I love cooking shows. Most of them are on cable television, which we have never had and I hope will never feel the need to have, but they're a favorite of mine when available on long overseas flights. And then there's YouTube.
Ann Reardon's How to Cook That channel first caught my eye because of her "debunking" videos, in which she tries out and exposes too-good-to-be-true internet "hacks," mostly related to her specialty, food. Here's one (16 minutes).
And here's one for our daughter who has always loved miniatures (6.5 minutes). So has Ann, and in her "Teeny-Weeny Challenges" actually bakes in her miniature kitchen.
These are just some of the sidelights of her channel, however. Mostly she focusses on amazing desserts, and has recently published a cookbook called Crazy Sweet Creations. Here's a basic video on working with chocolate (13.5 minutes).
Are you hungry yet?
Most of Ann's creations are too complex to interest me in attempting them, but they are fun to watch, and I can pick up some interesting tips and tricks along the way.
This is from the BBC, perhaps more trustworthy than some news sites? Pretty funny, anyway.
Scientists studied more than 1,000 foods, assigning each a nutritional score. The higher the score, the more likely each food would meet, but not exceed your daily nutritional needs, when eaten in combination with others.
Of course, "scientists" is a meaningless designation, and it's not clear how the foods tested were chosen, but they later add,
Food selection, ranking and cost based on the scientific study “Uncovering the Nutritional Landscape of Food”, published in the journal PLoS ONE.
So presumably one could find out more details. Below are their top 100, followed by the designated nutritional scores. Note that 99 of the foods are from plant or fish sources—but take a good look at the food ranked #8. Food for thought.
- almonds: 97
- cherimoya: 96
- ocean perch: 89
- flatfish: 88
- chia seeds: 85
- pumpkin seeds: 84
- swiss chard: 78
- pork fat: 73
- beet greens: 70
- snapper: 69
- dried parsley: 69
- celery flakes: 68
- watercress: 68
- tangerines: 67
- green peas: 67
- pike: 65
- alaskan pollock: 65
- green onion: 65
- red cabbage: 65
- pacific cod: 64
- scallops: 64
- pink grapefruit: 64
- dandelion greens: 64
- frozen spinach: 64
- chili powder: 63
- basil: 63
- collards: 63
- clams: 62
- chili peppers: 62
- broccoli raab: 62
- kale: 62
- whiting: 61
- atlantic cod: 61
- mustard leaves: 61
- romaine lettuce: 61
- coriander: 61
- whitefish: 60
- fish roe: 60
- apricots: 60
- cress: 60
- chinese cabbage: 60
- sea bass: 59
- herring: 59
- parsley: 59
- fresh spinach: 59
- walnuts: 58
- red cherries: 58
- butter lettuce: 58
- cow peas: 58
- podded peas: 58
- plantain: 57
- navy beans: 57
- summer squash: 57
- coho salmon: 56
- blue fin tuna: 56
- eel: 56
- lima beans: 56
- taro leaves: 56
- green lettuce: 56
- green tomatoes: 56
- red tomatoes: 56
- paprika: 55
- chives: 55
- arugula: 55
- sockeye salmon: 54
- mackerel: 54
- grapefruit: 54
- golden kiwi fruit: 54
- green kiwi fruit: 54
- cayenne pepper: 54
- leeks: 54
- red leaf lettuce: 54
- green beans: 54
- perch: 53
- rainbow trout: 53
- sour cherries: 53
- pink salmon: 52
- pompano: 52
- kumquats: 52
- hubbard squash: 52
- carp: 51
- oranges: 51
- red currants: 51
- pomegranates: 51
- rhubarb: 51
- jalapeno peppers: 51
- winter squash: 51
- carrots: 51
- octopus: 50
- prunes: 50
- cantaloupe: 50
- water chestnuts: 50
- cauliflower: 50
- broccoli: 50
- brussels sprouts: 50
- burdock root : 50
- pumpkin: 50
- ginger: 49
- figs: 49
- sweet potato: 49
After reading the Occasional CEO's post on Moxie (My favorite line? "Moxie is the durian of carbonated drinks."), I was inspired to write about my favorite New England carbonated drink, Undina Birch Beer from Higganum, Connecticut. I'm not generally a fan of carbonated drinks, nor of alcohol for that matter, but this white birch beer, with its 1% alcohol content, was exceptional. And nothing like the darker birch beers I had tasted in other parts of the country.
This Haddam Historical Society webpage has a small section, "Granite Rock Springs/Undina Soda," on the Undina Beverage Company and their white birch beer.
