I do my level best to go to the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium every fall for a plethora of reasons. The post-symposium tales I tell usually involve detailed descriptions of the food, which never fails to be stupendous. But in between meals there are speakers, one of whom was author and chef Eddie Huang. His topic was barbecue, but what I remember most from the talk was his spice story.
I think it is fair to say that knowledge of spices is essential to a chef worth his or her…salt. Salt and pepper may be the Mama and Papa of the seasoning world, but they are really just the tip of the spice-berg. Chef Eddie’s method of study was simple: he tasted them. One by one. By themselves. The picture in my mind’s eye is of him sitting at a table with a row of spice jars lined up from left to right – a “flight” of spices, if you will – tasting them individually in order to understand the true flavor of each.
Since that talk I’ve been fascinated by this idea. And though I haven’t yet dragged out my entire seasoning collection for a full-on tasting (it is even more vast than my collection of barbecue sauces), I have certainly taken multiple opportunities to pour little bits into my palm for a lick. (Clean hands, of course.) Daughter likes to eat plain salt; I prefer blends.
About a year ago I had to buy a bigger spice rack. A gentleman I had never met before stopped by my office and told me a story about his company – Magnolia Seasoning. It’s a hop and a skip from my house – not even a jump – practically under my nose. And just like that, I was fascinated by spices again.
If you followed Mississippi food news in the last decade or so, you’ll know about Bryan Foods in West Point. You may also know that somewhere along the way, Bryan was purchased by Sara Lee. In the mix at Sara Lee was a division that created many of the seasoning blends used by the company for its food products. Then, when Sara Lee closed its operations in West Point, Mr. Z (the aforementioned gentleman, who oversaw that division) opened Magnolia Seasoning.
Today, Magnolia Seasoning is still growing after almost ten years in the spice business. In fact, they are the only company in the South who will make custom spice blends. Primarily, they sell in bulk to restaurants and grocery stores, but if you look hard enough, you might just find some of their offerings in your own neighborhood grocery.
Recently I had the rare opportunity to tour the Magnolia Seasoning operation. I saw a giant mixer where Mr. K was blending up what appeared to be a fresh batch of lemon pepper. Other mixers were so big I could have laid down inside them. (I didn’t.) Elsewhere on the production floor, bottles were being filled with a barbecue blend of some sort. And somewhere in the building is a computer that guides the measurement of each individual ingredient, maintaining consistency from batch to batch.
One of my biggest questions had to do with recipe development. How did they decide something tastes like it’s supposed to? As it turns out, they have a taster: Mr. G. In his own little laboratory, he develops each formula using a scale and what must be an exceptionally sensitive set of taste buds. For example, if a chef wants a certain blend similar to an expensive national brand, but a little hotter, a little more salty, or a little less garlicky, Mr. G can match it.
I had been playing at home with Magnolia Seasoning blends for a while, but some of the things I learned on this visit inspired me to take greater steps towards my spice education. For example, one of the best ways to taste spices is to put them on foods that have little flavor of their own, like chicken or cottage cheese. I haven’t tried the cottage cheese test yet (though I bought some for that purpose), but I did have some fun with chicken.
I had a dozen wings that I planned to cook using my wing rack on the grill, so I picked six different blends and got to shaking: 3 Gunslinger’s Old West Steak Dust, Kickin’ Chicken, Redneck Bob’s BBQ, Orange You Glad, My Smokey Butt, and Lemon Pepper. The Wife got the first bite when they came off the grill, and she was sold – lock, stock and gun barrel – on the Old West Steak Dust. (I know it wasn’t a steak, but this blend was so tasty in my palm that I figured it was worth a try.) My favorite was the Lemon Pepper, which Mr. Z told me had never lost a blind taste test versus lemon peppers from other companies.
Over Labor Day Weekend I used the same method, but with riblets. For these I used Gunpowder (which gets its name from the color), Steak & Rib, Smoky Steak & Rib, Barbeque, Memphis Baby Back BBQ, Whiskey Creek Bourbon BBQ, Hickory Smoked BBQ, and Buttery Mesquite BBQ . Have you noticed the names? Sometimes the name begets the mix, and sometimes the mix begets the name. Some blends require certain names, while others end up with something wild. Either way, they are having fun. And if there is an unofficial motto of Magnolia Seasonings, it’s this: “If it’s not fun, why mess with it?”
My tastebuds are also having fun with the Greens and Vegetable seasoning that I picked up at Vowell’s (a locally owned market) a few months back. Most recently I have sprinkled it on oven-roasted vegetables, as well as grilled mushrooms with a dash of Gunpowder to boot. (Son just about wiped out the shrooms before I could try them). Mr. Z suggests sprinkling it on eggs – pizza, too! This bottle has earned a prominent spot on my rack.
Tailgate time is here, and the holidays are coming. You need seasoning. And you know it’s better to eat local. Magnolia Seasoning covers it all. Taste and see.
(Disclosure: As mentioned above, Mr. Z did bring me some sample seasonings to try. However, I later discovered that I had experienced – and enjoyed – some of their products sold under a local store label. So I think it’s safe to say that my opinions, though broadened by the generosity of Mr. Z, are my own. JR.)