PHOENIX (AP) — While the immigration debate can get as hot as a chili pepper, one spice company is spreading a message that Arizona's cuisine can conquer its differences.
Penzeys Spices has introduced a new blend called Arizona Dreaming, with the message that Mexican culture is a beloved part of the state's — and the country's — food heritage.
"I see food as a medium to bring people together," said Bill Penzey Jr., chief executive officer and son of the founder of Wisconsin-based Penzeys Spices.
The idea started several months ago, while Penzey was cooking for his pregnant wife, who was finding some dishes repellent. He also was following the stories on Arizona's new immigration law, Senate Bill 1070. So he started experimenting with Southwestern flavors.
The result is Arizona Dreaming, a salt-free blend of ancho-chili pepper, black pepper, onion, garlic, paprika, cumin, citric acid, Mexican oregano, cilantro, lemon peel, chipotle pepper, red pepper, jalapeno, cocoa and natural smoke flavoring.
Penzeys launched the product during the summer in its 47 stores, including one in Scottsdale, its only Arizona store, and in its catalog.
Penzey wrote a letter to go with the launch, saying: "In our need to restore our sense of self-control, are we actually going to reward our politicians who are not working to bring us together, but instead forsaking America's beautiful 234-year-old history of diversity? ... The Arizona I know has plenty of happy feelings to spread."
It was one of the most successful new products in the company's history, and supplies in the Scottsdale store sold out, according to Shan Gaskins, store manager.
"People were buying them as souvenirs," she said. A quarter-cup jar costs $2.99
The product also has a special label. Gaskins said the company collected crayon drawings at the Scottsdale store, and combined them to make a label depicting a child's drawing of a heart, a saguaro and people holding hands.
Arizona's immigration law makes it a state crime to be in the country illegally. In July, U.S. District Court Judge Susan Bolton blocked key provisions of the law from taking effect, including one that compelled officers engaged in a lawful stop, detention or arrest, when practicable, to ask about a person's legal status if reasonable suspicion exists that the person is in the U.S. illegally.
National customer response to Arizona Dreaming was mostly positive, but a few comments were negative, Penzey said.
In the fall catalog, released two weeks ago, he wrote: "From the overwhelmingly positive response we have received to Arizona Dreaming, I am heartened that clearly I am not alone in rejecting the stories of anger and fear that are grabbing the headlines.
"To those who wrote to say we should stick to our business, I can happily reply that the spirit of Arizona Dreaming is the very heart of our business."
The product is prominently displayed in the Scottsdale store, but without Penzey's letters, though the catalogs are available at the counter.
"I don't care about the love, I just care about the flavor," said Dave Brechwald of Prescott Valley as he bought a jar last week.
The company might be going out on a limb, but the risk might pay off, according to Susan Peterson, professor of business and marketing at Scottsdale Community College.
"Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream is a great example. When they first started, they were old hippies that had a peace and love and 'let's save the environment' message. They actually had a subtle political message through the flavors of ice cream they launched. It didn't hurt them, and people enjoyed the message."
Presenting the message in a non-threatening way is key, she said. "Is he taking a risk? Yes. But entrepreneurs are known for taking risks."
Penzey, who travels the world collecting spices, said his company is not trying to influence people's opinions.
"The people who are mad at us and will never shop with us again won't be there. But people who cook are kindhearted people," he said.