In the 1870’s Otto Carlson started making commercial root beer and birch beer in Swede Hill (upper part of Christian Hill Road) in Higganum. Carlson had a nostalgic longing for a drink remembered from his boyhood in Sweden, ‘bjord drick’ made from sap tapped from Sweden’s prolific birch trees. Not having enough birch trees around Higganum for commercial scale tapping, Otto developed a formula using cut up birch trees and steaming out their oils and juices. This became the commonly used commercial method of producing the popular birch beer.
Who knew white birch beer was Swedish? With all the Swedes on Porter's side of the family, it's no wonder the drink was a favorite. Sure seems a shame to cut up a tree to get it, though. Maybe we can have commerical birch groves for tapping like maple trees.
Needing a large quantity of water for his company, Carlson discovered a large bubbling spring in a cleft of granite rocks on the western slope of Ladder Pole Mountain in Higganum. This was “pure spring water,” above and beyond any possible contamination. Granite Rock Springs was 450 feet above sea level, up hill from Otto’s shop and overlooking the present Route 81. Otto Carlson named his beverage company UNDINA, meaning the Goddess of Water.
A write up on the spring notes that the “no part of its watershed is exposed to the seepage of cultivated fields or the impurities of inhabited areas. Its home is in the wild heart of nature and it gushes forth, a living, crystal clear stream of pure, soft water, a stream so large as to form the source of a mountain brook that is never dry but continually leaps and dances down the mountain-side until its waters finally join those of the Connecticut.
This delightful spring was used to make their white birch beer until 1980, when production outstripped its capacity. I could tell you that I noticed the difference, but that's probably stretching memory too far.
In the early 1900’s Undina was a popular brand of soda pop, with white birch beer its most popular flavor. Undina was distributed throughout Middlesex County and other parts of Connecticut and upstate New York. ... In 1945 Undina Beverage Company was purchased by Carl Anderson of Higganum and Eric Johnson, both of whom also remembered the cool refreshing ‘bjord drick’ in Sweden and took pride in maintaining production of the white clear drink.
By the 1950’s Undina Bottling Works was thriving and producing 500 cases of soda per day. It remained at the same site as Carlson’s original shop, although the extraction was no longer done there. In 1960 the company was purchased by Middletown residents Trean Neag and Fred Norton.
No longer Swedish except in origin. (Neag was Romanian; Norton I couldn't trace back far enough to find out.) The American Melting Pot in action!
The article doesn't mention when Undina closed. It was after our children were old enough to fall in love with their white birch beer, but much too long ago to pass that on to their own children. It sure was a sad day when they closed. I've heard that it lasted till Fred Norton retired; I'm sure the economics of running a small, local business in the days of soda behemoths contributed to its demise.
Perhaps now that microbreweries have become so popular and successful, someone will attempt to revive Undina. I hope so. You can still buy white birch beer if you try hard enough, and I'm grateful for that. But of course it's not the same.
This year my children and my husband got together for an entirely different kind of Mother's Day treat: a selection of Jeni's Ice Cream delivered in dry ice to our door.
My favorite Connecticut ice cream store, Grass Roots, had an ad on Facebook that said, Your momma called: she wants Grassroots ice cream. I laughed in appreciation when I saw it, knowing that my sister-in-law might get something from Grass Roots for Mother's Day, but it was out of the question for me.
And then this happened. It wasn't Grass Roots, but it was delicious and had the Grass Roots approach to unusual flavors.
First, of course, we played with the dry ice. It's much more fun if you have grandchildren to share it with. And to no one's surprise, there's a lot less dry ice left when it's delivered to Florida than when it's delivered to New Hampshire. Still, we enjoyed the moment. Here's the short version.
Now for the ice cream itself, in order of our trials. Boy, was that the wrong word. It was hardly a trial to enjoy these treats!
Blackout Chocolate Cake A chocolate ice cream quadruple threat with cake, extra-bitter fudge and chocolate pieces. Fantastic. Rich, darkly chocolate. Better than Publix's Chocolate Trinity? I don't know. Give me a large bowl of each side by side and I'll see what I can figure out. It might take several experiments....
Brown Butter Almond Brittle Brown butter almond candy crushed into buttercream ice cream. Is is possible that there could be something better than chocolate? I found this only moderately promising from the description, but oh, my what a flavor! A little almond, a little caramel, a little reminiscent of the wonderful milk ice cream we ate in Japan. It's subtle, but may even be my favorite of the Jeni's flavors, since Publix does so well in the chocolate department.
