July 2008 Issue
Food & Friendship
Columbus’ Spice Ladies travel the state in search of culinary adventures and inspiration.
“It’s so much fun to have foodie friends,” says Donna Butler, who is seated on a couch in the living room of her longtime friend and fellow foodie, Dianne Williams. There are six women in Williams’ Gahanna home on this spring afternoon, and they are doing what they love to do — talking about food.
“Foodies are very generous people — great people to have as friends,” Williams adds. Williams, Butler and five others (Tony Loehnert, Patty Miller, Martha Smith, Kathy Young and Pam Hertenstein) make up the Spice Ladies, a group of like-minded
Columbus-area women of different ages and backgrounds, who share a passion for all things culinary. The group meets the first Tuesday of every month — a routine they’ve had since they first got together eight years ago.
At that time, the city of Columbus was abuzz about an outdoor shopping center — Easton Town Center — that had completed its first phase of development. One of the first stores to open was Williams-Sonoma, and the Spice Ladies all worked the day shift at the popular cookware store, bonding quickly and steadfastly over their love of cooking, baking, eating out and even food shopping.
“The kids that we worked with started calling us the Spice Girls [after the popular music group], and then I guess they thought they should be more respectful, and called us the Spice Ladies,” Williams says with a laugh.
One day, Martha Smith’s husband, Bill, suggested that since the Williams-Sonoma women seemed to have so much fun together, perhaps they ought to schedule regular culinary outings. (Sadly, he passed away shortly after the group began meeting.) The Spice Ladies have been together ever since, traveling all over Ohio and to neighboring states in the name of good food. They’ve been to the North Market in Columbus, the West Side Market in Cleveland, the KitchenAid Factory in Greenville, Jungle Jim’s in Cincinnati and Baker’s Acres Greenhouse in Alexandria, in addition to numerous food shows, cooking classes, farms and restaurants.
The women value their monthly Tuesday get-togethers and adventures so much that they admit to planning their work, vacation, family obligations and social schedules around Spice Ladies outings. They also plan annual events, including apple picking in the fall and a cookie exchange during the holidays.
“We’re all just like family. We’ve been together through four weddings, one grandchild born, one grandchild on the way, great-grandchildren and one funeral,” Williams explains.
“We all get along so well. We’ve never had an argument — not even a disagreement,” adds Patty Miller.
In the beginning, the group enthusiastically discussed their plans at the store.“We had so much fun talking about it that so many people wanted to join us,” Smith says, with a chuckle. There grew to be a waiting list of sorts — fellow foodies and coworkers who were willing to fill in on a moment’s notice if one of the group members could not make an outing. “It wasn’t because we were trying to be some kind of elite group,” Smith explains. “Only seven or eight people could fit in the van ... We didn’t want to drive two cars.”
Tony Loehnert, who describes herself as “the great-grandmother of the group,” has asked her friends the same two questions for years: “When are we going to the ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show,’ and when are we going to put out a cookbook?” While the Spice Ladies are still waiting patiently for that phone call from Oprah, they did release a cookbook in 2006, which they named Living In Cin-namon: Travels with the Spice Ladies. The cookbook features a variety of recipes from each Spice Lady, basic cooking and calorie information and photographs of the group over the years.
One photo shows them seated in a hotel room, dressed in pink pajamas. It was taken on a road trip to a food festival in Morgantown, West Virginia, during what they describe as a “giant slumber party” in celebration of Loehnert’s birthday. In fact, before turning in for the evening, the Spice Ladies convened in one of their hotel rooms, filled the room with appetizer spreads and treats, and opened the door for anyone staying at the hotel to come in and join their party.
“We all have this one love, of food, and it brings everyone together,” says Smith, whose own passion for food originated in childhood, when she learned how to cook by helping her Slovakian grandmother make doughnuts (fanky) and other ethnic dishes.
Williams caught the cooking bug in her late teens, when, she says, “I started reading cookbooks and becoming more knowledgeable, and finding out there’s a much broader world. I’ve always said that’s how I really learned geography, from reading cookbooks — not from what I was taught.”
Whenever her family went on vacations, she’d take cookbooks with her as her primary reading material. “I’d always have a pile of cookbooks in bed, on the floor beside the bed, everyplace,” Williams adds. “That’s where my thought process begins and ends — it’s all around creating with food.”
The Spice Ladies, more than anything, are all about friendships. “Everybody has friendships when they are younger,” says Kathy Young, a retired teacher who has always enjoyed meal planning. “I think it’s probably unusual ... to form entirely new friendships when you’re over 50. We all feel really lucky.”
She adds: “When I met each and every one of the [Spice Ladies], there was an instant connection. I [knew I] would know them forever.”
For information on ordering a copy of Living In Cin-namon: Travels with the Spice Ladies
, e-mail Dianne Williams at email@example.com