Against Pepper

Salt needs a new companion.

Why did pepper get to be salt's companion?
Why did pepper get to be salt’s companion?

Photograph by Don Treadwell/iStockphoto.

In another lifetime, I worked briefly for Spago Beverly Hills, where one of my jobs as the lowest ranking member of the fish station was to prepare the mashed potatoes. Quantities were large, and one day, just before service, a clench-jawed sous chef came walking up to me in crisp military strides. “Taste these,” he said, holding forth a container of the pureed yellow finns I’d prepared earlier. I did, and my face dropped. The potatoes, no doubt hand-coddled spuds from a fancy organic ranch, no longer tasted of potato but of smutty hot pepper instead. They might as well have been instant flakes goosed with preground pepper at the school cafeteria. Thus shamed, I raced to whip up another 20-pound batch. And I never overspiced my potatoes again.

Pepper, as I learned, is a fickle spice—it can be used well, but add too much, and your food tastes cheap and crass. Because pepper is applied to mask poor quality, too much of it smacks of a cover-up.

Given that trickiness, I’ve started to wonder why pepper gets such Cadillac placement on the American table, sitting beside the salt shaker at every coffee shop and kitchen counter in the country. Why, too, do so many recipes invite us to season “with salt and freshly ground black pepper” upon completion? Why isn’t it salt and cumin, or salt and coriander, with every dish in the Western canon? What’s so special about pepper anyway? Perhaps it’s time to rethink the spice.

Salt, of course, is a seasoning beyond question. When it’s well-used, salt manages to make food taste not salty, but more like itself. Almost everything we eat has some sodium in it, and we have receptors on our tongues devoted to the taste. The human need for salt is so innate that it’s only natural to adjust our dosage at the table.

But pepper? It 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. Even the pricy Telicherry kind, served from a footlong Peugeot grinder, is strong, invigorating, but also a little obtuse. Why should this brawny spice be kept on the countertop at all? Why not stash it in the rack with the fennel seed, the mustard seed, and the cinnamon—all the wonderful spices that add life to our food but are by no means all-purpose? I think we’d appreciate pepper’s qualities all the more if we used it just for specific dishes, not universally.

But if black pepper lost its position as salt’s consort, what, if anything could replace it? Which qualities must a “second seasoning” have? Should it provide a taste as elemental as salt? Perhaps we should use monosodium glutamate powder—a rocket of meaty umami flavor—as a way to make our meals more savory. But MSG’s lack of nuance and its association with allergies (be they real or imagined) make it a pariah for the contemporary dinner table. Along the same lines, the second spice might not be a spice at all, but a condiment like the ones found on Asian tables. Soy sauce, for example, gives both salt and umami in one fell swoop. But soy sauce is still too specific a flavor for someone, like me, who cooks Mediterranean-inspired food about two-thirds of the time.

Food often needs a little “brightening” after being cooked—a little burst of a fresh flavor, usually acidic (again an elemental taste), that can make long-cooked foods seem less murky. Chopped parsley, fresh garlic, or lemon zest (or all three combined in a gremolata) do this beautifully, but a second seasoning should not be highly perishable, and these in their dehydrated forms lose much of their charm.

What else does pepper do for food? It offers bitter notes as well as pungency (literally an irritation of the tongue), both of which serve to keep lush textures and flavors from seeming too cloying. Pepper is, in other words, a kind of punctuation, and I think a second seasoning ought to fill that grammatical role. Cumin could be close. It used to sit upon ancient Greek dinner tables in a vessel called a kyminodokon or kyminotheke, and was sprinkled in savory and sweet dishes alike. But as much as I like the musky spice, it lacks pepper’s prickle, and so does not provide enough sharpness to a dish. Coriander and fennel, too, are among my favorite spices, but they are round in flavor, not spiky.

Is it possible I’ve talked myself back into pepper’s prime status on the table? Not exactly. I do think the second spice should be something peppery, but at some point along the way we settled for the wrong pungent spice.