Skillet Cinnamon Roll Dark caramel, cream cheese, pastry, and cinnamon (lots of it). Not in the same league as the first two, but definitely good. If I liked cream cheese frosting more than I do, it might be great. I'd happily eat it again.
Caramel Pecan Sticky Buns (Dairy-Free) Rich coconut cream loaded with sticky bun dough, dark caramel, and roasted pecans. Fortunately, Porter liked this. It was far from his favorite, but he certainly made sure it wasn't wasted. I'm glad I tried it, but in a word, no. First, the "dairy-free" label is a big warning sign, and makes me think fake from the beginning, with overtones of margarine, artificial sweeteners, and decaffeinated tea. Then there's the c-word: coconut. I enjoy coconut in savory Indonesian dishes, and that's about it. Not at all in anything sweet. Pecans are another thing I like only in certain contexts (like salads) but desserts is not one of them. Sticky bun dough and caramel? Now those are winners, but frankly the overwhelming flavor was coconut—which is why Porter liked it and I didn't.
Pineapple Upside Down Cake Sweet-tart pineapple with golden cake, red cherries, and a caramel swirl. This is what I opened when I turned the coconut-flavored ice cream over to Porter. It seemed fair: he doesn't care much for pineapple; I do. This one was smooth and delicious, but the other tastes were overwhelmed by the pineapple.
Lemon & Blueberry Parfait Tart and uber creamy lemon with from-scratch blueberry jam in fresh cultured buttermilk and cream. Delicious, and the lemon makes it very refreshing. I love lemon, and this has an excellent flavor, but it does overwhelm the blueberry.
Sweet Cream Biscuits & Peach Jam Buttermilk ice cream, crumbled biscuits, and swirls of jam made with Georgia peaches from "The Peach Truck." Very yummy. The biscuits are noticeable by both taste and texture, just about the right amount in each case. The peach flavor is excellent.
Salty Caramel Fire-toasted sugar with sea salt, vanilla, and gress-grazed milk. A perfect balance of salty and sweet. This also was delicious, though I'll admit it was even better when paired with some Chocolate Trinity. I love the combination of chocolate and caramel.
Brambleberry Crisp Oven-toasted oat streusel with sweet-tart bramble berry jam of blackberries and blackcurrants layered throughout vanilla ice cream. I'm running out of things to say other than "delicious." But that it was. The vanilla is a better foil for the berries than lemon was for the blueberries. The oat streusel is reminiscent of a good-quality granola or an oatmeal cookie.
If I were to be blessed with such a gift on another occasion, what would I want to repeat? Any of them except the dairy-free variety would be welcomed, but Number 1 on my list would clearly be the Brown Butter Almond Brittle. It was the biggest surprise of all the flavors, and the most memorable. If there's an equivalent elsewhere I haven't found it.
I went over to the Jeni's website to check out some of the other flavors they offer. I'd definitely want to try their Gooey Butter Cake, in honor of our most pleasant visit to my nephew when he lived in St. Louis. Maybe Churro, or Cream Puff, or Boston Cream Pie, or Pistachio & Honey. Texas Sheet Cake and Dark Chocolate Truffle sound good, but both are dairy-free so I would steer clear of them. Porter would love Goat Cheese with Red Cherries, but I don't think I'd offer to help him finish that pint.
Brown Butter Almond Brittle aside, the best part of Jeni's is the variety and the opportunity to taste unusual flavors. I'm really thinking Grass Roots should get into the delivery business. :) Or maybe not; to do that they might have to grow too much and lose their small, local-business cachet. But it's a thought.
Despite my firm intentions to capitalize on the need to stay at home, I have not recently been accomplishing much. The world has been turned upside down and I'm finding it hard to stay focused on anything. On top of my own frazzled state, interruptions from distant family have greatly increased. They're all distant at this point—and that's harder than usually to take because in just one week we were supposed to have begun to gather most of them together here! The interruptions are most welcome and most treasured, but it's hard to work when every call, every text, every e-mail, every WhatsApp, every form of contact suddenly feels urgent.
I was at sixes and sevens all yesterday, but I made a concerted effort to have one finished task I could point to at the end of the day: I made barbecue sauce.
For years our favorite barbecue sauce was Jack Daniel's Original Old No. 7. But for months now I haven't been able to obtain it, and I became determined to make something similar of my own. Inspired by discovering the remains of a bottle of Scotch whiskey in our cupboard, I decided that yesterday would be the day. It was Cutty Sark, not Jack Daniel's, but I will hereby shock and alienate all aficionados by insisting that "whiskey is whiskey."
