Back to the Grind

Sara Dickerman responds to the black-pepper enthusiasts.

Salt and pepper on a table.
Should we do away with black pepper at the table?


Please don’t come after me brandishing yard-long pepper mills! In my article this week I advocated for a demotion of black pepper. I didn’t suggest we should banish it altogether, but maybe it’s time to question its ubiquitous placement next to the saltshaker on our tabletops. I find that black pepper’s blunt force can overwhelm many dishes. I’m not entirely alone in this belief: A couple of Slate readers pointed to Chef Thomas Keller’s similar remarks on black pepper. In his seminal French Laundry Cookbook, Keller argues that, while salt plays a role in almost every dish, “pepper, on the other hand, should be used only in certain cases for specific tastes.”

But many other readers disagreed strongly with my premise: They love pepper and see no reason for my harassments; they think I’ve picked a nonsense fight. A commenter called Rozzer offered an especially strong defense of the spice, which I’ve shortened here:

Pepper completely elevates and transforms numerous fundamentally bland and insipid foods—to the point that the pepper very much becomes the point. Macaroni and cheese is about as silly a dish as a cook could come up with. Cover it with a thick layer of freshly-ground black pepper, however, and you have a rock star (the pepper) performing for an insanely adulatory audience (the mac and cheese). The same is true of potato salad, and other ridiculous, starchy dishes. Pepper is the master conductor that leads a disorganized orchestra into a performance of sheer art. And keep in mind that a majority of the world’s population, who can’t afford pricy protein, have to consume large quantities of boring starches day after day and year after year. Pepper brings life to the walking dead.

I also posed the question of what, if anything, could replace black pepper on the dining table as a “second spice.” The answer that I came up with for myself was marash pepper, one of several terrific Mediterranean red peppers that provide a little heat and pungency, but with less aggression than you’d find in black pepper. As some readers point out, it is hard to find and a bit expensive (though my $12 bottle will last me at least a year). They’re also right in suggesting that there are delicious and cheaper red peppers to be had from Mexican and Latin American markets.

Whatever I think, it’s clear that black pepper is in no danger of being displaced. When Slate put up a reader poll to see which spice deserved a spot on the table next to salt, black pepper took the competition easily: As I am writing, 35.9 percent defended its right to remain exactly where it was. In second place, with just 9.4 percent of the vote, was the chili-based, Asian-style hot sauce, sriracha. My offering of marash pepper received a mere 1.7 percent approval. If, however, you combine all the capsaicin (chili pepper) products on the list, from sriracha and cayenne to New Mexican green chili powder, there is a more significant voting bloc—almost one-third of the total—who favor chilies over black peppercorns. Some in this bloc wisely suggested a chili-pepper oil or harissa as a tabletop condiment, so as to eliminate the acidic sting of a vinegary hot sauce like Tabasco. It might be the diversity of chili peppers and their preparations that appeals to these people, and to me.

Peppers aside, I was impressed with the tenacity of dried garlic among Slate readers. SIdbeast wrote: “Garlic salt is a universal spice that goes with almost everything. Pair it with rubbed sage, rosemary, or both for a perfect meat, cheese, and egg seasoning.” Garlic powder earned 8.5 percent of the vote on its own, and 12.5 percent if you throw in adobo seco—a Latin American blend that combines salt, garlic powder, pepper, cumin, oregano, and sometimes other seasonings. I like the idea of a great spice mix on the table—it might not be universal, but it brings a balance of flavors into play.

In that vein I also heard other readers praise tabletop Indian masalas, and Japanese spice combinations like those in Andrews’ comment:

There are two Japanese dry pepper mixtures I think do exactly what Sara is looking for: sansyo and shichimi. Sansyo has a lime-pepper aroma and adds, as you would expect, a brightness to the food to which you add it. Shichimi is a mixture of 7 ingredients: coarsely ground red chili pepper, ground sansho (Sichuan pepper), roasted orange peel, black sesame seed, white sesame seed, hemp seed, ground ginger, and nori (seaweed). Chili pepper, Sichuan pepper, and ground ginger are the dominant tastes. It does a really good job at brightening and adding a little heat.

Thanks for the lively, sometimes scathing dialogue, and to peacekeeping reader Alurin, who proudly proclaimed, “Our table features salt, black pepper, AND red pepper.”