Under most circumstances, a slice of bologna doesn’t amount to much of a big deal. But when I was a kid, one of the greatest things was shopping at Ted’s Meat Market in Saginaw, Michigan. My sister and I would patiently wait while Mom’s order was filled, quietly eyeing up the packages of Haribou gummy bears and rolls of Mentos, daring each other to walk to the end of the meat case and look at the fish with eyes and the cow’s tongue and liver and other squeamish things like that. Yuck. And then, from over the counter, some nice man or lady — sometimes even Ted himself — would reach down with a slice of meat for us.
And then there was The Spice House. Mom grew up in South Milwaukee, so when we’d visit my grandparents, we’d make time to go up to Milwaukee for a trip to The Spice House. How she ever came across them, I’ll never know, but I always enjoyed it. The aroma of fresh spices would greet you before you crossed the threshold. Large glass jars lined the shelves, exposing a rainbow of muted colors and intense flavors — familiar and foreign, many bearing names you’d find on street signs around the Milwaukee area. There was something intriguing about watching them fill an order, taking jars off the shelf, opening the lid, and then scooping the spices out into a small plastic bag sitting on an old-fashioned kitchen scale. We’d patiently wait and watch, and, if we were lucky, at the end of our “visit” some nice employee would reach into one of the large wooden crates lined with burlap and hand each of us kids a cinnamon stick. I always felt a little bit like Laura Ingalls, with the glass jars and scales around me, getting a special treat. She got a stick of candy; mine was cinnamon. And what an 8-year-old exactly does with a cinnamon stick I’ll never know, but it was the acknowledgement that meant the world to us.
As I grew up, so did The Spice House, in a sense. The original two shops are still in Milwaukee, and their shelves are still lined with spices and blends. However, they’ve now found a niche in the Chicago area, as well, renaming some of their spice blends to reflect the culture of Chicago. The owners’ kids branched out into the world, taking the family name and creating Penzey’s Spices. Their locations are peppered around the country as if someone took a fistful of spice and let it go into the wind.
I’m all grown up now and my days of cinnamon sticks are over, but the novelty of The Spice House has not worn off. Though Penzey’s Spices doesn’t measure their spices as I wait, the aroma and the aura is the same. There’s something about being able to walk across a threshold into an invisible, recognizable cloud I can taste no matter where I seem to relocate. Silly? Yeah, I guess. Nostalgic? Definitely. Wonderful? No doubt. And when they allure me not with cinnamon sticks but with coupons for free spices… Well, that’s just plain common sense!
Several weeks ago the Penzey’s catalog arrived in the mail, adorned with a free coupon, and I needed some spices. I had run out of taco seasoning, which normally isn’t a big deal because I found a recipe to mix my own. The problem was that in order to make taco seasoning, I needed chili powder. I was out of that, too. And yes, I could have just picked up a packet of taco seasoning at the grocery store for less than a buck, or I could have picked up some chili powder, too, but I’ve noticed that grocery store spices can be kind of flat. I also discovered that I can’t find cheap bulk spices at the grocery store here, which means Penzey’s is more reasonable. Go figure.
What I’ve learned to love about the Penzey’s catalog is that I can read about each spice and herb and various blends they carry, and following each is a list of the spices in that blend. What I also love about Penzey’s is that while they carry some fantastic chili powder, they also tell you how to make your own using their ground ancho peppers. Armed with that information and a taco recipe from America’s Test Kitchen, I was on a quest to make a tasty taco seasoning that had a bit of kick but not so much that my two-year-old wouldn’t eat it. I bought the ancho peppers.
Here’s what happened: I found out that it’s fun to mix your own spices tailored to your own taste buds (and those of your family). I also found out that I had found a taco seasoning mix that elicited unsolicited comments like, “This is good taco meat!” from the guy who usually thinks everything I make is good and goes without comment, and, “This is really good, Mom!” It happened not only the first time I made it, but the second as well. It was then that I knew I had found what I was looking for. I wasn’t looking for flattery; I was simply looking for an economical and delicious taco seasoning. But I’ll tell you, it doesn’t matter if you’re five years old or thirty-five years old — being acknowledged, no matter how simply (bologna, cinnamon sticks, free spices, a simple compliment), still means the world.
- 3 Tbsp. ground ancho pepper
- 1-1/2 tsp. ground cumin
- 1-1/2 tsp. garlic powder
- 1-1/2 tsp. oregano
- 1 tsp. onion powder
- 1 tsp. ground coriander
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- 1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper (if you want a little more kick, add another 1/4 tsp.)