Smallish Bloggery, Day 8: “What’s on your mind?”

Pepper.  Specifically black pepper.  Every time I get one of those packets with plastic cutlery there’s a little salt packet and a little pepper packet, and you know what?  Nobody ever uses the pepper packet.  Those just get thrown away.

It’s so bizarre to me that a few hundred years ago the spice trade shaped the map of the world as we know it – countries fought wars over control of spices, including black pepper.  Pepper was more valuable than gold – literally – and native cultures were decimated, bloody battles fought on the sea, and entire economies hinged on the acquisition of spices.  

And it’s not like you can just walk up to a pepper plant and yank off some black pepper – oh no, it has to be dried, cured, baked in the sun or by machine.  It looks like this before it’s been harvested.  

Isn’t it kind of crazy how humans end up eating things?  At some point someone said, “This berry is kinda gross,” and threw it on the ground, only to somehow end up trying it again once it had been drying in the sun for a while, at which time she or he went “HOLY HOT DAMN” and started doing it on purpose.  Like artichokes – who the hell decided “Hey, that big scary ass thistle looks like it might have a tiny tiny edible part on the inside” or “Hey dude, see that wet grain that’s been rotting for a while?  YOU SHOULD TOTALLY DRINK THE WATER.”

Which makes me think of how vanilla is a synonym for “boring” – I mean what the hell?!?  Vanilla comes from exactly ONE kind of orchid, and it has to be harvested by hand.  The pods undergo a curing process that takes months and involves baking them in the sun, then covering them up with a blanket to sweat, then baking them in the sun, over and over for days.  There’s no way to shorten the process without altering the flavor.  The vanilla orchid has I think one bee that pollinates it naturally, otherwise humans have to pollinate the flowers by hand.  Imitation vanilla flavor you buy at the store is often made with wood pulp (or it used to be, they have synthetics now that are more popular in the food industry), which contains vanillin, the scent compound that makes books smell like books.

And that’s BORING? 

Anyway just read up on the spice trade sometime.  There was a British documentary series I found a long time ago where each episode covered a single spice – its history, what makes it awesome, how it’s cultivated, and issues surrounding the cultures and populations who have to do the actual labor to get it to our tables.  Pepper isn’t just some little ground seed (it’s a fruit, first of all, or if you want to get technical, a drupe), it’s been a catalyst for wars and exploration.  Portugal and Spain tried to divvy up the rights to the global pepper trade, but neither managed to hang on thanks to Venetian traders, the Dutch, the English, and of course the Arab merchants who had been in charge of the trade for centuries.  For a long time only the rich could afford pepper, and in some places grains of paradise were a cheaper substitute (grains of paradise is also a great flavoring I quite like, it’s like pepper but not quite, and you can grind it the same way).  China went through massive quantities of the stuff, possibly more than all of Europe, though of course Marco Polo’s account is questionable at best.

So yeah, every time I get one of those little pepper packets I think about all of that, which is why if you open my office drawer you’ll find a million pepper packets.  Such a tiny throwaway thing to us, but historically and culturally still worth its weight in gold.

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