From bay leaves to tarragon, these are the spices of Ann Wilder's life


December 02, 1992|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Staff Writer

The door opens and the aroma bursts out. Like a big, friendly Labrador pup, it nearly bowls you over. It is, all at once, dusty, spicy, earthy, herbal, hot and powerful: cardamom, mustard, pepper, sandalwood powder, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, lemon grass and cumin, tarragon and paprika and cayenne . . .

Altogether, there may be a couple hundred elements in the smell that is Vanns Spices Ltd. in Towson. And the presiding genie who orders all the scents and flavors into bottles is Ann Wilder, who started the business 10 years ago in her kitchen with six spice blends and now oversees a worldwide business that also packs spices for such notable vendors as Dean & DeLuca, Sutton Place Gourmet and Zabar's, among others.

This year the company won three Awards of Excellence from the Chefs in America Awards Foundation of San Francisco for its herbes de Provence, basil and Tellicherry pepper (an Indian variety). The awards were presented at a celebration at Carnegie Hall in New York City just before Thanksgiving. Earlier this year, at the Culinary Olympics in Stuttgart, Germany, a team of Canadian chefs led by Fred Zimmerman of Alberta won first place -- using Vanns Spices exclusively.

"If I had sat down and said, what kind of business can I get into that I meet wonderful people -- and crazy people -- and get to travel, and something that would have a different problem every day, I never would have come up with this," Ms. Wilder says, sitting in her office in Towson, which is cluttered with food products past, present and future.

"Yesterday it was somebody in Japan who wanted metric tons of stuff sent to them -- just trying to figure out metric tons and how many of those will go onto a container, how many boxes a container will hold -- and then somebody from Canada calls me and says his pita chips don't taste good, and can I come up with something that will make them taste better? And that's all the direction I get."

Then there's always the weather, or the odd disaster. "It's a crazy business. Chernobyl nearly did us in," Ms. Wilder says. "I'm married to a nuclear engineer, so I knew what it could do -- But we couldn't get Turkish bay leaves for two or three years -- and all kinds of things out of France, like tarragon, we just couldn't get.

She leads a visitor on a tour of the factory, where workers are surrounded by boxes and jars and packages, preparing items to be shipped out for the holiday season. There are racks of labels, a glue machine to put on the ones that aren't sticky-backed, a shrink-wrap machine that covers the tops of jars with clear seals, a funnel-like device that measures out ingredients and a small blending machine. "We like to keep as much whole as possible," Ms. Wilder says, "and the bigger ones break things up."

And then there are the ingredients themselves, stacked everywhere, in jars and cans and boxes and sacks and bags and bins. Some, lying in the warehouse, still bear the imprint of their exotic origin -- Singapore and Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia. Just keeping track of it all is a big job. "It's not the amount of inventory," she says, "it's the range."

Ms. Wilder's fascination with herbs and spices grew out of her love of cooking. Educated as a teacher, an artist by avocation, she found both those outlets limited by frequent moves early in her husband Richard's career. "One time he even put me in a trailer in Wyoming. You don't set up easels in trailers with small children around. So what I did was cook."

By 1967, when the family had settled in Baltimore and she had returned to teaching, she and everyone else in the family had gotten used to eating "more interesting" food. But when she came home from school every day, she discovered, "I didn't have two brains to rub together. So just to save my sanity, I started putting together seasoning mixes."

Part of the impetus was running out of tandoori mix -- "It's wonderful, you know, a tablespoonful of spice and a tablespoonful of yogurt and you slather that on the chicken and it tastes like you've been in the kitchen for a week" -- and not being able to replace it. Ms. Wilder and a friend, Virginia "Val" Limansky (who helped start the company, but then went on to other interests), "set about copying what we had left in the jar."

It was a process, she says, that "taught us both a huge amount about what spices taste like and how they work together." She and Ms. Limansky sold their mix at church bazaars, or gave it away to friends. But times were changing -- "everybody in the world got as busy as I was," Ms. Wilder says, and she grew tired of teaching. Then one day, she was buying ingredients in a spice store, and the proprietor asked her what anyone wanted with a pound of cumin. "I said I was making tandoori,and he said, 'I could sell that.' "

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