Being a member of Slow Food Chicago does not come without it's benefits. Thanks to Year of Slow Food - your membership becomes something more tangible that just a donation to a cause you believe in. Throughout the year, each month members receive new offers and discounts from local businesses, restaurants, farms, and purveyors emulating the Slow Food objectives for a good, clean and fair food system. This month's (April) member partner is The Spice House - run by second generation spice merchants, dedicated to grinding their carefully curated selection of imported spices in small batches which are then mixed by hand, often using family recipes to create some of their popular blends. Let's just say, if you plan on slowing down and cooking a meal from scratch anytime soon - these are the tools you'll want in your back pocket - high quality, thoughtfully sourced spices and blends from the pro's who have been at this since 1957. Read on for a peek into a day in the life of a spice merchant and get a sense for their dedication to an "old-fashioned" process - regardless of how "slow" it may be.
What was the idea behind The Spice House? How did you start?
We are second generation spice merchants, my parents began our store in 1957. Their goal, which follows through to today, was to supply our customers with spices of the highest caliber from the top sources of origin from around the world. Once imported, we grind the spices fresh in house. Once finished we hand craft our seasonings based on our old family recipes.
What would you be doing right now on a typical work day?
Today we are grinding the most fragrant black pepper from the Tellicherry coast of India. Once ground, this will become one of the fresh ingredients in our bestselling blend, Back of the Yards Garlic Pepper, Butchers’ Rub. We will take care of many customers, enjoying our talk about cooking. I will also answer dozens of emails from other customers who are not so lucky to be shopping in store, where they can taste everything, but are instead shopping online.
What's the best part about your job? The hardest part?
Being a spice merchant is absolutely the best part of the job. We love to experiment with flavors and create new blends. It was all pure and beautiful when we just had brick and mortar shops where we talked to our customers about cooking all day long. Then the internet came along, and that scenario changed. The hardest part is all the things we are forced to do that have nothing to do with being spice merchants. We recently installed a new POS system which has given us months of headaches because the gateways don’t all interface with one another. Balancing the budget, accounting reports, human resources, PR, SEO, social media and all the other jobs that are required to stay afloat in today’s world of e-commerce are a necessary part of our work day.
What do you think is the biggest obstacle for Chicago's food system to overcome?
Food desserts still desperately need attention and further action on early initiatives. People everywhere need to have access to affordable, healthy food choices. The upscale neighborhood of Old Town, where one of our shops is located, has at least a dozen good grocery stores within a mile. Large areas like Bronzeville or Englewood have almost none. Kudos to Whole Foods for putting in a store in Englewood this year.
How does The Spice House's work relate to the Slow Food objectives (good, clean, fair food)?
We source the highest quality spices and herbs from around the world. Once imported, we take care to grind everything in house, in small batches of what we are anticipating selling in the next week or two. Once ground, the spices get mixed into seasonings by hand, again in small batches to ensure the ultimate in freshness. And the following week, we start all over again. Whenever possible, we try to support new initiatives by co-operatives in third world countries, who are trying to teach farmers a way to augment their income by introducing spice crops to their crop rotations.
What surprising spice do you think will trend in 2016?
I think we are seeing a great deal of interest in lost or extinct crops. Crops that went out of vogue for some reason, now have piqued our interest. There are some really devoted people focused on this, like Glen Roberts of Anson Mills. With the help of scientist David Shields, and his in-depth knowledge of seed banks and culinary history, they are able to work toward returning some lost legacies from ancient times to today’s farmers and chefs. I believe you call this a re-emergent cuisine. One can extrapolate that this will translate into the spice world as well. Ancient herbs are returning to the culinary forefront. And while thyme, rosemary, mint, lavender, have always been culinary herbs, they have never been more popular. If this is a trend, heirloom spices and herbs should also be on our radar. Trending upward over the past few years and showing no sign of slowing down, is turmeric, which has some pretty powerful medicinal properties.
What is your favorite food related social media account to follow (outside of Slow Food Chicago, of course)?
Is there anything else you'd like to share about your business?