I found several "Jack Daniel's Barbecue Sauce" recipes online, took what I judged to be the best of each one, added a few twists of my own, and cooked it up.
In testimony to my frazzled state, it took me two tries. I hadn't gotten very far on the first one when something interrupted, and it ended up burning on the stove, making an awful mess of the pan.
After some extensive clean up work, I was able to see Try #2 through to the end.
Oh, was it delicious! Yes, I do say so myself. I think that even if I do find the commercial kind again, I won't look back. This is 'way better. The flavors bring to mind—of all things—the description in C. S. Lewis' Screwtape Proposes a Toast of devil's wine made from "vintage Pharisee": Look at those fiery streaks that writhe and tangle in its dark heart, as if they were contending ... forever conjoined but not reconciled. The flavors mingle without blending. It's sweet and sour, salty and smoky, smooth and rich with a bit of fire. No one impression dominates; each takes its turn coming to the forefront.
Whiskey Barbecue Sauce
- 1/2 cup plus 1 - 2 tbsp whiskey
- 4 cloves garlic
- 1/2 cup onion
- 2 cups ketchup
- 1/3 cup white vinegar
- 3/4 cup molasses
- 1/2 cup brown sugar
- 1/4 cup tomato paste
- 3 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
- 1/2 tsp smoked Spanish paprika
- 1/2 tsp hot paprika
- 1/2 tsp freshly ground pepper
- 1/2 tsp Kosher salt
Put both garlic and onion through a garlic press. Add with whiskey to a medium saucepan and heat gently for about five minutes.
Combine remaining ingredients, mix well and add to saucepan. Bring just to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes or so.
Stir in remaining whiskey and simmer for another five minutes. Bottle when cool, and refrigerate.
Using the garlic press on both the garlic and the onion was my idea, and I think it works well. The sauce ended up silky, with no blending necessary.
Initially I resisted using ketchup, figuring that I ought to be able to make the sauce from tomato paste alone. But all the recipes I consulted used ketchup, and the clincher was that my tomato paste stock was low and we had lots of ketchup. Since ketchup is pretty much a staple around here, why not use it?
None of the online recipes call for smoked Spanish paprika and hot paprika; Liquid Smoke and bottled hot sauce seem popular. I used what I had hanging around, and am pleased with the result. I suspect there's a fair amount of flexibility here if you can't get the named ingredients. If Worcestershire sauce is unobtainable, for example, try a dab of anchovy paste or some fish sauce.
We all know that sopranos specialize in hitting high notes. How about this one, reported by Stephan, who sings in a Catholic Church choir in Switzerland. He's not Catholic, but they have the choir! And the food, apparently.
The sopranos treated us to hors d’oeuvres and a six-course dinner for our choir’s annual general meeting. Beet carpaccio with goat cheese and honey; mushroom soup; pike-perch with saffron sauce, shredded leek, and wild rice; blood orange Campari granita; angus roast with pea sauce, celery-potato mash, and vegetables; and chocolate mousse with orange sauce and filleted orange wedges on the side. Of the hors d’oeuvres, the pear crisps with cream cheese, Gorgonzola and walnuts deserve a special mention.
That's setting the bar pretty high. Will the tenors provide the next feast?
If you have a spare 15 minutes, I highly recommend listening to part of this "Fake Food" podcast from Christopher Kimball's Milk Street Radio. The relevant section starts at about 18:30. Here are a few high(low?)lights:
- More money is made in food fraud worldwide than in narcotics trafficking.
- In light of the above, it's not surprising that food adulteration is big organized crime business, all over the world.
- Daffodil extract has been added to sunflower oil to make it look like olive oil.
- Parmesan cheese has been adulterated with shredded cardboard.
- When demand for a product of limited availability surges, fraud follows. (When coconut products became popular, what sold as "coconut water" was often just water, sweetened. You can't get more coconut palms fast enough to meet the increased demand.)
- 25% of the oregano sold has been adulterated. In Australia, that's 70%. (That really makes me appreciate the live oregano growing in our front garden.)
- Often even if the adulterants are theoretically not harmful, e.g. shredded olive leaves in oregano, they can be dangerous—olive leaves are often drenched in pesticides.
You get the depressing picture. The good news? Food scientists are getting better at detecting adulterated products, and someday soon your phone may have an app for that.
