Karen Scalia: Exploring Salem’s History Through the Senses

By Joey Phoenix

Four years ago, Karen Scalia introduced Food Tours to Salem, MA, adding a delicious alternative to the ubiquitous ghost tours which occupy the streets of Witch City. Instead of discussing pointy hats and supernatural occurrences, Karen began to turn people’s minds towards the ocean, or more specifically, the Spice Trade, and the culinary and cultural impact it continues to have on Salem’s development. 

She also showed them where to find the best food in Salem. 

Eating Through Salem’s History

I arrived at Pickering Wharf around half past 1. It was the middle of the week in late September and the sun was shining brightly. It was 75 degrees and the air felt crisp – the perfect kind of day for a walk. Two Italian tourists wandered by before stopping to ask me if I wouldn’t mind taking their picture. I said of course and snapped a photo of them against the glorious backdrop of the wharf. 

Karen came bounding over the crest of the small hill soon after, her arms filled to bursting with bags and a clipboard and a basket containing 12 bottles of water. The tour list that day was full, and included patrons as close by as Marblehead and as far away as Vancouver, British Columbia. I was lucky number 13, a special treat. Although my role was to be more observatory than participatory, I was looking forward to this. 

When everyone arrived, she greeted them all individually with a handshake and one of her trademark brilliant smiles before addressing them all as a group: 

“I’m asking you to take the afternoon off, to completely disconnect.” She enticed. Everyone knew they were in good hands, and the anticipation was palpable. 

She began by directing the tour guests eyes towards the wharf, encouraging them to breathe in the smell of the ocean, before beginning to tell the story of Salem through the senses. 

“We’re going to turn our consciousness east.” She instructs. And of course, the East she means is the Rich East, referencing the immense legacy of the Salem and Sumatra pepper trade which began in the late 18th century – a cultural exchange which would situate Salem as one of the premiere trade spots on the Eastern Seaboard, the “Venice of the New World,” and set it on its path towards becoming the booming cultural and culinary epicenter it is today. 

Every tour Karen gives is unique, and rarely follows the same path twice. Neither I nor the other tour guests had any idea where we would be headed, what flavors we would be enjoying, nor what new delights would be uncovered. There is a certain thrill to this mystery. 

After the brief introduction, we headed off as a group to learn more about the phenomena of spice, and the role it plays in Salem’s modern food culture. 

A Love of Local Food Runs Deep

Two great passions of Karen’s life have been acting and food, and for her the love for each has run parallel to the other for as long as she can remember. When she was a young girl living on the North Shore, she recalls writing vignettes and being fascinated by films which planted the seeds of the craft of acting in her early on. In addition to her penchant for acting, she was always drawn to fresh local food. 

“When I was a kid my mother would always have a tough time getting me to finish my plate, but then I would go to my Nana and Papa’s house and I would clean my plate. My Papa was always going down to the market and buying fresh produce or he was growing his own vegetables and everything was beautifully prepared with really simple fresh ingredients. 

“They were doing it long before it was the hip, trendy thing.” She laughs. 

With the scent of the ocean and the love of both food and acting permeating her senses, Karen headed into Boston to study theater at Emerson. Afterwards, she left the familiar shores of Massachusetts for the exciting world of New York City – which has always remained ahead of the curve when it comes to all things delicious. 

“One of the best things about New York is that it’s a hub of not just American foods but International foods all hours of the day.” She explains. “They’re always on trend so there’s always some great offerings there.”

Like so many in the field, Karen spent time working with and around food while pursuing her art as an actor. In between shows, film schedules, and auditions she worked as a waiter and a cater-waiter before eventually taking on more expansive roles as a restaurant manager and event planner. 

“Something I did which really inspired me during that time was that I started doing a lot of catering and event planning and working with corporate groups to put together afternoons for them that would be sensory experiences.”

The seeds for food tour guide extraordinaire were being planted even then. 

She spent fifteen years living and working in New York City, acquiring extensive culinary knowledge and building her acting resumé before she felt the urge to move on. During this time, she had met the man who would become her husband – the comedian Mark Scalia – and the two of them had some geographical decisions to make. The choices were originally between New York, Boston, and Los Angeles. 

That is, until she fell in love with Salem. 

“When I made a decision to come back I thought ‘I’m living in the greatest city in the world (which is New York) and I think that if I move to a different area I want to be near the water and I want to enjoy that.’ Little did I know that I was about to pick the city that was really going to be the right fit for me.

“Salem in the ten years or so that I’ve been here has just blossomed. It’s really such a special place and I feel lucky to be here experiencing that while it’s being discovered by so many people.” 

A Walking Tour to Educate the Palate

Salem Spice Guru David Bowie leans over a table filled to the edges with numerous varieties of salt and pepper, each of them a miracle in their own right, as well as sweet and savory spices. All of the tour goers gather around drinking Dave’s excellent iced cranberry chai and listening intently. 

