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Life Arts    H4'ed 2/11/15

Sights, Scents and Stories from a Spice Emporium

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Dad loved the teaching aspect of the world of spices. He also had a large collection of cookbooks, many of them valuable antiques, so we could study recipes from different time periods. He liked to throw in a some philosophy classes as well. He followed the writings of two men most people have not heard of: Ouspensky and Gurdjieff, and their teaching about how we need to work with the universe to achieve our destiny and our consciousness. Obscure stuff that went way beyond the world of spices but that Dad still tried to incorporate into his daily spice work. My husband in particular picked up a huge amount from my dad. As kids, I think we had the brain set to tune out a lot of Dad's lessons, and daydream of more interesting things. My husband, not being of the same mindset, seemed to have paid far more attention.

Things always went long with my dad; he just had so much to share. When we sat down to holiday meals, Dad would do a reading before we ate. My siblings and I would see where the first bookmark tab was placed, and after gauging the second book mark to be about 50 pages later, would have to use all of our willpower not to roll our eyes or sigh out loud! Eventually, out of consideration to Mom, who made the wonderful meals that got cold every time before the readings were finished, we got Dad to do his readings towards the end of the meal. That sure was a conversation killer, though! When we opened our second store in Evanston, Dad would often call with advice or more learnings he wanted to share. Each call would typically last an hour. When our staff would say, your dad is on line one, my husband and I would point at one another, silently mouthing "it's your turn" as often our busy days did not really have a game plan that included a spare hour. I would give so much to still be getting these calls today.

#1 best seller: Back of the Yards Garlic-Pepper, Butchers' Rub
#1 best seller: Back of the Yards Garlic-Pepper, Butchers' Rub
(Image by The Spice House)
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I bet!

The core of what our business was remains intact. The tools of our trade are essentially the same. We are still grinding in house and mixing by hand small batches of our seasonings, which are formulated from old family recipes. Taking care of our customers and sharing our love of good food and recipes seems to be a timeless function of our business. As is treating our staff like a family. Treating all people and things with integrity and respect is something I hope most parents pass on to their children. We got all of that tenfold as my parents were such incredibly caring people. It's the peripheral stuff that requires you keep up with the ever changing world of technology. Luckily, business has been good enough that we can hire professionals for that. If Dad was still around, I could have put him in charge of social media, and he would have excelled at that!

Sure sounds like it! You have a boatload of wonderful memories, don't you, Patty? Do you have a particular spice or smell, with a story attached, that conjures up those early days in the shop?

Dad would do odd things, I suppose, to get us to focus. My husband is also fond of the saying "be where you are"! My dad would say, "today you are going to grind white pepper and we are going to say if you sneeze, you die. So, you will grind the white pepper without sneezing." And, somehow we did, which was tough.

Spice Collage
Spice Collage
(Image by The Spice House)
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My favorite spice has always been vanilla. I was the kid that always got teased at 31 Flavors for not being more adventurous. It had nothing to do with that, I simply knew vanilla was the best flavor. I tried to add vanilla to many things where you would not normally think of it. When I was a teenager, I loved to fry up a quick lunch including thin cut pork chops. I would add orange juice, our Florida seasoned pepper, brown sugar, and a few drops of vanilla extract. ACH, my German grandma would say, you are crazy. As I continued to make these, at one point, I finally got Gram to have a taste. "Hmm, these ARE pretty good," a high compliment from her. Dad loved vanilla too; he did all sorts of creative things with the beans on a beautiful white marble slab that he reserved just for unique vanilla creations. He gave us his special personal recipe for our Spiced Sugar, when we opened our Old Town shop.

As kids, my folks would bring us to Chicago at least once every summer. For whatever reason, we loved the Old Town neighborhood, which back then was quite seedy and a little on the shady side. In retrospect, I realized my folks sort of saved the special shop we loved to bring out right after we asked, "Dad, what does XXX mean"? "Hey look kids," Dad would say, "there's the Fudge Pot, let's run!" and we'd forget all about that question! Who would have dreamed that 35 years later, we would open a beautiful little shop there? When my dad gave us that vanilla sugar recipe, he asked that we call it Old Town Spiced Sugar. And to this day, it is one of the very best things we make.

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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