Ramblings inspired by a glass of milk:
America, the land of Liberty. New Hampshire, the state with the motto, Live Free or Die. Sometimes I wonder what our Founders would think of our current willingness, even eagerness, to give up essential freedoms for (supposed) safety. But then I realize that people are much the same in every generation, so I'm sure they had to deal with plenty of the same kind of opposition.
Am I going to complain about the current attacks on our Second Amendment? Not now, even though I—with a lifelong dislike of guns—find the attempts to disarm American citizens appalling and frightening.
Not this time. Right now I'm standing up, as I have before, for the freedom to enjoy flavorful foods.
I insist that one culprit in our "obesity crisis" is that Americans are unconsciously craving the flavor of normal, healthy food. Food such as the "farm milk" we drink when we are in Switzerland: fresh from the cow, unpasteurized, unhomogenized, just real milk. Real milk that bears only a superficial resemblance to that of the same name purchased in an American grocery store.
At home, I love milk, and drink a lot of it. But I can only drink skim; whole milk sticks in my throat. Except in the form of hot chocolate, which is best with whole milk, even in America. In Switzerland, farm-fresh whole milk is absolutely delicious without any chocolate at all. (Granted, with a piece of dark Toblerone on the side, it is even better.)
There's no comparison between "real food" and that which comes from the average grocery store. Not only is grocery store food highly processed, but it is also deliberately homogeneous, so that there's no variation in flavor—milk is milk, orange juice is orange juice, apple juice is apple juice, chicken is chicken—instead of celebrating and enjoying nature's bountiful variety.
Don't get me wrong: there's a lot of benefit that comes from our mass-produced food, including lower prices. It is, indeed, what they call a First World problem. My objection is not to the availability of such food, but that it is crowding out the small, the local, the variety, the food of tremendous flavors. Worse, the awesome food—food that was plentiful as recently as 30 years ago—is now often illegal in America.
As with many roads to hell, this one is paved with good intentions. Safety is not the only issue—profit is another, as is the fickle American public—and safe food is important. But our approach to safe food reminds me of that old Chinese proverb, Do not remove a fly from your friend's head with a hatchet.
Overall, I'm a big fan of Chick-fil-A. It's the exception to our policy of not eating fast food except when travelling, and even then other fast food restaurants are likely to get our business only when Chick-fil-A isn't available.
Friends who have worked for the company have praised the atmosphere and working conditions. Their workers are friendly and always respond to "thank you" with a cheery "my pleasure!" The restaurants tend to be clean and welcoming. We found that to be true even on our most recent travels along I-95 through Georgia when demand was so high the line snaked through much of the restaurant. Let me repeat that: It was clean—including the restrooms. On I-95. In Georgia.
But none of that is what keeps me coming back.
It's their Spicy Chicken Sandwich. There's nothing else like it.
I've tried spicy chicken sandwiches all up and down the East Coast. We seem to do a lot of Sunday travel—when Chick-fil-A is closed—and when I can, I look for spicy chicken sandwiches. For research, you know.
What we sacrifice for science! Some of the other chicken sandwiches were okay, but none so far has even hinted at being as good as Chick-fil-A's.
The inspiration for this post came from someone else who ate chicken sandwiches for science: Dennis Green reviewed some chicken sandwiches for Business Insider, and he agrees with me.
You know what's better than a chicken sandwich? A spicy chicken sandwich. In the face of uproar over a new chicken sandwich from Popeyes, I could no longer stomach the obviously superior version of the fried-chicken sandwich being left out of the national conversation. ...
I will not sit idly by as this information is suppressed by the mainstream media. Something has to be done. More chicken MUST be eaten. That's why I decided to pit Popeyes' new spicy chicken sandwich against two from Wendy's and Chick-fil-A. ...
Overall, the spicy chicken sandwich from Chick-fil-A hit all the right notes. It was fresh but not too heavy, unlike some of its decadent competitors. Wendy's may have the history, but it hasn't kept up. Popeyes had a good go at it for its recent foray. But for my money, I'm going to Chick-fil-A every time.
I'm with ya', Dennis. From your descriptions, I could have picked the winner without tasting a bite. Both Wendy's and Popeyes serve their chicken sandwiches with mayonnaise? <shudder>.
I can't say I like everything about Chick-fil-A. Their sauces, for example, I find mediocre at best. But you know what? I don't care. Because their spicy chicken is so good anything more than a little ketchup would detract from the experience. Sometimes I even skip the ketchup.
Their Spicy Chicken Biscuit was so good I never dressed it. It's the only thing I've found at Chick-fil-A to rival the Spicy Chicken Sandwich.