“Salt is a natural flavor enhancer,” he describes, “and lucky for us the body needs it! But not too much, although sometimes that’s difficult.” He adds quickly, a elfish smile crosses his face. 

The group samples each of the unmarked spice cups as Dave and Karen explain the contents. Among the offerings include nigella, sel-gris, and Dave’s famous chipotle honey rub. Everyone in the room is delighted, many of them have never experienced such a complex cornucopia of aromas and seasoning. 

After the tasting, everyone has a chance to look around and shop before we must be on our way to the next place. With so much ground to cover, it’s important to stay on schedule. We head out into the sunshine and into the streets of Salem. My nose, full of so many glorious scents, is overwhelmed by the contrast. I sneeze and 12 voices say “bless” you in unison. Karen smiles broadly.

We walk faster. There is much to see and taste and experience. 

As we walk Karen points out restaurants that we won’t be able to get to on this tour, telling us about the bounty they have to offer, as well as directing our attention to notable Salem landmarks and features of historical import. Each new fact is as salient and remarkable as the ones before. 

We duck into Scratch Kitchen for our next stop, a well-beloved Salem restaurant where practically everything but the plates is made entirely in house. It’s also important to note that nearly everything on the menu, including the infamous popcorn, is prepared lovingly with Bacon.  Once the chef points this out, one of the tour goers pipes up:

“I’ll take 2 bags please.” 

Becoming Salem’s Food Tour Guide

After Karen had been in Salem for a little while, Erik Rodenhiser tapped her to do some walking tours for children’s groups. The subject matter she had to learn was “1692 and all things related” – but she studied the rest of the history of Salem with relish, feeling particularly drawn to Salem’s rich maritime history. 

“With my food and event planning background my eyes kept going to the Spice Trade history and the more I read it the more I though that this is what the game changer was in Salem. To this day we still feel it resonating, and I just fell in love with that part of our history.” She recalls. 

Despite this instant fascination, the two worlds didn’t collide until a bit later, when she was out riding her bicycle on Washington street.

“I was coming up Washington Street, and I thought the way to get to know modern Salem is to experience it through the senses, whether you’re at the PEM viewing the art, you're at Opus having a fabulous cocktail, you’re at Bambolina eating that amazing Caesar salad –  It’s all about what you’re seeing, what you’re tasting, what you’re smelling. And I thought the way to know modern Salem is through the spice trade history, through your palate.” 

Creativity is tapping that which is voiceless in you and putting a voice to it. - Karen Scalia 

The idea stuck. Next thing she knew she was approaching a couple of chefs in the city she really respected to see if they would be interested. The answer was a resounding yes. Once word got out, many other proprietors, chefs, and shopkeepers jumped at the opportunity. They all wanted in, they knew it was going to be something worthwhile. These individuals and business would become known as Salem Food Tour’s “Tour Partners.” 

“I had immediate support from Mayor Driscoll – which I am truly grateful for – a wonderful friend in Destination Salem, and within a short period of time it just took off. I did all my research, I crafted it myself.

“I’ve never taken another food tour in my life, although I’m dying to see what other people do. When I first started it there were a handful of other food tours in the United States. Now you can go anywhere and find a food tour, it’s a fabulous way to get to know an area; but the thing about Salem is that it’s a true walking town with a great culinary scene that only keeps improving. 

“And I have deep respect for the chefs and the shopkeepers in this town because the quality is outstanding and anybody who’s bringing something in has to have their ‘A’ game because there’s so much stuff happening here in this city.” 

The Joy of Salem Food Tours

After the success of the first Food Tours, Karen eventually expanded Salem Food Tour’s offerings to include AM Coffee Walks, Summer Thursday Tours – which include a stop and tasting at the Salem Farmer’s Market, and the newly added Vegan Food Tours. 

“The Food Tours really focus on a little bit of Salem’s history, including the Spice Trade history, and the tastings we’re doing that day featuring those particular Tour Partners; but I realized there was a real need in the city for those thinking: ‘I just got into Salem’ or ‘I just moved into Salem’ or ‘I’m thinking of moving to Salem’ or ‘I’ve lived her for 30 years and I do the same thing all the time and I want know the city and I want to know more about the history.’ So I developed the AM Coffee Walks to fill that need. 

“Also, I will tell people if they’re coming into the city and they’re going to do one of the nighttime witch walks or ghost walks – all fabulous – they might want to choose to do my tour early because I do the overview of Salem’s history, and once they have that knowledge they can go drill down on whatever their particular passion or interest is.” 

For Karen, the history of Salem is just as important as the food because the two aspects are inherently joined. Without the Spice Trade and Salem’s Maritime History, its culinary tradition never would’ve burgeoned into what it is today. Without the culinary tradition, the history of Salem has less of an impact. 

In a similar symbiotic way, Karen’s career as both an actor and a local culinary expert has allowed her to create an artistic life for herself that’s both exciting and fulfilling. Her work is a testament to the possibilities of lifestyle design. 

