About a month ago, I was invited to enjoy a meal at what is arguably the finest dining room in my area. While conversation around the table was pleasant and far-ranging, there was one topic–introduced by my own culinary peculiarities–that was discussed multiple times: I strongly believe that black pepper is used entirely too often in modern American cooking.
Rarely the focal point of any dining experience, a simple salad was the dish that set things off between my companions and I. The second plate of my multi-course meal was an American classic: the Caesar salad. The dish was wonderfully composed, as reflected in the menu writing: “Caesar: local, fresh-cut Romaine hearts / tuile of Parmesan / classic Caesar dressing.” The salad was delightful. The greens were crisp, the Parm was genuine (it often isn’t in this country), and the dressing was exactly what one ought to expect: creamy eggs, salty hint of anchovy, and brightness from lemon. I did not take issue with the salad, but rather a remark made by our server after she asked whether I would like fresh-cracked black peppercorns. I responded with an enthusiastic, “Yes, please!” She returned a moment later with an outlandish 31-inch Peugeot pepper mill and asked me to indicate when I would like her to stop grinding.
Excepting, of course, steak au poivre, if there is a dish that cries out for the musky & piquant flavor given to food by black pepper, it is surely the Caesar salad. I wanted a liberal application of the spice on my salad. I was very disappointed. The server took it upon herself to determine when she had applied enough black pepper to my dish and stopped grinding after three or four seconds. She didn’t get far before I called her back to the table and politely asked for 5 more turns of the mill on my food. “Oh my, you must really like black pepper!” was her cheeky response. Her sentiment was echoed by my two companions.
Having had my food spiced to my liking, she left and we turned to our salads and back to casual conversation. I was left, however, with a bad taste in my mouth after being on the receiving end of such a presumptuous table-side manner. I wasn’t finished with the topic. When the server came back a few minutes later to check on our party, I inquired as to how my Maine U/10 diver scallops were to be seasoned. Just salt or would there be black pepper, too? The kitchen would be using sea salt and black pepper. I asked her to please inform the chef or the poissonnier that I would only like salt on my shellfish. She looked perplexed but agreed to do so. One member of my party accused me of “making a tempest in a teacup” over my apparently bipolar feelings on black pepper.
Quite the contrary, however. There is nothing inconsistent about in what quantity and where I wanted the spice to feature in my meal. I love piper nigrum, or black peppercorns. I love them so much that it upsets me how omnipresent these little berries are in modern American cooking. Black pepper is an excellent spice. So is saffron. But that doesn’t mean that these ingredients ought to be present in every single dish we eat.
The scallops that I ate that night were sashimi grade pieces of sea life that were harvested by hand by a man in a SCUBA suit diving to the sea floor. Out of respect for the bivalve itself and the risk and expenditure laid out to harvest it, I wanted to taste the scallop and only the scallop. I’m fine with salt on seafood. It makes it taste good by creating an osmotic pressure differential across the cell membranes of the food and thereby draws out liquids contained within it, making it more readily available to our taste buds. Informed and judicious use of salt does not make food taste salty, but taste more like itself owing to this process. Black pepper, on the other hand, contributes its own strong flavor to the profile of a food product.
Black pepper is a capricious ingredient. It can be used well, but too much of the stuff reeks of cafeteria food: it implies unskillful means and hints at a cover-up of inferior quality or preparation. And yet, salt and pepper shakers can be found on the table at many eateries throughout the world–except for Uruguay. Seasoning with S&P is called for in the overwhelming majority of recipes. Just as we have taste receptors on our tongues for the amino acid in monosodium glutamate, so, too, do we have taste buds specialized for sodium and the bitter compounds in black pepper. When we are trying to prepare a dish that is full-flavored, all of these things, along with the other tastes, must be carefully balanced.
Pepper pairs phenomenally with beef, Caesar salads, and even in baking from time to time. But its pungent presence can steamroll right over many other delicate flavors in our cooking. I believe that black pepper ought to be kept in the spice rack between to the mustard powder and Spanish paprika. Placing it on tables implies that it is universally applicable, which it is not. Black pepper offers a bitter note in addition to being pungent–which is quite literally an irritation of the tongue not altogether unlike the burning sensation of the capsaicin found in chiles. This sensation serves a purpose in that it marries well with other flavors and rich textures to prevent them from being allowed to overwhelm and cloy the diner. Black pepper is “sharp,” cutting through the elements of flavor and re-joining them in a novel fashion. Put another way, without it, my Caesar salad would have been very spherical. I wanted it to have barbs.
Like so many other ingredients, techniques, and flavors, black pepper is subject to change with the times and the styles that dominate; it has not always been such a centerpiece. Piper nigrum came to Western cooking as a runner-up. It was more readily available that the long pepper, piper longum, so strongly liked by the ancient Greeks and Romans, so it was imported en masse from the Indian subcontinent. It suffered a great decline in popularity during the Renaissance period because it was thought to promote melancholia, what we now clinically define as depression. During the Enlightenment, however, when the values of the Romans came back into fashion, black pepper became popular again in what we call classical French cuisine. Codified by Auguste Escoffier in his seminal Le Guide culinaire, itself modeled heavily on the techniques of Marie-Antoine Carême’s “high art” of cuisine, black pepper was defined as a fundamental seasoning.
Black pepper adds flavor instead of drawing it out like salt. Acknowledging this fact, Sara Dickerman proposes almost a dozen possible substitutions, depending on the culinary context. Just as I maintain that one must judiciously apply salt, one should be mindful to avoid carelessly reaching for the pepper mill in your kitchen. I cooked for 14 people at a private cellar party last night. I used black pepper exactly zero times. Nobody noticed its absence and I received compliments on the quality and flavor of my cooking. When I shared the fact that I achieved some of that signature bitter flavor through the careful application of smoked sea salt, some of my clients were astounded and aghast that I would make such an omission!
Let me conclude by finishing my anecdote about the scallops: when the server returned to our table that day with our main courses, I also asked her to crack some black pepper out of her enormous pepper mill onto a saucer. I invited my companions to try a piece of scallop as it was prepared–salt only. They remarked on the slightly sweet taste. I then sprinkled a small amount of black pepper onto a second piece. According to their appraisal of the taste, the “scallop-ness” effectively disappeared under a light dusting of the black stuff.
As I continue to embrace the growing movement of Slow Food, characterized by good, clean, and fair cooking, I am making conscious decisions to be mindful of my ingredients, to make deliberate and informed decisions on preparation techniques, and to let the food speak for itself. I invite you, too, to approach your cooking and eating habits with the same degree of care and and attention.