But that brings me to something else I don't like about Chick-fil-A: they discontinued their Spicy Chicken Biscuit. What were they thinking?
Our nephew's fiancée has just begun a career in management at Chick-fil-A. I know it will take her a while, ambitious as she may be, to get anywhere near the decision-making level, but I have great hopes: a Chick-fil-A to open in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, and the return of the Spicy Chicken Biscuit.
Are you listening, Cows?
It's been a while since I posted in my Conservationist Living category, which is this post's primary classification, though I've assigned it to several others as well.
America is going to hell, right? Everybody says so. Including a whole lot of people who fervently believe there is no such place as hell, which is an interesting conundrum. But they all believe with equal fervor that we are going there rapidly. Believer or non-believer, left-wing or right-wing, we are convinced that we're in bad shape and on course to get much, much worse. What we disagree on is the attitudes, events, actions, and pathways that are taking us hell-ward.
Believe me, I'm not immune to such pessimism. Neither are you, so I'm going to tell you a small part of the story of Dave Anderson.
The Andersons are friends of our daughter's family, from their Pittsburgh days. Dave's success at building a good life for his family while reclaiming a worn-out strip mine and putting to good use many hundreds of tons of refuse every year was featured last month in this Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article.
I made the 45-minute drive to Echo Valley Farm this week because I wanted to meet the man who’d turned strip-mined land in northwest Beaver County into 26 grassy acres on which beef cattle thrive. Mr. Anderson had told me he revived his land by mixing hundreds of thousands of used paper cups from the Pittsburgh Marathon with manure, hay, banana peels and restaurant refuse.
You'll want to read the whole article to learn about the symbiotic relationship between the farm, needing nourisment, and both private businesses and local governments, needing waste disposal, that's a win for everyone involved.
It all works because there’s something in it for everyone. Mr. Anderson said that 14 years ago, the field over my shoulder produced 6,000 pounds of hay at the first cutting. The cutting in [the] same field last year brought 37,000 pounds.
Plus, the farm is a great place to raise kids.
I ask if it’s just the two of them and he says, no, he and his wife, Elaine, have six girls and a boy. They range in age from 10 to 24. All seven of them comprise Echo Valley, a bluegrass/gospel/Celtic band, that just played in Harrodsburg, Ky., Saturday night.
Several years ago—it was probably more than ten, though I'm finding that hard to believe—we visited the budding farm for one of their many social gatherings of food, music, and fun. Kids and animals were everywhere. The children were much younger then, of course, but they were already solid musicians. Here is a more recent video of the group.
and one of my favorites from earlier, just for fun.
Mr. Anderson, an inveterate reader who doesn’t own a TV, and who also was an air traffic manager until he retired last Friday, figured out how to turn desolate land into a lush farm that supports a family of nine with 30 head of beef cattle, six miniature donkeys, 40 laying hens, two turkeys, four guinea fowl, three geese, three ducks, two Australian cattle dogs and six pups.
Not to mention a number of cats, as I recall.
I hope this brightened your day. If America is, indeed, going to hell, people like the Andersons are pulling mightily in the other direction.
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When I lamented my love/hate relationship with Penzeys Spices, one of my readers pointed me to an alternative spice source. I wasn't particularly looking for a new source at the time, having resigned myself to making do with grocery store spices except when Penzeys had a very, very special sale—which they seem to do every time Bill Penzey wants to point to a spike in sales as evidence that his customers support a particular political position.
But I checked out The Spice House and was blown away. I had not known the greater Penzeys story: It was Bill Penzey, Sr. who started the original Spice House company. His daughter took over the business, while his son, Bill Penzey, Jr., started his own spice company. Both companies have access to the old family recipes. The Spice House is smaller and more local than Penzeys, which they count to their advantage, all their spices still being prepared by hand in small batches, at their store.
The biggest difference between Penzeys and The Spice House is in politics. For all I know, the owners of the two stores share the same exact political views—or perhaps they are poles apart. I wouldn't know, because, unlike Penzeys, The Spice House makes a point of welcoming customers of all political persuasions, and keeping a very low profile themselves.
Here at The Spice House we are strictly a community of folks who like to cook; you will never get any lectures from us that include our personal agenda. We are just about the love of cooking and getting you the best possible ingredients to produce the most flavorful results!
Penzeys-quality seasonings without the side order of vituperation? I'm in!
