Painting with Flavor: An Afternoon with Auntie Arwen

Photo by Sean Sreamach

Auntie Arwen of Auntie Arwen’s spices

 

 

By Ana Sarasdottir Features Reporter, PI

Mistress Arwen Evaine ferch Rhys ap Gwynedd, more commonly known as Auntie Arwen, is a Pennsic institution. From her humble beginnings selling her wares on a blanket during Pennsic VII to her now famous Auntie Arwen’s Spices tent, Arwen has been here through it all. A sparkling gem of a woman, Arwen brings easy conversation wherever she goes. I was fortunate enough to spend a sunny afternoon with Arwen, talking best business practices, hopes for the future, and what makes Pennsic War her true home.  

Over the years, Arwen has watched second and third generation Pennsic families grow and change, witnessed the expansion of Merchants’ Row, and seen friends come and go from the Society. Despite the changes unfolding around her, Arwen has never lost her child-like sense of wonder. She takes these changes in stride. After all, War is something special.

“People here are so intelligent,” she noted as we chatted over a cold bottle of water. “There is something that everyone here does better than someone else.”

Arwen does spices, and she does them well. Years ago, Arwen joined her local garden club and offered some of her homemade fresh garlic salt blend, Blatantly Gahaaarlic Salt, as a donation for their fundraiser. It sold out shockingly fast. Call it serendipity or just good for- tune, but Arwen decided to make spices her calling.

Auntie Arwen’s Spices now carries around 500 blends. Unsurprisingly, Ultimate Garlic Insanity is their best-seller. From garlic popcorn to marinades, Ultimate Garlic Insanity is a hit amongst Pennsic-goers. It’s not just spices that Arwen is proud of. The shop now carries extracts, tea blends, catnip mice, loose herbs, and even coffee roasted in small batches by a disabled, retired U.S. Navy veteran. Auntie Arwen’s Spices believes in supporting the community while providing top-notch service.

While I spoke to Arwen, people stopped by her corner table to chat, ask questions, and give hugs. With a welcoming smile, she greeted each one like an old friend. It’s easy to see why people stop by for a visit. Even as she’s taking a step back from the business side of things, Arwen is still a warm and active presence.

Arwen can be found at Pennsic University, teaching classes on runes, and she’s published several academic and fiction books, primarily on Nordic traditions and folklore. Her doctoral dissertation was on thunder and lightning in Indo-European traditions, a topic she dives into with aplomb. When asked about her plans for the future, she is adamant that she will come to War as long as she is able. Her favorite pastimes include people watching and cheering on the fighters as they head to the battlefield. And of course, the children.

As we spoke, several kids played tag between the market stalls. Watching the children come and go, Arwen’s eyes lit up with softness of a woman at peace. She shared her thoughts on what makes Pennsic so special. “Children are safe here. People help out wherever they can – from driving the wagons and volunteering to thanking the workers who clean the Port-o-Johns. People are just kind here. We also appreciate people for their abilities, and you don’t see shaming like you do other places.”  

“This,” she gestured to her tent. “This is scooter-friendly. We’ve made it a safe place. We even have a service dog in training!”

I asked Arwen what advice she has for new merchants. She emphasized the virtues of simplicity. “It doesn’t need to be fancy. We pay good wages, give bonuses, and feed our people.” She also explained that all of Auntie Arwen’s spice blends are made in small batches. Arwen was a merchant at War before many of her customers were born. She has seen how good products make the difference in long-term merchant sustainability.

Arwen shared the secret to succession. “Don’t keep your business too close to your chest like a favorite toy you don’t want to share.” She described the process of bringing on her two partners, Colleen (Kinbrough) and Lydia (Lydushka). Originally hired to help with mixing at Arwen’s home, Colleen and Lydushka’s involvement eventually expanded to running the business full- time.  Arwen still spends her mundane hours going to farmer’s markets while Colleen and Lydushka travel around the country, making stops at major events such as Gulf Wars and various Renaissance festivals. This gradual passing of the torch allows Arwen to do what she loves without the pressure of running a business on her own.

Anyone who’s met Arwen knows she’ll never be just a person, though. Her enthusiasm for conversation and her bright smile makes her stand out in waves of faces rolling through the marketplace. As for those spice blends? They too have become stars in their own right, as camps come together, building memories with each bite in- fused with Auntie Arwen’s spices. After all, as Arwen notes, “People gotta eat, and they like to eat well.”