I have never intended to live a 100 percent locavore life. I’m dedicated to the idea of being as locavore as possible, but I’ve always held in my mind what I think of as “the Penzey’s exception.” And that exception is spices.
I’m not the first person willing to throw over things for some cinnamon and nutmeg. The current geopolitical makeup of the world could be said to have been drawn by spices. (If you don’t believe me, check out Nathanial’s Nutmeg, by Giles Milton.) Armies and navies, entire empires, have been raised and felled in the pursuit of pepper, mace, vanilla, saffron. And now we keep shaker jars of the stuff on the bar at Starbucks and sprinkle them over our drinks.
Today was my annual holiday Penzey’s run and it was so non locavore that you’d have to be mining salt on the moon to get more extreme. It was the usual suspects, all available at your local megamart: ground ginger, cinnamon, allspice, cloves, vanilla, dutched cocoa, mustard seeds, horseradish powder, caraway, juniper berries (I’m making sauerkraut!), and a couple of herbs. I also got some file powder, because my daughter wanted it and I might get around to making gumbo one of these days.
Most of those things could not be grown in New England.
In all, it ran me about $90 and fit inside a tiny handled bag. Spices are still damned expensive. The vanilla alone ran about $20, and I got the medium bottle — a price reminiscent of the great vanilla shortage of a few years ago. (Did it effect your world the way it did mine? My baking was devastated.) But it’s a lot of bang for your buck. A $20 steak will last for one dinner but a bottle of Tahitian vanilla will last me until after Valentine’s Day.
The cinnamon is other big-ticket item in the Penzey’s world: $14 for 8 oz. But what’s apple pie without cinnamon? Or pumpkin pie? Or snickerdoodles? Or my almost-famous cinnamon buns? And the Penzey’s extra-fancy Vietnamese stuff is so potent that you can cut way back on the amount and still get extra flavor without that chalkiness that happens with too much cinnamon sometimes.
Of course, Penzey’s sells spices in bags rather than bottles, which is good: less waste, less expense, etc. And I can easily transfer them to little 1/4 pint mason jars. But I think I’m going to need a label maker….