My first order with The Spice House was just large enough to qualify for free shipping, because I'm trying to draw down my current spice stockpile, but what I've seen so far, I like very much. Here's a new blend that quickly became a favorite: Lake Shore Drive Seasoning: Gently hand mixed from salt, shallots, garlic, onion, chives, ground green peppercorns, scallions. My favorite alliums all together! I could only be happier if they had—without replacing this one—a blend that included all of the above except the salt, so I could add still more of the flavor to a dish.
I doubt The Spice House will totally replace Penzeys for me, as not all blends are available in both places. But it has certainly become the go-to store for my regular seasoning purchases.
Almond butter. I should have asked this question before I bought it: Does anyone here use almond butter? Tell me about it.
I like almonds and really, really like marzipan. Almond paste is an ingredient I like to keep in pantry, even though it's not inexpensive. It's essential for making almond raisin bread, one of my favorites.
Thus the idea of almond butter intrigued me. I was envisioning something that looked like peanut butter but tasted like almond paste. Sort of like Biscoff (Speculoos), perhaps, but with a marzipan flavor. That would have been awesome.
I'd been put off by the price of almond butter, so when Publix offered this on a buy-one-get-one-free sale, I jumped at the chance. Now I'm stuck with two jars of something that tastes rather like bad peanut butter. Don't get me wrong; I like peanut butter. But when one is expecting almond, peanut doesn't cut it—especially not at an almond price.
The ingredients don't seem unreasonable: dry roasted almonds, organic evaporated cane sugar, palm oil, sea salt. I'm going to try it in some recopies to see if it tastes better than by the spoonful, but I'm not particularly hopeful.
My take? If you're allergic to peanuts (but not almonds), and really want a substitute for peanut butter, this would work well. Otherwise, forget it.
What's your experience? Did I get a bad jar? A bad brand? Or just make a bad assumption about what almond butter should taste like?
I have a new favorite cooking show, and no one is more surprised than me. It's called Struggle Meals and features a crazy young person (probably one of those Millennials, born on Bastille Day in 1990, somewhere between our youngest daughter and our oldest nephew) whose audience is a world vastly different from my own, a world of potty-mouthed youngsters who claim to be struggling financially yet who almost never cook at home, preferring restaurant food, most often in take-out or food-truck form, because they "don't have time" to do otherwise. They probably also pay for cable TV, but that's a rant for another time. In any case, I'm clearly not his intended audience.
But hey, food is food! Cooking is cooking, and Struggle Meals is full of great ideas. Frankie Celenza is highly entertaining (if also, like much of his audience, a bit of a potty-mouth), and the Struggle Meals shows are short (five to fifteen minutes) and to the point. The link above takes you to the YouTube channel, but if you have access to Facebook, you can follow Struggle Meals there, with the advantage that the comments always include recipes for his featured dishes.
The point of the show is that inexpensive, high-quality, homemade food is within reach of almost everyone. Each show features the creation of (usually) three attractive, healthful meals on a theme (such as wraps, chicken, coconut, breakfast, street food, etc.), all of which can be prepared with minimal effort for under $2 per serving. And without special equipment: for example, he uses the "Struggle Whisk 9000"—a fork. Or "Struggle Plastic Wrap"—a plate on top of a bowl.
One feature of most of the shows is his famous "packet drawer," which is where I first got the hint that his audience lives on take-out food. Frankie has one kitchen drawer dedicated solely to those tiny packets of soy sauce, sugar, butter, mustard, mayonnaise—even sriracha—that usually come in excess with take-out orders. This is "free flavor" and he makes liberal use of it, a significant savings of both money and food over tossing them into the trash. "Normal people" won't have this resource, but that doesn't hinder the recipes—nor the fun—in any way.
Here's an example, Episode 1 of the first season. Warning: gratuitous violence in the introduction. I've learned where to close my eyes.
I fell in love with Penzeys Spices the first time I walked into their Pittsburgh store, many years and ten grandchildren ago. What an enormous array of herbs, spices, and extracts of excellent quality, as well as their own superb spice blends! I couldn't say enough wonderful things about Penzeys, in person and here on this blog.
You may or may not have noticed that I don't do that anymore. My interactions with the company have left a bad taste in my mouth, and when your business is selling food ... that's not a good situation.
Once upon a time I stocked up on Penzeys products whenever we visited our daughter in Pittsburgh. I put myself on their mailing list, and in between times would sometimes place an order through the mail. But imagine my joy when Central Florida finally got its own Penzeys store! We generally visited once a month, to take advantage of the free spice coupons in the catalog, and of course we almost always made other purchases as well.
