, and correspond with more conventional harvest times, but there are plenty of activities for those who don’t mind a little chill. With the Chicago blizzard behind us and a tang of spring at least temporarily in the air, let’s not write off the last few weeks of winter delicacies.

For those who can travel, there are dozens of festivals held in the winter, usually to showcase foods or beverages that are pushed to the background during the produce-laden summer and fall. The International Pizza Expo will be in Las Vegas March 1-3, while the 23rd Annual Fiery Foods and BBQ Show will be in Albuquerque from March 4-6. Wine and beer are often celebrated in the winter. Cities from Charleston to Portland have Food and Wine Festivals in late February and March; San Francisco is in the midst of its annual Beer Week, running through February 20, in which the San Francisco Brewer’s Guild shows off the incredible variety of beer made in and around the Bay Area; Michigan and Minnesota also hold winter beer fests. In many areas shellfish are at their peak at the end of winter. Fulton Texas has it’s 32nd Annual Oysterfest in March, and Penn Cove Washington will be munching though their 25th Annual Musselfest.

More locally to us, the 17th Annual Twin Cities Food and Wine Festival is held from March 5-6 in Minneapolis, and the 21st Annual Cincinnatti Wine Festival on March 10-12. In our hometown Chicago, Restaurant Week starts today (Feb 18), when 200 of the city’s best restaurants will offer special prix-fixed menus.

Here in the Great Lakes, and across the Northern US, late winter is also Maple Sugar Season. When the first hints of warmth draw the maples out of hibernation, it’s time to tap the trees. In Wisconsin, Michigan, and Indiana small local festivals spring up, where the public can help out with the sugaring, taste the sap and the fresh-made syrup, and enjoy a range of maple-flavored delights. Medora Indiana hosts the National Maple Syrup Festival on the first and second weekends or March, while smaller events like the Parke County Indiana Maple Syrup Fair run nearly every weekend between now and April all over the region.

Of course, if you’d rather stay snugly at home and hold your own celebration of food, we fully support that. A nice cozy kitchen full of wafting aromas and warming dishes is often the very best way to appreciate the flavors of winter: preserved, slow roasted, long-simmered, seasoned to perfection.Rich Text AreaToolbarBold (Ctrl + B)Italic (Ctrl + I)Strikethrough (Alt + Shift + D)Unordered list (Alt + Shift + U)Ordered list (Alt + Shift + O)Blockquote (Alt + Shift + Q)Align Left (Alt + Shift + L)Align Center (Alt + Shift + C)Align Right (Alt + Shift + R)Insert/edit link (Alt + Shift + A)Unlink (Alt + Shift + S)Insert More Tag (Alt + Shift + T)Toggle spellchecker (Alt + Shift + N)▼
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Spice House managers Paige and Tracy recently traveled to the Icewine Festival in Ontario, an annual celebration of a rare vintage. This wine, produced exclusively in cold wine-growing regions, is made from grapes that are left on the vine past the usual harvest time. They have plenty of time to dry and shrivel slightly, concentrating the juice, before winter freezes them. Picked only at night when the temperature drops below -10C, each grape produces one drop of thick, intensely flavored juice. This is fermented into a marvelously sweet and complex wine worth celebrating. The Niagara region, which is covered in small, often German-style vineyards, goes all-out for three weeks in January, with a street fair of food and wine, ice sculptures, and a cocktail competition. Many of the 60+ vineyards in the area participate in the fun, with tastings and food pairings of their own vintages of icewine (including an icewine paired with homemade marshmallows and another served with spit-roasted pig and icewine applesauce). Despite being outdoors in Canada in January, it’s a cheerful if well-coated and -scarfed crowd that moseys from vineyard to vineyard in the fresh frigid air.

This is by no means the only winter-specific culinary fun. Most food festivals are held in more clement weather, and correspond with more conventional harvest times, but there are plenty of activities for those who don’t mind a little chill. With the Chicago blizzard behind us and a tang of spring at least temporarily in the air, let’s not write off the last few weeks of winter delicacies.
For those who can travel, there are dozens of festivals held in the winter, usually to showcase foods or beverages that are pushed to the background during the produce-laden summer and fall. The International Pizza Expo will be in Las Vegas March 1-3, while the 23rd Annual Fiery Foods and BBQ Show will be in Albuquerque from March 4-6. Wine and beer are often celebrated in the winter. Cities from Charleston to Portland have Food and Wine Festivals in late February and March; San Francisco is in the midst of its annual Beer Week, running through February 20, in which the San Francisco Brewer’s Guild shows off the incredible variety of beer made in and around the Bay Area; Michigan and Minnesota also hold winter beer fests. In many areas shellfish are at their peak at the end of winter. Fulton Texas has it’s 32nd Annual Oysterfest in March, and Penn Cove Washington will be munching though their 25th Annual Musselfest.
More locally to us, the 17th Annual Twin Cities Food and Wine Festival is held from March 5-6 in Minneapolis, and the 21st Annual Cincinnatti Wine Festival on March 10-12. In our hometown Chicago, Restaurant Week starts today (Feb 18), when 200 of the city’s best restaurants will offer special prix-fixed menus.
Here in the Great Lakes, and across the Northern US, late winter is also Maple Sugar Season. When the first hints of warmth draw the maples out of hibernation, it’s time to tap the trees. In Wisconsin, Michigan, and Indiana small local festivals spring up, where the public can help out with the sugaring, taste the sap and the fresh-made syrup, and enjoy a range of maple-flavored delights. Medora Indiana hosts the National Maple Syrup Festival on the first and second weekends or March, while smaller events like the Parke County Indiana Maple Syrup Fair run nearly every weekend between now and April all over the region.
Of course, if you’d rather stay snugly at home and hold your own celebration of food, we fully support that. A nice cozy kitchen full of wafting aromas and warming dishes is often the very best way to appreciate the flavors of winter: preserved, slow roasted, long-simmered, seasoned to perfection.
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Football and Cheese

With the Green Bay Packers headed to the Super Bowl (sorry, Chicago, we love you but we’re Wisconsin born and bred), we thought we’d take a moment to celebrate two of Wisconsin’s favorite industries: football and cheese. (Spices are a tad further down the line.) The Green Bay Packers were formed in 1919, and by 1923 were a franchise of the NFL. Today they remain the only team still associated with the small town of its founding. With strong ties to the local community and a rabidly devoted fan base (every home game has been sold out since 1960), the Packers are a publicly owned team. Many Wisconsinites have a share framed and hanging on their walls. (Check our Evanston location for one of these.)

