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Country Views: Pepper’s spicy history

Some people like black pepper. They even seem to enjoy getting a nose tickle and sneeze as they sprinkle the pungent gray dust over their potatoes, sweet corn and just about everything else that lands on their plate, excluding ice cream. Then they sprinkle salt over that which they peppered.

Salt is necessary for life and, at the same time, can cause health problems when used excessively. Black pepper is not necessary for life, and it’s frightening to imagine how anyone could eat a lethal quantity.

But questionable pepper is the companion to essential salt on everyone’s table and in everyone’s soup. They go together, people say, like salt and pepper. But why not salt and cinnamon? That sounds nice. Or maybe salt and mustard seed on everything?

With this question in mind I watched a PBS video that asked the salt and pepper question. I figured that what we used to call Educational TV could educate me. PBS claimed that the French king Louis XIV was responsible for the pepper on my table and on the table of every diner and restaurant from here to Keokuk. The PBS food personalities said the King, who called himself the Sun King, didn’t like spicy food. He demanded only salt and black pepper. They claimed the bland cooking style developed for this king, dead now for three centuries, influenced the culinary choices on Main Street today. That’s government overreach, and I’m not buying it. He was the Sun King, not the Pepper King.

Despite being on most dinner tables, little is known about pepper. Stock photo

But, to tell you the truth, nobody seems to have a better explanation. So, Louis put the pepper on our table and we’re still waiting to see what’s going to happen next.

Louis, like everybody else who could afford black pepper in his day, used the spice to cover up the horrid taste and smell of overripe meat. Pepper covered up for the lack of refrigeration. Don’t you just love French cooking?!

The 18th century French, like we do today, got their black pepper from Asia. Louis and his court probably got theirs from tropical India. That’s where the original wild black pepper plants came from. When Louis’s chefs were sprinkling black pepper on his stinking cuts of beef the Indians had already been cooking with the spice for 3,500 years. Louis’s traders bought their pepper from Indian traders along India’s Malabar Coast. There, for centuries, the tiny black peppercorns had been called black gold. It seems everybody liked a good sneeze with their meal in those olden times.

Peppercorns are processed seeds from a vine-like tree that grows between 12 and 13 feet tall. The tree-vines require larger trees to support them so they grow under the shade of their supporters. To get black pepper, the small seeds, which grow in grape-like clusters, are harvested while they are still green. Then the seeds are cooked briefly to clean them and to slightly change their chemistry. After that they are either machine dried or laid out in the sun to dry. Once they are dry they are the peppercorns that are eventually ground and sprinkled over food to taste, as the recipes say.

Think of a pepper seed as if it were a tiny peach. On the outside is the fruit. On the inside is the actual seed, or pit. With peppercorns what you see is the dry, black, and wrinkled fruit. What you don’t see is the tiny pit. In black pepper the fruit and the pit work together to create the sneeze and the heat. But if you want white pepper you have to discard the fruit before you process the seed. It’s only the seed that makes white pepper.

If you sprinkle white pepper on your food at home, or at the diner, you’re going to miss out on that delicious sneeze. Science has yet to determine what causes you to sneeze when you sprinkle, but piperine is the suspect chemical. Black pepper is complex chemically, and even after more then 3,000 years of spicing our food with it, we don’t know much about it – except that it seems to goes well with salt.

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