Why Do We Put Pepper on Everything?

Categories: Talking Points
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On Slate this week, Sara Dickerman asks a question that has bugged SFoodie for years now: Out of all the spices in the world, why has black pepper become the one we season everything with? Europeans have been importing black peppercorns from Asia since the early days of the Roman empire, but only since the Enlightenment has it has dominated Western kitchens. Many people won't eat their dinner without shaking pepper over top, in some sort of ritual akin to saying grace or wishing their tablemates "bon appetit." 

Dickerman's not opposed to black pepper:
[Pepper] can be terrific: It's a great beef spice--a rib eye calls out for a rough crack of black pepper; Caesar salad needs a little of its musky prickle, to be sure; I like a spicy ginger cookie with a bit of the black stuff. But pepper isn't particularly aromatic, and it can bulldoze over other flavors with its scene-stealing pungency.

Acknowledging pepper's main use -- to brighten up long-cooked dishes with a flash of vivid flavor -- she sets out to find a replacement she likes better. Cumin? Coriander seed? Long pepper, which the Romans preferred before black pepper came along?

The spice she settles on -- marash pepper, a Turkish chile beloved by the Chez Panisse staff -- gives off only a mild heat, fleshing its impact out with a fruity complexity. SFoodie has been infatuated with Aleppo pepper and urfa biber, both closely related to marash pepper, for several years now. But rather than settle on one master spice, we'd prefer to play the field, bringing out the black pepper grinder only when it seems like the right spice to use.

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Follow me at @JonKauffman.


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