The name “Packers” come from their original sponsors the Indian Packing Company. Despite this initial association with a meat packing company, Packers fans are commonly known as Cheeseheads after the most prominent local industry. European immigrants, largely from Germany and its neighbors, brought dairy farming traditions with them to Wisconsin in the 19th century, and Wisconsin’s first commercial cheese factory started operations in 1841. Today Wisconsin ranks behind only much larger California in milk production, and leads the nation in cheese production (and, I would guess, consumption).  With 600 varieties being commercially produced, Wisconsin cheese accounts for about 25% of all domestic cheese. This includes conventional, mass-produced cheeses, but also covers a wide array of artisan cheeses. Wisconsin has the highest number of licensed cheesemakers and is the only state to offer a European-style Master Cheesemaker program. And unlike most US dairy states, Wisconsin has a high proportion of small, grazing-based dairies (as opposed to the more common industrialized types), so the quality of milk and cream for cheese making is high. In short, this is a state that takes its cheese seriously. So it’s an indication of how much we love our football team that we wear cheese on our heads to show our support.

Patty and Tom will be heading to Dallas to cheer on their local team, but for those of us staying here, cheese based snacks are on the menu.  Sure, there’s always classic nacho dip cheese and crackers, but how about cheese-filled puff pastry shaped into the Pack’s oval “G”?  Or cheese fondue?  Or classic Wisconsin cheese soup?  There’s only a week of planning before the big game, so get creative, get cheesy, and GO PACKERS!

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Poprocks in Paradise

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One of our favorite vacation spots is in Mexico, on the Caribbean ocean known as the Mexican Riviera, near Playa Del Carmen. While we feel a bit guilty that this is not a spice mission vacation, many factors seem to lead us back to this same spot. We have enjoyed many Caribbean Islands and worked spices in as a factor, Jamaica for allspice and ginger, St. Lucia had an artisinal cocoa plantation. Grenada in particular was a wonderful education on the growing of mace and nutmeg and we thoroughly enjoyed our day visiting the nutmeg cooperatives. In St. Vincent we took a three hour drive, each way, to visit a tiny arrowroot plantation. Yet it is pretty much an all day affair to reach these islands. Cancun is a very brief 3-1/2 hour trip, another 45 minutes south we reach our destination, the water is beautiful, the golf is world class and we have an all inclusive hotel chain which we enjoy called Iberostar. So, while we really enjoy the spice seeking vacations, sometimes we just really take a vacation that is not work related, sorry to disillusion anyone!

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When a seed begins to sprout -

New pic disc 10109 038Two summers ago I fell in love with the city of Madison, Wisconsin,  while attending a governor’s conference for Slow Food. While Chicago hosts no shortage of fine farmer’s markets, I was blown away by the Madison farmer’s market, held in a square anchored by the glorious capitol building. One of my twin nieces is attending college there and she has a strong interest in environmental sciences. While we had lunch, I tried my best to coerce her into joining the University of Wisconsin chapter of Slow Food. We had all agreed at the conference meetings that it is extremely important to the future of the Slow Food movement that its vision is embraced by these young students, whose vibrancy and energy will lead to the dedication to continue the cause. At the time I tried to view my suggestions through her eyes, the intellectual college student listing to her aunt, most likely humoring her. I figured that my suggestion probably got lumped into one of those categories of helpful advice like ?If your room was neat and organized, you would not believe how much easier it would be to concentrate on your homework!? So I was delighted to receive an email the following year (a seed takes awhile to sprout) saying she was going to a Slow Food potluck that night.

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Cherry Picking

Cherry-pailsThree Spice House staffers (myself, Desi, and Roxanne) took last Sunday off to drive up to Door Couny for a day of cherry picking.  This is an annual trip for me, to stock my freezer for winter pie making, but it was fun to have company this year.  We left right after work Saturday, still smelling of spices, and spent the night in Manitowoc before driving into Door County to look for orchards.  I’ve gone to Choice Orchards in Sturgeon Bay before, so we headed in that direction, but we found Cherry Lane Orchard just over the Door County line and went there instead.  It’s a gorgeous little orchard run by a friendly, helpful gentleman who set us up with pails and belt clips and sent us out into the trees.

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Visiting A Farmer’s Market on Vacation?

6.11.09 026 I admit, it might seem a bit strange to seek out a farmer’s market while on a hotel based vacation. The reason you go to a farmer’s market is to buy the fresh produce and food you are planning to turn into delicious nature-inspired dishes over the next few days. Really fresh food requires only the slightest of preparation, nature delivers things that are pretty darned tasty when they are first harvested! So what is point in admiring food you are not actually able to cook with? A good market is sooo much more than just what the vendors are selling. It is about the connection to the land, the farmers, the food community that enjoys the market, the tastes, the musicians, the children and even the dogs. The people you intermingle with in a market community  will usually give you the best tourist experience a city unknowingly offers. You all have something in common, and it is easy to get the folks here to share stories, and cooking tips.

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