Author reveals life in the Penzey family spice business, philosophies and tangy advice
Caitlin PenzeyMoog remembers that the spice saffron comes in colorful tins from Spain. While preparing for an event, PenzeyMoog's mom found a saffron tin to give to her — and also presented her with another metal box.
"She (her mom) told me to close my eyes and smell. It was vanilla sugar," PenzeyMoog said.
The sweet scent was like a time machine taking her back to her childhood.
Her grandparents had a spice store, and inside was a room called The Vanilla Room where vanilla and sugar were blended.
Throughout her life, PenzeyMoog has known about spices; her expertise has led to her first book, "On Spice: Advice, Wisdom, and History with a Grain of Saltiness," released earlier this year.
PenzeyMoog grew up in the family business at The Spice House in Wauwatosa, established by her grandparents. It would later be acquired by PenzeyMoog’s aunt, who continues to operate The Spice House on Third Street in Milwaukee, and another location in Chicago. Her uncle subsequently opened Penzeys. Both businesses were born out of her grandparents' Spice House.
"It was a great education in spices and counting back change," she laughed.
Despite her family lineage, it might be a shock to discover PenzeyMoog hasn't always been a great cook. Despite her father's career as a chef and her family's spice business, she didn't really cook that much as a youngster.
"I really didn't start learning how to cook until I left for college," PenzeyMoog said.
She would go on to teach herself how to cook, calling her parents for advice. PenzeyMoog graduated during a recession and ended up working as a cook for a year before deciding it wasn't right for her.
She admitted that while she knows how to read recipes, some can be difficult.
"If you don't have a bunch of knowledge going into it, you would never know how to make these recipes, "PenzeyMoog said.
A blend of spices and words
When she walks into her grandparents' home in Wauwatosa, she is met with the comforting scents of spices and dust. She described the combination as the smell of her childhood.
"I was very lucky to grow up in this family, and now as an adult out of the industry, I'm obsessed with spices," PenzeyMoog.
She said she spices everything and uses multiples flavors on her food.
The Waukesha Country native lived in the Wales area and graduated from Kettle Moraine High School in 2007. She worked at The Spice House until she graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 2011 with a degree in journalism and moved to Chicago for a job with the A.V. Club.
Her colleagues and boss noticed she had a drawer full of spices. She would often share her thoughts on the spices she sprinkled on her meals. One day an editor asked her to write her observations and expertise in a column.
PenzeyMoog wrote a column called "Salt grinders are b-------, and other lessons from growing up in the spice trade," for The Take Out (a sister site of the A.V. Club).
The column was so well received, it resulted in a book deal. It was an opportunity to combine her passions into one project.
"I still love spices and writing about them and re-educating myself," she said.
In her book, PenzeyMoog also discusses common questions she has heard while working in her family's spice store.
For example: When do spices go bad?
"Spices really don't go bad," she said.
Spices are dried plants; when things go bad it is the moisture in it making it moldy. In general, spices are good for about five years, she said.
PenzeyMoog experiments with a variety of spices in her meals. Currently, she is into adding oil and spices to vegetables. Vegetables and roasted chickpeas are "blank slate" foods that work well with an abundance of spices, she explained.
She said it's easy: Just add whatever spice tastes good to you.
Spices provide "flavor without the calories," she said.
There is an ongoing debate that certain salts are healthier than others. PenzeyMoog heard from someone who claimed pink Himalayan salt is better.
"My grandpa used to say salt is salt; 95% of salt is the same and same sodium levels," she said.
There are a lot of colorful salts on the market and most of those are just salt with dye in it, she said. PenzeyMoog recommends avoiding the expensive trends and using simple kosher salt, which is inexpensive.
A connection to her roots
After writing her book, PenzeyMoog said she felt more of a connection to her family than ever before. Writing about spices is writing about her family, she said. Throughout the process, she spoke to her grandmother and dug through drawers of spice archives, which she described as a spice library.
"I feel like I got a deeper sense of the origins and why my family fell in love with spices," PenzeyMoog said.
For more information on her book, visit https://www.penzeymoog.com/.