Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Thoughts on Pepper

The other night I was cooking dinner, and as I was seasoning whatever it was, a thought occurred to me. Why pepper? On just about every dinner table here in the US, on almost every restaurant table as well, are two spice containers: salt and pepper.

The salt I can understand. There's a biological need for salt, and since it was hard to come by in human pre-history, an innate desire for salt has developed. But what about the pepper? Pepper has no function in human biology, so there's no built-in drive to eat it. The only reason we put it on our food is for taste, and that's no different from any number of other spices. So why has pepper become more common than ginger or cinnamon or mint?

My first thought is that it might be a carry-over from earlier habits. Salt is one of the most commonly used spices in medieval cookbooks. Perhaps pepper was too, and since cooks sometimes do not put enough spice into a dish, maybe it became the practice to have the two most common spices set out on the table to allow the diner to suppliment a dish's flavor. As a quick check for this, I looked to see how often pepper shows up in medieval recipes.

I have some statistics from medieval cookbooks already compiled ... Unh. Not very conclusive. Below is a list of the four most common spices from various cookbooks.

Enseignements (France, 1300): Pepper - 50%, Ginger - 35%, Cinnamon - 28%, Mustard - 26%

Forme of Cury (England, 1390): Salt - 47%, Saffron - 39%, Ginger - 23%, Pepper - 14%,

Du fait de cuisine (France, 1420): Salt - 81%, Ginger - 70%, Grains of Paradise - 62%, Pepper - 41%

Liber cure cocorum (England, 1430): Saffron - 34%, Salt - 31%, Pepper - 27%, Ginger - 20%

Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery Books (England, 1450): Salt - 56%, Ginger - 42%, Saffron - 41%, Pepper - 31%

A Proper newe Booke of Cokerye (England, 1550): Salt - 36%, Cinnamon - 30%, Ginger - 22%, Mace - 18%

The Good Housewife's Jewell (England, 1596): Ginger - 40%, Pepper - 40%, Salt - 40%, Cinnamon - 35%

At a glance, we can probably leave out the grains of paradise and the mace - they both only make the top four of a single book. Salt makes the top four of 6 books, and is the number 1 spot for 3 of them. Pepper also shows up in 6, but is the top spot for only 1. Ginger is in the top four of all 7 books, and is in the top spot for 1. Also, ginger ranks higer than pepper for 5 of the books. Why don't we have a ginger shaker on the table then?

It looks like I need to do more digging ...

1 comment:

Jha'dur said...

Pepper and salt bring out the flavours of the dish if used at a low dose and basically act as flavour enhancer. Most other spices do not, they simply add their own flavour to the dish but do not bring out the others. For this reason P&S are used as the standard seasoning in pretty much every savory dish even if that dish is neither intended to be peppery or salty.