A commonly overlooked gift item today, spices nevertheless have a long and rich history as a luxury. Roman soldiers were paid in part in salt, the infant Christ is said to have been gifted frankincense and myrrh, and Medieval kings relied on spices like black pepper, saffron and clove to make their lavish feasts and solidify their superior social caste.
Ask any of the Spice House employees and they’ll tell you the difference between an average meal and a truly stellar gastronomic experience is often as simple as the spices that go into it.
First opened in Milwaukee in 1957 by Ruth and Bill Penzey, the Spice House is now run by daughter Patty and husband Tom Erd. The couple opened a store in Evanston in 1997 and their first Chicago store in 2001. Their Old Town location has quickly become an important part of the community, winning the Tribune’s Good Eating award as well as gaining recognition in the mayor’s “made in Chicago” listing for their line of spice blends crafted to reflect the culinary traditions of Chicago’s ethnically distinct neighborhoods.
Walking into the store, you are confronted with a veritable wall of spice fragrance as strong overtones of garlic and clove become impregnated in your clothes. Lonnie Romero, who works at the Spice House, says that while high volumes and climatology mandate that almost none of their ingredients are locally sourced (a notable exception being their Wisconsin maple sugar), all the grinding, blending and packaging takes place in the store.
Not only the place to come to obtain that hard-to-find specialty ingredient, the Spice House is also a great place to come for advice. The House’s largely professionally-trained staff regularly dispense cooking tips to a hungry public. As Romero remarks, “we have so many customers coming in with specific needs, we help people every hour, sometimes ten times an hour.”
What are some of Romero’s tips for taking that holiday feast up a notch? “I would suggest the Back of the Yards Garlic Pepper, or a lot of people like to use our Bicentennial Rub on poultry, especially with turkeys they are roasting.”
Of course if you are looking for the ultimate Chicago spice gift, you can’t go wrong with the Spice House’s Ethnic Chicago Gift Box, which comes loaded with a half cup of every Chicago-inspired blend, from the Greek Town “Billygoat” Seasoning to the Milwaukee Avenue Spice. (David Wicik)
The Spice House, 1512 North Wells, thespicehouse.com.