ONLY A FEW decades ago in America, adding spice to our food meant shaking a dash of salt, and perhaps a little pepper, into the pot. If you were a real epicure, you might tip in a teaspoon of dried garlic flakes or a touch of "Italian seasoning."
Today, however, if our paella recipe calls for saffron threads, we can buy a jar at most grocery stores, albeit for a steep price. And if it’s garam masala for chicken vindaloo we seek, there are plenty of bulk aisles that ably meet our needs. It’s as though our palates have simply expanded along with globalization. But according to Bill Penzey Jr, the owner of Penzey’s Spices, a national spice company whose only Pacific Northwest retail outlet is in Clackamas, our current enthusiasm for exotic spices is not so much a new development as a rediscovery.
"You have to understand," Penzey says. "Spices never really went away, they just had a rough phase. First there was World War II, when trading ships were tied up for the war effort, which cut off spice imports for close to a decade. Then you had women returning to the workforce, and busy families were putting dinner on the table with so-called convenience foods." At least in the United States, spices no more exotic than cinnamon or paprika simply became harder to find.
If you were a sophisticated American home cook in the middle of the last century, however, you knew where to procure your coriander—via the few spice shipping businesses that made up for the dearth of spices on grocery store shelves. In 1957, Penzey’s family started one of the larger of these businesses (in Milwaukee, Wis.) under the name Spice House. The company began as a small retail store, but when the Penzeys realized families were willing to drive hours to comb the shelves and procure the spices of their childhoods, they began shipping those spices (Eastern European paprikas, for example, or hard-to-find Mexican chiles) to make it easier on discerning cooks. Now a $2 million business, Spice House is still run by Penzey’s sister and brother-in-law, and the company caters to a multitude of high-end gourmets and chefs.
Wanting to appeal more to "the everyday cook," however, Penzey split off from the family business in 1986 to open Penzey’s Spices. That search for universal appeal probably explains why, in 2005, he decided to open his 23rd outlet in Clackamas, as opposed to, say, the Pearl District.
"We look for places where there are multigenerational families living in proximity to each other," Penzey says. "Growing up, we tried out different spices, and our German grandmother cooked wonderful food for us every night. That’s what Penzey’s is trying to do. It’s about everyday cooking for people you love."
With this in mind, the Penzey’s store in Clackamas feels less like a market bazaar in Turkey or a gourmet grocery than a warm and welcoming mom-and-pop store in the Midwest. (In fact, it’s in a strip mall on SE 82nd Ave that also houses a Hometown Buffet restaurant and a discount clothing outlet.)
But Penzey’s humble exterior and surrounds belie what’s offered inside. Stacked wooden crates that serve as shelves harbor more than 200 prepackaged spices and blends. And in every nook and cranny you’ll find apothecary jars that contain smelling samples of every one of those spices and blends, which are, on average, sold for about 30 percent less than at most stores. Each spice is accompanied by suggested culinary uses along with in-depth information on its origin, be it Madagascar or Mexican vanilla beans, the Middle Eastern spice called mahlab, Jamaican jerk seasoning or a simple spice rub (of which Penzey’s has 100 varieties) for your pork tenderloin.
With such diversity, who exactly are Penzey’s customers? "Middle America," says Steven Parkton, Penzey’s Clackamas store manager. But then, judging by the spices Middle Americans are buying here, "middle" is once again all over the spice-route map. In the spice world according to Penzey, it always has been.