By Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor Published Nov 28, 2011 at 9:01 AM Photography: Damien Jaques

Let's talk about stocking stuffers.

Are you in a rut? Is all the fun over after you bite off the chocolate Santa's head? Can we describe your holiday socks as B-O-R-I-N-G?

I have three words for you. Vulcan's Fire Salt. That will give your Christmas morning scrambled eggs a nice burn.

Or how about za'atar, the Middle Eastern mixture of sumac, sesame seed and herbs that is spread with olive oil on bread or used as a seasoning to sprinkle on everything from salads to kebabs? If your palate isn't particularly adventurous, some cinnamon sticks would fit comfortably into your stocking.

All of these and much more come from The Spice House, a seductive storefront that often contributes a heavenly outdoor aroma to Old World Third Street. The shop is a few steps south of Mader's.

A dazzling inventory of herbs, spices and extracts can quickly turn a macaroni and cheese from-a-box bachelor into an enthusiastic foodie. "People come in here to read the labels," store manager Kate Erd says. "Use good, fresh spices and people will think you really know how to cook."

The Spice House dates back to 1957, when Ruth Penzey and her late husband, Bill Penzey, Sr., started the business on 33rd and Galena. Little did they know they were founding an empire.

The Penzeys moved their store to the 1000 block of North Old World Third Street in 1976, occupying at different times spaces that now house Lucille's Rockin' Pianos and the southern half of the Wisconsin Cheese Mart. They sold the business to their daughter Patty and her husband, Tom Erd, in 1992 when The Spice House moved to its present location.

Under the Erds, the business has expanded to include a large stall at the Milwaukee Public Market and shops in Chicago, Evanston and Geneva, Ill.

Meanwhile, another member of the family, Bill Penzey, Jr.,  has grown a separate spice business, branded as Penzey's, into a national retailer with stores stretching across the country from Orlando to Seattle. Both The Spice House and Penzey's also have mail-order operations that allow customers to purchases spices by phone and online.

Finally, another store, called Spice House, is owned by Ruth Penzey at 1244 N. Glenview Ave. in Wauwatosa.

Kate Erd – Tom's sister and the Third Street manager – recently explained why The Spice House is special.

"With the exception of the Public Market, we grind and blend everything in each store. It is what makes us unique, different. It is what makes our spices so fresh."

Health department regulations and fear that the spice aroma would overwhelm all of the other businesses are the reasons for not grinding and blending in the Public Market.

The Spice House receives 300-pound barrels of garlic powder, 100-lb. barrels of sliced onions and 110-pound sacks of Indian black pepper. Most of those products become ingredients in the company's blends.

At $150 an ounce, saffron is shipped in much smaller quantities.

Professional chefs shop the store, and The Spice House makes proprietary blends for a number of restaurants including Sanford, Coquette Cafe, the Bartolotta Group and the dining venues at the American Club. The Vulcan's Fire Salt is sold to bars for inclusion in their Bloody Marys.

MillerCoors occasionally calls for spices when the brewer is experimenting with new products, according to Erd.

Tastes and textures offered at The Spice House are encyclopedic in their range. Orange peel granules, horseradish powder, Chicago Deep Dish Pizza Pizzazz, strawberry vanilla sugar, coffee extract. Are we hungry yet?

Demand for specific spices reflects the time of year. Turkey brine blend and pumpkin pie spices are hot now.

A broad variety of gift boxes are offered. The newest features popcorn seasonings ($20.95), and it includes half-cup jars of that Vulcan's Fire Salt, maple sugar seasoning, a cheddar cheese powder and a cheese sprinkle.

There are gift boxes for curry lovers ($23.95), salad and vegetable lovers ($21.95), fans of Asian flavors ($20.95) and successful fishermen ($20.95). Two different salt-free boxes are priced at $20.95 and $22.95.

A trio of boxes for bakers ranges in price from $28.95 to $49.95. Kings of the grill have two gift box options ($20.95 and $49.95). The list goes on and on.

And if you are wondering what to get me for the holidays, I'll take the large jar of tomato powder ($7.49). It is real tomato, spray dried into a fine powder, and suitable for sprinkling on salads, bread and pizza. Doesn't that sound delish?

Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor

Damien has been around so long, he was at Summerfest the night George Carlin was arrested for speaking the seven dirty words you can't say on TV. He was also at the Uptown Theatre the night Bruce Springsteen's first Milwaukee concert was interrupted for three hours by a bomb scare. Damien was reviewing the concert for the Milwaukee Journal. He wrote for the Journal and Journal Sentinel for 37 years, the last 29 as theater critic.

During those years, Damien served two terms on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, a term on the board of the association's foundation, and he studied the Latinization of American culture in a University of Southern California fellowship program. Damien also hosted his own arts radio program, "Milwaukee Presents with Damien Jaques," on WHAD for eight years.

Travel, books and, not surprisingly, theater top the list of Damien's interests. A news junkie, he is particularly plugged into politics and international affairs, but he also closely follows the Brewers, Packers and Marquette baskeball. Damien lives downtown, within easy walking distance of most of the theaters he attends.