Focus on Food: Pepper, the King of Spices

I’ve lost track of when, but somewhere along the line at one of our library book sales, I acquired an intriguing possibility of a book called Pepper: A History of the World’s Most Influential Spice (Marjorie Shaffer). I’m not a “foodie,” but I like food, and its history I find rather fascinating. Political events, geography, weather, personal fortunes—up or down—and more all played a role in the travels and temptations of various foods, including spices from tiny plants on the other side, to many, of the known world. Most of us know by now that wars were fought over spices, but I didn’t learn until yesterday some exciting and curious facts about this particular zing. It seems to be underrated because it doesn’t appear to get much press but, if you think about it, has any other spice gotten its own shaker to pair with salt? In kitchens the world over?

From the book—which I will definitely be talking about again in these pages—as well as the mighty interweb, I’ve gathered a few tidbits for you to mull over, then tell friends and family all about. If you haven’t already, give pepper a go!

  • Black pepper comes from the dried fruit peppercorn (piper nigrum) and grows on a perennial flowering vine.
  • These peppercorns aren’t actually spices, but rather fruit.
  • Guess which country is the biggest consumer of pepper? In 2018, Vietnam, India and the United States together made up a combined 41% of global consumption. The United States imported $671 million worth of pepper in 2009, and that number has climbed each year since.
  • About 50% of a typical restaurant’s spice usage is attributed to—you guessed it: pepper.
  • When the Visigoths sacked Rome, their ransom demands included gold and silver—and 3,000 pounds of black pepper.
  • Piper nigrum from an 1832 print (Detail courtesy Wikimedia; click image)

    Pepper is known as the King of Spices: While some today treat pepper in a ho hum sort of manner, they don’t often realize its pedigree goes waaaaay back and is one of the most traded spices in the world. As was the case with other spices, pepper was extremely expensive to buy and ship, in this case because it came only from India. Today it remains a widely traded spice and may be found in the most ordinary of groceries for just a few dollars.

  • “The extinction of the dodo is related to the pepper trade[.]” Marjorie Shaffer writes that pepper traders on their way to Asia stopped on Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean, in search of food. Whether with intent or not, these traders introduced a variety of animals to the island and the flightless birds seemed to have succumbed under the invasive species’ presence, for by 1690 they were seen no more.
  • A few thousand years ago, pepper was used as an aid in curing disease and various maladies; it was later that it became popular as a condiment.
  • The branching vines of the pepper plant take several years to mature, and can reach up to thirty feet.
  • Harvesting begins when one or two of the peppercorn fruits begin to turn red. If they are allowed to reach full maturity, they lose their pungent odor and drop off. Likewise, people tend to prefer grinding their peppercorns as they use the spice, rather than keeping a large stock of powder, because the shells retain freshness. Once exposed to air, pepper’s flavor begins to fade.
Roman era trade route: from India across to and around the Arabian Peninsula, then overland until reaching the Mediterranean and across to Rome. (Map courtesy Wikimedia; click image)


Chef Zieg, Spice Master. “21 Black Pepper Facts You Didn’t Know.” The Chef Zieg Blog, accessed November 20, 2020,

Intrado: Globe News Wire. “World Pepper Market 2020: Historic review of 2007—2018 with Projections to 2025.” Research and Markets, accessed November 21, 2020,

Mattison, Lindsay D. “10 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Pepper.” Taste of Home, last modified February 7, 2020,

Shaffer, Marjorie. Pepper: A History of the World’s Most Influential Spice. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2013.

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Focus on Food: The Lost Art of Real Cooking (Kitchen Re-Entry)

I actually thought I’d stop buying cookbooks, since everything is online these days, but a new sort of cooking genre has sprung to life in recent years, one of memoir or history, sometimes both blended together with a generous dollop of commentary on top. I’d managed to end up with a collection of these tasties, most of which, owing to a critical, chronic lack of time and energy, I never read past the beginning or a skim through. This was a reality that contributed to my slowdown last October, when I decided to take some time off from penning book reviews and, hopefully, start pursuing other interests and projects as well. It’s taken a lot longer than I thought it would to get my mojo back, and my reading has seriously slowed down. Little by little, however, I’m feeling something, and last night I got serious about a few recipes I wanted to try out.