“I’ve always been an idea person. I love history, I love weaving together story, so throughout my career I’ve always vacillated between being an employer and an employee, working for myself or working for someone, and I’ve had great relationships on both levels. It does take a big leap of faith to craft that world. And both of them have merit – I don’t fall into the school of one’s better than the other, and I don’t think it’s for everybody. 

“I have to tell you that part of me feels like I work harder than I’ve ever worked in my life. I think I’ve gotten to a point where I really know myself and if something makes good sense and is authentically bringing value not only to my life but also people around me the things that you need fall into place. I would say also having good support around you is essential. I have great friends and family that heard my ideas, supported them, and when I took that leap I think they all held their breath with me. 

“They believed in me and you also get to a part in your life where you say what, if it doesn’t work out the way I’m seeing it, it’s going to bring me to something that will work in a really positive way.” 

The Honey that Changed My Life

One of the greatest aspects about the Food Tours is that they show a side of Salem that you may never have seen before, and grant a fresh perspective even to those who may know the area well. You will experience new flavors, discover fascinating restaurants and shops, have your mind open to sights, tastes, and smells that you didn’t know where available to you. 

On any given tour you might nibble decadent, gooey cheese from Shropshire, sip sumptuous red wine from Burgundy, sample the most delicate Cavatelli nestled in transcendent sauces. What the restaurants and shops present to the tour goers is completely up to them, even Karen never quite knows what will be on the menu during her tours. She trusts her Tour Partners to be creative, to dazzle the people coming through their doors. Delight, not disappointment, is the prevailing sentiment. 

For me, one of the most stunning highlights of the tour was something completely unexpected. In the Cheese Shop of Salem, one of our many stops that day, I was offered a taste of honey. Now this honey is not just any honey, it is an absolute miracle. It’s called Cloister Honey, and it’s whipped with a sensational ingredient known as a ghost pepper. 

The moment the honey hit my tongue – the flavors frightfully spicy but sweet too, the texture soft and luxurious – my eyes shot open. This was a revelation. Never again will I see honey the same way, never will I think it humble or simple, it is something made of magic. 

This is what a Food Tour can do, even for someone as Salem-knowledgable as me. 

Photo by Salem Food Tours 

Photo by Salem Food Tours 

What’s Next? 

Karen is not the kind of person who ever stops. In addition to running all the various Food Tours, she is still acting as much as she can. 

“I will go to my grave being an actor, it’s in my bones. I suppose I could extricate it and just not do it and to be honest with you, with the business I have to balance it and it’s hard, but I can’t not do it, it is my first love.

“If you don’t blink you’ll see me in some upcoming things, I do have a small role in the movie Stronger, one of the Boston Marathon films. I feel honored to be working on that film. And there’s another film due out this year, we don’t belong here, the release date is supposed to be in 2016, but we’re still waiting to hear about that.

“I adore acting and it works really well with [the food tours] because in a way there is an element of performance in it, and when you're with a group of people that don’t know each other – for the 3.5 hours I’m doing a food tour I am on. I’m paying attention to what car is coming towards us, who needs to sit down, how hot it is. I’m always reading the environment and the people around me and I’m using your intuition and all your senses.” 

Karen is also excited about her newest project, the Salem Spirits Trolley, which she calls her “Sister Tour.” Because although the tour is informative and delicious, it’s not technically a food tour. 

“What happens in an environment of great food, is that we’re also getting great crafters into town,” she explains. “Far from the Tree, thank you to Al and Denise for breaking the barrier there and really getting that started, Ian and Jessie for what they’re doing, Chris at Notch…and now there’s word on the street there’s more coming in. As soon as I knew there was going to be three, I knew there could be a tour. 

“This is a true tasting tour, it’s just like a food tour in that way, where you are getting samples of the products that they’re trying, it’s not a pub crawl. But it gives you a chance to talk to these makers who are working really really hard crafting something made in Salem. 

“In a world where so much of what we have is made overseas or far away, a lot of these products are now made right here and there’s something people can really respond to when they’re engaging with and sampling and then purchasing and enjoying locally made products.”

Eat local, shop local – this is what Salem Food Tours, and now the Salem Spirits Trolley, truly stands for. 

ABOUT

Salem Food Tours was founded by Salem-based guide Karen (Eris) Scalia. With a passion for fresh local foods and cooking, and a background in event planning as well as the performing arts—she knew that sharing Salem’s past with a ‘taste’ of the culinary present was the perfect way to understand and appreciate this much-loved city

Salem Spirits Trolley

Salem Spirits Trolley launched September 2016. We welcome locals and visitors to come aboard and experience historic Salem’s thriving craft scene with tastings at our local brewery, cidery, and distillery. 


Joey Phoenix is a portrait and event photographer, videographer, and proud member of the Creative Salem team. Follow her on Twitter and IG @jphoenixmedia