The Spice Rack(et)

By: Elizabeth Webber Akre

I’ve been grocery shopping since I was a teenager.  As my mom’s real estate career took off and she had to work late at times, my dad, my sister and I became very domestic. Dad learned to cook, I started reading cookbooks, and Katherine and I did all the shopping.  When my dad decided to teach himself to cook, he went all out.  He didn’t have any interest in making french toast for supper or making a killer spaghetti and meatballs. No, he decided to cook the dishes he likes to order in a restaurant, so it was Veal Oscar and Lamb Chops with Pesto Cream for us!  He also came up with some dishes, and my sister and I made the list for those meals and all the other stuff in between.  Armed with that list and a blank check, we’d hit the Irmo Winn Dixie and shop away.  Interestingly enough, even though we had a blank check with us, we became meticulous label readers and comparison shoppers.  Each week we would come home and unload all the bags onto the counter so we could visually survey just how much we’d been able to buy for “our” money. I can’t put into words how valuable and educational this experience was for us.  And it carried us into, and has remained with us through, our adulthood.  Just the other day, I saw just how much that experience had taught me.

Cayenne pepper I needed cayenne pepper. As I often do, I stood in front of the spice area in the store and started scanning the shelves from top to bottom.  I’ve known for a long time now that this is an area of HUGE profit in the grocery biz.  Most people arrive at the spices, spot what they need, conveniently right at eye level, pick it up, toss it in the basket and off they go.  NO!  BACK UP!  YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG! That’s exactly what “they” want you to do!

Packaged herbs and spices are one of the biggest rackets in the grocery industry.  If you’ve ever grown herbs yourself, you know how little it costs. Most major grocery chains have their own private label, which I truly believe, comes from the same place as the brand name spices. For the most part, they carry the usual suspects (basil, oregano, sage, garlic powder, etc.) and some of the more interesting and special herbs and spices.  Then, there are the pretty little glass jars that attract most people’s attention.  They look much prettier than the grocery store brand, and they are much more interesting than the old school ones that are still in the little metal canisters that we all remember from the 60’s & 70’s. I imagine it being like that scene in “Finding Nemo” when Marlin & Dory happen across the spooky, terrifying fish with the hypnotic light on the end of its antennae…it’s so pretty.  So, most folks see the pretty little bottles, grab that cayenne and continue on without a second thought.

Zatarains Cayenne Pepper If you continue scanning those shelves, like I did the other day, you may find some pleasant surprises.  In this case, I wanted cayenne pepper.  The little glass jar of pepper (at eye level) was $4.49.  Just one shelf down (about hip level) was Zatarain’s cayenne for $1.49.  Same number of ounces, same ingredient, different shelf, dramatically different price.  See, that’s what “they” are banking on. They have studied our nature and know that most people will spot what they seek, grab it and go.  But, seriously, a $3.00 difference?  It’s simple robbery on the spice route!

Look one shelf down and you’ll encounter the special blends such as Cajun spice, blackening spice, or Creole spice.  The price tag is offensive to me.  Read the label and you’ll probably find that you have all those spices at home in your cabinet right now.  You don’t need a sketch of Prudhomme on the label to make it authentic.  But, the advertising and marketing geniuses are betting that you either don’t know this or are too lazy to mix up your own stuff.

Ok, I have one concession to this rant.  Maybe you (I, we, they) are simply too busy or just not inclined to spend this time or attention to this matter.  No big deal.  Do your own thing, ride your own ride.  But, if you’re like me most of the time, you want to find the true value, the true deal and spend an honest buck. If that’s you, devote about 5-10 minutes to really check out your grocery store’s herb/spice aisle.  You may be surprised and enlightened by what you discover.

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