As it happens, black peppercorns, which come from the piper nigrum vine, came to prominence on the Western table as an also-ran. In ancient times, when spices were both medicine and food, a different member of the piperaceae family ruled. A grain of piper longum, or “long pepper,” looks like the tiny, bushy tail of some woodland creature; in powder form, it gives a spicy slap to the palate, with a bit of citrus and churchy incense in the background. Better still, long pepper was believed to reduce phlegm and increase semen. As a result, the spice was popular in ancient Greece and Rome. Long pepper’s high status also laid the ground for other pungent spices, like black pepper. When, during the early Roman Empire, new trade routes plied the coast of southwest India where black pepper was cultivated, the supply of piper nigrum greatly increased in the West. Like a knockoff handbag, the black pepper was close enough to long pepper that it was purchased in great quantity by spice-craving Romans. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, pepper was viewed as conducive to melancholy, and lost some popularity to sweeter, more sanguine spices. But with the development of modern French cuisine during the Enlightenment, chefs recommitted themselves to the gastronomic values of the Romans, and pepper was elevated above other spices—a true companion to salt. But it was black pepper, not long pepper, that landed on the table.

It’s a sad story, because long pepper is, in fact, a terrific spice. But the very thing that makes it interesting causes some problems for modern cookery: The pepper combines its heat with a heady sweet aroma that would be brilliant in a meaty winter stew, but distracting on, say, simple grilled fish. Besides, it is ornery to pulverize: If we wanted it freshly cracked we’d need to come up with a new kind of grinder.

What about the other kinds of peppercorns? White peppercorns, which are black ones without their husks, tend to be preferred by cooks in Southeast Asia and by fancy chefs who don’t want dark specks in pale sauces. But this form has a strange tendency to smell like dirty socks. Green peppercorns, the unripe berries from the same pepper vine, are essential to steak au poivre, with aromas of an old-school men’s club—tobacco, bay rhum, mustaches. They’re delicious, but altogether too specific for general use. The pink peppercorns we see in the market are not really peppercorns at all but rather the berries of the Schinus terebinthifolius tree. They impart a fruity, floral, pine note with little heat—they’re simply not charismatic enough to be an essential (though they are pretty, and I’d be happy if they could get over the ignominy of their 1980s trendiness and return to our spice cabinets). Sichuan peppercorns, the dried fruit rinds from some Zanthoxylum trees, provide another form of nonpepper pepper. They have a lemony and distinctive tongue-buzzing quality that is fantastic in five-spice dishes, but they remain, to my taste, a bit too stimulating for everyday use (though I suppose that argument goes nowhere in Sichuan).

That leaves one of the great gifts of the new world: chili peppers—a spicy substitute from a totally different genus of plants (Capsicum). A chili-based hot sauce, such as Tabasco, could be another contender for the role of second spice, and does, in fact, have a permanent place on the table at many dining rooms across the country. But pepper sauces tend to have a little too much bite for some dishes. The heat is less the problem, I find, than the acid sauce base.

Tabasco is close, though. I would argue to replace tabletop black pepper with one of the dried chili varieties that are cultivated in the Mediterranean. Maybe piment d’espelette, the Basque chili pepper; or Aleppo pepper, the lemony Syrian kind; or, best of all, Marash red pepper from Turkey, which holds just a modicum of heat in its dark red flakes, but also a sort of cherry-toned fruitiness and a pleasant orange-pith bitterness. Is Marash red pepper arcane? Yes. Esoteric? Yes. Difficult to find at the store? Yes once more (though you can order it online). But it is wildly versatile and hard to overdo. I’ve never met a pot of beans, a chicken soup, or a green salad that didn’t taste better with some of these flakes sprinkled on top. It works in pork stews, on lamb, on buttered carrots and eggs. Even a 20-pound pot of mashed potatoes would taste better with a spoonful of Marash pepper. If only I’d known this when I was working at Spago.