Ah, the catalog. In each one, Bill Penzey wrote an enjoyable little column about spices, food, cooking, and family. I used to like reading that, almost as much as I enjoyed the food & family stories contributed by customers. But gradually, that changed. Politics started to infuse the catalog, first in Bill's column and then in the customer stories he chose to include.
Well, I don't usually discriminate against great products based on the political opinions of the company. I continued to drool over the catalog, skipping Bill's column. When I did read it, I was usually sorry I had. We continued our monthly visits to the store, where even the employees rolled their eyes at the political turn the company was taking.
And then Penzeys closed our store.
I understand that companies must make difficult economic decisions and sometimes stores must be closed. I'm okay with that, even if it makes me sad. Their lease was up, and rents are high in the area they had chosen to open their store. What my anger flowed from was the implication on their sign that they would soon be opening a new store in the area, though I certainly was looking forward to that.
You see, in his political writings Bill Penzey consistently positions himself and his company as the defenders of the common people, the little guys, the poor and needy ... you get the picture. He's always denouncing people and businesses that make decisions based on what he perceives as selfishness and greed. Yet he decided to close a store and reopen elsewhere just to get his company out from under an expensive lease, leaving his employees—the little guys, the poor and needy common people—high and dry. They could not afford to wait for the opening of a theoretical new store: they needed jobs. Given all Bill Penzey has said about what other people should do with their money and in their own businesses, I would have expected his company to bite the bullet, forgo some profit, and at the least not close the existing store until a new one, nearby but in a less expensive neighborhood, was ready to provide jobs for their displaced employees.
They did not. That moves the scenario from necessary business decision straight to hypocrisy. And as it turned out, it has been four years since they closed, and there is still no sign of a Penzeys store any closer than Jacksonville.
On top of that, despite my many attempts at communication—before and after this event; whether contribution, compliment, or complaint; by e-mail or postal mail—I never heard back from Penzeys. It was worse than writing to a politician and expecting communication!
Since then, Bill Penzey's political rants (which now come to me by e-mail rather than printed catalog) have gone over-the-edge extreme. The hypocrisy, the hate-preached-as-love, would almost be funny—if it weren't so sad.
The following incident did make me laugh, at least until I started wondering what tax advantage the company might be angling for. Last Friday, the mailman delivered a box of excitement: my most recent Penzeys order. Penzeys packages often come with a freebie or two tucked in, such as sample-sized envelopes of herbs or spices (my favorite) or something advertising the store or one of Bill Penzey's pet causes. Here's one of the latter that came this time:
It's a sticker, no big deal except for the waste when it ends up in the landfill. What makes it bizarre is how it appeared on the packing slip, which you can see below, with some prices I've circled in red.
For this sticker, which I didn't order, they charged me $6.95, then "discounted" the price at the end. What kind of pricing is this? Who in his right mind would pay $6.95 for a sticker, let alone one not even worth sending to grandchildren? And what's the point? Some sort of shady accounting practice or tax benefit?
Amusing in a different way are the accolades Bill Penzey gives himself by first (1) making an extreme political statement, then (2) offering an extraordinarily good sale, 'way too good to pass up, then (3) bragging that his customers clearly endorse his political beliefs—just look at the spike in sales!
But do you know what? I still buy his spices. Not nearly as much, not nearly as often. As I said, the company now leaves a bad taste in my mouth. But the taste of the spices is still wonderful. I don't believe boycotts to be generally useful, and in most cases I choose businesses by quality and price without asking about politics.
Penzeys' reputation for quality is no doubt why they feel they can get away with repeatedly and consistently alienating half their customer base. It puts me in mind of what a math professor friend said about Harvard University years ago: The quality of education at the school has gone down significantly; students are no longer getting what a "Harvard education" used to mean. Harvard is living on its reputation. And that will be slow to die, because the Harvard reputation will still give Harvard graduates' résumés a great advantage over others. More importantly, it will continue to attract the best students, which will give them both the "iron sharpens iron" benefit and an unbeatable network of connections for the future. You can't live forever on reputation alone, but if you have once been great, you can fool yourself and others for a long time.
I believe Bill Penzey is fooling himself. As long as Penzeys' spices are perceived as superior—and many of them really are—even the spurned, denigrated, vilified half of his customer base will not flee en masse. But many—like some students who forgo applying to Harvard—may decide that the difference is not worth the cost. The love and the loyalty are gone.
Update 10/16/19: Note that this post has garnered enough comments to spill over past the first page. Click on the Next link to see the more recent ones.