Sauer Spices Tour.
I live by my sense of smell. Really driven by it. I’m obsessed with perfumes and have samples of every type. I get fixated on a scent, so I spend 3 months collecting lilac fragrances, before moving on to citrus, vetiver, geranium, carnation, coconut, almond. My whole garden revolves not around flowers that look pretty, but rather have unusual yet appealing smells. I adore marigolds, peppery with spice, and love geraniums whose scent seems weirdly flowery and kind of winey. I grow tomatoes not for the fruit, but for the weird acrid smell of the vine. My deck is a jungle of basil: Thai, lemon, lime, lettuce. The scent at the height of summer is paradise to me.
Don’t even get me started on spices. It pains me to pass sealed spice jars in the store, and a trip to The Spice Diva or Penzey’s is a fabulous field trip from which my nostrils emerge dazed, confused, and happy.
It probably all started when I was a kid helping Momma in the kitchen. Bored as shit, because even though she wanted me to “help” my Momma was Type A so her version of help was me standing to one side watching. To pass the time I’d pry open every single one of the yellow boxes of C.F. Sauer spices she was using and inhale. Pry open the red top and breathe deep. Clove. Cinnamon. Pepper. Oregano. Each one so different and intoxicating. Each one so stimulating and unusual to this weird kid who inhaled the scent of Play-Doh and magic markers every time she got the chance.
I dated a guy once whose father had lost his sense of smell in a car accident. I remember actually feeling sick to my stomach on hearing this, a sharp pang of empathy for this guy rushing through. Was there a worse fate?! Not only could he not smell, he could barely taste. He carried a bottle of hot sauce everywhere he went because only by drowning his food in it could he have any sense for what he was eating. The horror! The horror!
So of course when presented with a tour of the C.F. Sauer spice factory as part of the Southern Foodways Alliance Summer Symposium I was more than elated. I was high with excitement. I’ve already written about my obsession and love for their neon sign. The fact I’d get to bathe in overwhelming scents of pepper and cinnamon? Heaven!
The intrigue, the secretiveness, the special Willy Wonka aspect of the tour was heightened when we were told not only could we not take pictures, or notes, we had to take off any dangling jewelry, leave every purse and bag and phone we had on the bus, and cover our hair with nets. Makes sense. No one wants to find a stray earring in the vanilla. My dreams of taking artsy architectural Instagram photos of peppercorns were dashed. No matter, I was one of the lucky few (they limit tours to 20) to actually get in. I felt like Veruca Salt. Without the rich Daddy to get me a Sauer neon sign of my very own.
Sadly they weren’t ready, so the tourbus made a short detour to Carytown for a half-hour walkabout while the Sauer people prepared. I cracked up laughing when I saw a few folks head for the Penzey’s Spices store. “Harumph! This is spice tour dammit! We want spices!” I headed for my old coffeeshop Betsy’s (now Carytown Bistro, but it will always and forevermore be Betsy’s to me) for an espresso and a sunbath.
Back at the factory we entered, donned hairnets, and started the tour. I gazed longingly at the huge ironwork wraparound staircase spiraling up to the second floor, jonesing for my camera. At every step the “CF” logo was inlaid into the iron and painted gold. Gorgeous! Shiny varnished old wood lay throughout the front offices, just begging to be touched. Very 1940’s Arthur Miller dancefloor slash bowling alley wood. It felt like glass and I couldn’t stop imagining the decades of spice dust which had settled into its crevices, becoming a part of it. Yummy.
We stepped through the doors into the factory workspace and the scent was like a tidal wave, assaulting your nostrils first then washing over you like a flood. Pepper. Black pepper. All encompassing and surrounding you so you couldn’t get away from it. I breathed in and noticed an undertone of oregano, garlic, and something else I couldn’t quite place. It was like each spice was tapping me on the shoulder to inform me of its presence. Every breath was a new experience. I felt like a wine sommelier smelling those boxes containing all the scents you’re supposed to pick up when you taste wine.
The first floor is one long warehouse space with huge bay doors at the back which open so workers can truck the sacks of spice in on pallets. We walked down corridors of spice sacks stacked 20-30 feet high as Mark Sauer explained the process. C.F. Sauer has been family owned since 1887. His 17-year-old daughter, fourth generation, is working the front desk for the summer. In addition to spices, Sauer’s also makes Duke’s mayonnaise down in Greenville, South Carolina, and there are other factories for its various subsidiary companies all over the country.
As we walked, I spied sacks labeled, “Chick-Fil-A Seasoning”. My eyes grew wide and I thought to myself, “OOOOOOHHHHHH! That’s why it’s so frikkin good,” and grieved for the days when I could still eat those suckers. Can’t anymore. Bad juju. I imagined myself as Slugworth, drilling a hole in a bag and stealing some, so I could make the filets at home.
Sauer walked us through each step, from the time the pepper is shipped from Madagascar to the time it hits your shelves. He pointed out a long, metal object used to poke into each shipment. A rudimentary version was invented by Marco Polo on his first journey to the East.
Sauer is one of the few spice companies that use liquid nitrogen to extract oils from spices. By chilling the cinnamon to such a low temperature, more of the oil is kept and your spice is much more fragrant. They are also the only one who still cold-press their vanilla. Huge vanilla beans a foot long are wrapped in a material similar to cheesecloth and steeped for 8 months at a time.* By cold pressing more of the vanilla essence is preserved. Most companies percolate the bean for shorter periods which cooks away the flavor.
As I stood and listened to him, the smells continued to swirl about and assault my every sense. Not just my nose, mind you. Maybe I’m sensitive but I could actually feel the spices settling into my clothes and sinking into my pores. Since this wasn’t a workday the fans weren’t turned on. Eventually the warmth and the overwhelming smell got to me. I started to feel drowsy, then dizzy, then nauseous. The pepper, the oregano, the cinnamon, the vanilla in the vats, all of it just wouldn’t relent. It was really too much of a good thing. I had overdosed on my obsession. I wondered how he could handle this day after day. And I longed for a breath of fresh air free of spice.
After the tour I stepped outside gratefully but then couldn’t resist smelling my clothes. Pepper. Mmmm. A nice memory of our tour. I hoped it would stay. Writing this post almost a month later I pour over the promotional materials Mark gave us and am astounded. They still smell like pepper. Magic!
What’s the moral here? You can have too much of a good thing. I enjoy smelling spices because a part of me wants to hold on tight to that moment of surprise, that elation you feel when you smell something wonderful. The nostalgia that something like vanilla evokes as it hits your nose. Memories of Muddy’s cakes, of birthdays, and good crème brulée. I want to grasp it tight and keep holding on, breathing it in. But when that vanilla surrounds you so completely? It becomes a parody of itself. It’s so huge and all encompassing it’s no longer special, but cloying, and after a while, something sick and annoying. The specialness is destroyed.
I’ll still briefly smell my cache of spices on occasion. And after doing this tour, I’ll seek out Sauer’s with more vigor when I’m shopping. But after overdosing on pepper and cinnamon and oregano, I know my spice junkie status is over. I am cured. And I’m ready for a Spices Anonymous meeting.
*They wouldn’t let us take notes, so I’m relying purely on memory. Forgive any mistakes and feel free to correct them!