Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Prejudging Penzey's

As a self-confessed stick in the mud, I feel the need to say that I am NOT glad to see Penzey's arrival in Carytown. I've actually never purchased anything from them before (although my wife says she has). My problem is that I've already got way too many spices. There's this awesome and artsy rack that Karen dreamed up and mounted on our wall. There's the stove-side cupboard for easy access seasoning while cooking. And then we have the mother load on the corner cabinet lazy-susan (and the many little containers that've been thrown off that carousel in every direction). It's like a Bermuda Triangle for ground seeds and powders. Why on earth, would I want more spices?

Half the time that we buy a spice for a recipe, it turns out that we already had it in our kitchen. It was just hiding somewhere. And how long do spices really last? People often recite a "6 month" shelf-life for spices, but who actually dates and rotates their spices out of the cupboard before finding them in a solid mass stuck at the bottom of their jar? (Here are some tips on spice care and shelf life)

I really don't have anything against Penzey's products or services (yet!). I just don't want the temptation. My seasoning situation is already in a tailspin; too many flavors to possibly keep track of. I feel the same way about candles. They look (and often smell) nice, but we never light them once we bring them home. They sit and collect dust and lose their appeal. And yet, there are entire stores full of candles, propounding candle culture, and a cacophony of putrid potpourri smells. When I pass a Yankee Candle store (or a Bath and Body Works), I have to cover my face to keep from inhaling the artificial essences. Likewise, something about the idea of a spice shop just smacks of unnecessary specificity; a concentration of things that need to be diffused. If you need Middle Eastern spices, go to a specialty market. Richmond has lots of these and I'll bet they have more to teach you than an "all-inclusive" spice shop.

The siren song of the spice purveyor has already lured me in like a pied piper. A light went off in my head: I need a crushed red pepper shaker. Countless trips to discount stores didn't turn up a single suitable vessel where I could store (and use to quickly scatter) my pizza peppers. When I visited the Penzey's website, it felt like I'd walked into an old fashioned apothecary. Was this website developed in 1902? Mayberry might be a touchpoint for some people's kitchen creations, but the site didn't stir any of my appetites. The mills and container's section is extremely limited. And yet, they do have several sizes of shakers.

Now, here I stand with my mind made up, totally smug and satisfied with my anti-boutique bigotry. And yet, I'm about to stop by Penzey's on the way home to pick up a spice shaker. Is there no end to the list of compromises and contradictions that can fit into one life?


  1. ha..ha..haa.. I know what you mean. I reorganized my spice cabinet last year from Penzey's spices...and no I have not used most of it except the cinammon and the nutmeg and star anise and yes I probably should throw som of them out again.

  2. I haven't visited the new store yet, but I can't imagine they'd be able to beat the prices of all the little ethnic markets. Between Laxmi Palace, Tan A, and all the little Mexican grocers we're pretty well covered. I'm still going to visit Penzey's though. I'm a sucker for a pretty store. Of course if the store is as hip as their website I'll be disappointed.

  3. I could have called the piece, "Boutique Spices at Boutique Prices," but I don't want to be a broken record about penny-pinching. Plus, there's a pretty wide range of prices for spices from one store to another. On my brief visit today, I wasn't particularly surprised or put off by the cost of Penzey's products. The inventory was interesting, but I still feel like I could have just as much fun shopping in my own cabinets (and that would really be a big difference in price).

    Janine, your blog looks really cool. I'm with you on the ethnic markets. For me, a big part of cooking is soaking up a bit of culture and learning a thing or two. I'll be interested to hear what everyone thinks of the store after you've gone.

  4. PENZYS!!

    A couple things:

    * Their bag of kosher flake style salt for TWO DOLLARS is an great deal.

    * I didn't think the price there were incredibly outrageous.

    * The Penzys catalog itself suggest only replacing spices yearly since they only harvest the spices once a year.

    * Penzys is awesome. I wish I could live in their sweet smelling store front.

  5. I've just added a few pictures to "spice up" this post. The top one is the stove-side reach-in cabinet. At the bottom left is my new Penzey's shaker-top jar for crushed red pepper (notice the truffle oil on the middle shelf, and Bacon Salt at the top). The second picture is our effort at foodie interior design (glass jars from World Market and shelves from Bed Bath and Beyond or somewhere like that). Those spices are all at least three years old. The last one is the spice shelf of our corner cabinet and I'm still not sure what ingredients might be hiding in the dark corners of that thing.

    An obvious inference in this post is that Penzey's offers the solution to my problem: organization. They sell jars and labels and plenty of spice products to match, thus bringing order and uniformity to my selection of products. It sounds nice. I might even like the aesthetic appeal of a wall of yellow labeled jars (to a degree). But, I just can't let go of my affinity for diversity; spices from several sources, strange brands, Indo-Pak's garam masala and cumin, Bodega Latina's Mexican vanilla, tahini from the Mediterranean Market on Meadow, and misc gourmet items (and chorizo for Karen) from European Market. Another dirt cheap spice source (and awesome deli) is the Mediterranean Bakery and Deli on Quiaccasin (

    It's not that Penzey's is particularly pricey. It's that I don't find the place particularly inspiring (overwhelming, maybe, considering my current spice situation). But, I may wind up with more of those spice jars so I can get some of my products out of those annoying bulk bin baggies.

  6. Ross - I've been perusing your wife's shopping lists for the last few weeks and find no reference to flake Kosher salt. Methinks your being a bit misleading if you are augmenting your poverty-level subsistence shopping with unlisted items. Not to mention 2 bucks for kosher salt??? It better be a pretty big bag. Isn't a big box of Morton's kosher about the same price? :)

  7. Stankbref3:02 PM

    Iodized salt? Gigantic tubs of Kroger brand garlic powder? Are these the kinds of things that a self-professed "foodie" would have in their cabinet? :P

  8. Yes, stankbref. A foodie would and does have a all manner of cooking supplies in his/her cupboard. And, please refer to the last line of the post. This site features food from all over the class spectrum.

    Aside from a few gentle digs and critiques, this post is mostly for entertainment value. Enjoy the view of my kitchen and my idiosyncrasies.

  9. He bought that salt forever ago, I think before we even started the ridiculous budget.

  10. I've shopped at Penzey's for over 20 years. I've even been to the original store .. but consider this..

    ...Their zataar is rather feeble. I get real Lebanese zataar** at either the Jordanian place by the Midlothian Books a-million or at Jerusalem Halal market at Hull & Turner.

    And if I were going to make a s*tload of ancho chili sauce, I'd buy dried ancho chiles at a Mexican market, like La Milpa. Renzey's dried chile prices are higher than a cat's back.. Penzeys is for the conspicuous consumptive, a common Richmond sort.


  11. I work for Richmond's own spice company and I know a little about the raw materials that go into what Penzey's sells. And I can tell you that, based on profit margin, the prices are indeed outrageous (IMHO).


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