For almost three decades, Ann Wilder, celebrated in food circles as the Spice Queen, introduced untutored American palates to the glories of ajowan seed, grains of paradise, and powdered sumac. The co-founder of Vanns Spices died January 13 at age 77.
A native South Carolinian whose drawl became a trademark, Wilder was almost 50 when she found her calling. In 1979, a friend, Virginia Lamanski, asked the former art teacher to help with some cooking classes she held in her Baltimore home. The two began creating spice and herb blends for their students. When a bulk-spice vendor asked Wilder why she bought paprika and cumin by the pound, she told him about the blends. "I can sell those," he said, and Vanns Spices was born.
At first, Vanns was a dining-table affair. The partners sold their wares through independent groceries and at Christmas trade shows. (They garnered attention for first-in-the-U.S. products like mixed green, pink, and white peppercorns.) Soon, they were making private-label products for Zabar's, Dean and DeLuca, and Martha Stewart.
Sourcing was a problem in those early days. Wilder often found sticks and cigarette butts mixed in with product purchased from brokers. On one occasion, a car part had been packed with a bale of bay leaves to increase the weight. Obsessed with quality, she tracked down the finest growers and processors around the world and made deals with them.
Wilder's reputation grew through the '90s as she rubbed shoulders with the culinary elite and helped introduce innovations like an environmentally friendly method for steam cleaning spices. "Alice Waters and other big cookbook authors would come by Ann's plant just to see what was new," says her son Rob, who helped Wilder run the business. (Lamanski bowed out in the early '80s.)
"Ann taught me that each spice has its own personality," says Seth Goldman, CEO of Honest Tea. Goldman recalls an occasion, before his company went organic, when another supplier tempted him with a delicious artificial cinnamon. He asked Wilder if a natural version could match its intensity. "She said, 'Absolutely,' and pulled out her secret weapon: Saigon cinnamon," Goldman says. "It was like having a light shined in your eyes."
Wilder had taken on a silent partner in 1988, and in 2005 the two parted ways. Wilder sold him her stake in Vanns -- then a $3 million business -- and with her son launched a second spice company, Wilder Foods.
"Ann was passionate about food, and she made it possible for restaurants and home cooks to be as adventurous as she was," says Bill Wallace, who was a longtime consultant for Vanns. "She opened the door to a world of flavors."