I know I’m not ready to jump back into things in quite the same way as before, particularly relating to food, given the “field work” involved in these examinations. There’s also the reality that I’m not what one might call a “foodie” – I don’t have a culinary degree or a bank of nutritional information stored in my brain and my expertise is limited to what I’ve taught myself to do from previous reading and experimentation. There were also a few setback years in which my now-teenaged son, who as a toddler and young child ate all the spicy Indian and Middle Eastern food I cooked, switched to a puzzling array of home-cooked “fast food.” (At least he has always disliked the commercial stuff.) He’s still stuck on pizza, but his repertoire at least has once more begun to expand. He’s a loyal child, but will in fact tell me if something was too bland, a criticism that actually fills me with joy.

So it works well for me that The Lost Art of Real Cooking: Rediscovering the Pleasures of Traditional Food One Recipe at a Time is set up the way it is: with a table of contents dividing dishes into categories, sure, but the book itself takes a narrative approach. This is a delightful concoction that allows one to begin at the beginning and stop when one reaches the end, skip around or do both. Moreover, it slowly and patiently brings a reader like me back into the fold: I’m exhausted but expectant, longing to know the etymology of food (so to speak) and have an aversion to measurements in cooking. It also (negatively) references the long line of products and foods developed for those wanting fast results, a condition I have over past years grown to deeply dislike. One of my very first blog entries spoke of it and I still retain a deep abhorrence for the condition because I believe it has damaged our society and how we interact with each other.

Food and literature pair exceedingly well: the sharing of labor, love and stories to nourish our bodies and souls. (Click image for more about the book.)

I’ve said it before: A delicious meal prepared with care for those who will eat it is an act of love and actually tastes better, and I want to gift that, especially to my son. Universally food is a uniter, and some of the best discussions are over a good meal, especially when one is eating slowly, savoring the textures and flavors of food and conversation alike. It takes us places, even when one reads about it, which is probably why these new food books are so successful. Even “ordinary” novels and other works can magically bring that feeling alive, such as in Rodriguez and Vigorito’s Forty Years in a Day, when the children sneak into the kitchen on Sundays to dip bread into the simmering sauce. I remember doing it myself as a kid – smearing the soft and chewy bread with real butter, especially delicious on the ends, which we fought over, and using them to wipe clean our plates and pop the last bit of chewy heaven into our mouths. This is the moment you ease back in your seat and enjoy those in your midst, saying, as my son and I still do, “You wanna know the best part of that meal?”

“The company.”


I’ve got a lovely task ahead of me today, straight from the pages of The Art of Real Cooking, but within my kitchen, exactly the reason the authors put the book together. “Cooking slowly with patience is inherently entertaining,” they write. I agree, but would add that it’s also meditative. It calms me. It helps me to slow down by forcing the deceleration, enabling me also to focus more on actual mindfulness (and not the cash cow it’s being turned into) as I learn to let go of not having finished everything today I would have liked. When fatigued, it doesn’t necessarily pep me up, but does engage me in a slow stir of calm movement redirecting my mind’s insistence that I sit down and close my eyes. The entertainment referenced above sets in as my ingredients meld, dance, reduce, bring me into its midst as the world and its concerns take a bow for the time being. This is our show. We loosen up and anticipate, engage in the movements uniting my hands and what the ingredients become as, together, we provide something while we prepare to share with those we love the most.

Check out the websites for Ken Albala and Rosanna N. Henderson

Banner: Azerbaijani tendir oven made of clay in a hole in the earth, courtesy MrArifnajafov. Click image for more details.