One of the benefits of working at The Spice House is the opportunity to have new and unique sensory experiences on a regular basis. Just how our senses are stimulated depends on the nature of the task we are handling at any given moment, but the truth is there is very little work to be done at our store that won’t open the eyes, clear the sinuses, or intrigue the taste buds. Indeed, there is a lot to take in at our little shop, from exotic sights and scents to vibrant flavors and even sounds (our founder, the late Bill Penzey Sr., often proclaimed there was music in the spices themselves, although it might go undetected by the untrained or inattentive ear). Of all the work at The Spice House, however, there may not be a job that so deeply buries the hand in sensory stimuli as blending spices.
Our blenders take their time in the blending room pretty seriously. That is because the blender – there is only one of us on duty each day – is solely responsible for the quality and consistency of the blends he puts out. It may not sound like much, but measuring and keeping track of long lists of ingredients can become surprisingly concentration-intensive. On that note, a closed door can be a blender’s best friend, insofar as it keeps any distractions outside blending room, out. It also keeps every bit of noise, aroma, dust and debris, in. Our blending room is small. Consequently, a day’s worth of blending means spending a good amount of time in a tight space, surrounded by a high volume of sometimes pleasant, sometimes overwhelming scents and sounds.
Whether the senses are punished or rewarded depends, of course, on the blends being made and the ingredients going into them. It happens that some of our tastiest, best-selling blends are also some of the most difficult and trying to make. So, when one of us is whipping up a batch of Brisket of Love, for example, the blending room may be clouded with woody and pungent smoke powders that will burn through the nostrils and reduce the unmasked blender to fits of coughs and wheezes. Our Vulcan’s Fire Salt is, in the same vein, another blend that taxes the senses as it is prepared. Tending to a batch of Vulcan’s means, first, handling a damp chili mash whose acrid, vinegary aroma only seems to grow stronger as the chilies are warmed and dehydrated in our basement facilities. Once bone dry, we will mix the dehydrated chilies with the rest of what makes Vulcan’s, Vulcan’s, including the most punishing of ingredients: pure habañero chili powder. Seasoned blenders will typically add habañero powder last to any recipe that requires it, as it is easily airborne and, once in the air, will torture the unprotected lips, eyes, and nose to no end. Clear sinuses and a slow-growing burn in the corners of the mouth are perhaps the most common and unavoidable symptoms of having blended a batch of Fire Salt, although I’m sure that our other blenders could list a few more if pressed.
That said, and as treacherous as it can be to bury oneself to the elbows in hot chilies, working in the blending room can also have a tremendous sensory upside. Although some of our best-selling blends can take their toll on the eyes and nose, the vast majority of our blends are a pleasure to make and a joy to take in. Herbes de Provence is among the first blends to come to mind in terms of blends that reward the senses. Not only is it a light-weight blend (which makes it easier to lift and stir), full of sweet and fragrant herbs – French thyme and tarragon, for example – but it tends to fill the blending room with the delicate, floral aroma of what has become one of my favorite ingredients: lavender. The same goes for a blend like our Chicago Old Town Spiced Sugar, which smells and tastes as sweet as it sounds. Cardamom, whose scent is so enticing yet so difficult to put into words, is the key ingredient here, as it mixes with China Cinnamon and our own Vanilla Sugar to create something truly special and brilliantly aromatic. To be in such a small space, encompassed by these kinds of exotic scents, is certainly rewarding. Even more rewarding, however, are the occasions when, after working hard to blend up a batch, we can take a moment to sneak a taste of the finished product.
I could go on about the array of wonderful (and not so pleasant) scents that variously inhabit the blending room, but our sensory experiences as blenders go far beyond smelling spices. Blending spices can also be a visual experience. It is always eye-catching, even artistic, to watch the individual piles of measured spices as they are mixed in the blending bowl during the first few turns of the scoop. There is a natural beauty to the spices we work with, whose wide array of colors draw on nothing but what the earth has to offer, and the process of blending them into a single, equally colorful, finished product, is oddly amusing, almost mystical. It is difficult to describe the stunning visual effect – the patterns and colorful swirls – of half-mixed spices in a chrome blending bowl, and there is a certain amount of depth and contrast that is lost to a camera and lens. Still, I assure you – and I think any blender at our store would – that it is worth seeing. It is something special.
I recognize that there is a limit to what flowery language in a blog post can do to communicate the many sensory phenomena that make our store what it is, and that is a shame. I could describe the robust earthiness of Mexican oregano as it is grated into a blend like Gary Wiviott’s Barbecue Rub, but that earthiness is better smelled than described. I could try to speak to the color and spectral diversity of, say, our paprika – they may not cover 50 shades of red, but they do vary more than you might expect – yet I think these subtle differences are better viewed in person. And I could try to put into words the impact that MSG and its characteristic umami flavor has on a blend like our Buttermilk Dressing Base, as opposed to the very similar, MSG-free Ukrainian Village Seasoning, but I’m certain the difference is so subtle that it should actually be tasted. Of all things, though, what least translates to words on paper is the sounds of the store. To spend time in our store is really the only way to grasp what our founder meant when he said that there is music in the spices. Unless you find your way into one of our shops – and even then, unless you stop and listen – it is impossible to experience this music, which is the heart and soul of our business. Of course, you may hear a different tune than me, and I may pick up on a different cadence than my coworkers, managers, or the store owners, but the music is there nonetheless. For me, the music exists in the low-to-high rumble of 40 pounds of garlic, dropping into an empty barrel; the rhythmic, alternating scratch and swish of metal on metal, as our blenders turn spices in a bowl; or the occasional, high-pitched staccato of tiny metal scoops filling tiny glass jars with spice. Whatever the tune, the fact of the matter is the music is there if you care to stop and listen.
And while the conditions in our store may change from day to day – the sights may change, the music may be louder or quieter, the scents more or less pronounced – and the state of the blending room may shift from blend to blend, one thing at The Spice house is always certain: it is never in the nature of our store to bore the senses. So, please, come in and see for yourself –and hear, and smell, and taste – what we’ve got to offer. A unique human experience is waiting for you.