Don’t take salt and pepper for granted
Examining the overlooked duo that live next to our stoves
Photos by kc kratt
Salt and pepper sit side-by-side on kitchen tables everywhere, eliciting little regard. It is hard to believe these common seasonings, readily and affordably available to every American, once stood at the center of great wars and were as costly as precious metals. Salt had the same value as gold; the term salary is derived from a Latin word used by the Roman Legions, who paid soldiers in salt. Black pepper held equal importance. When the Visigoths attacked Rome in 410 AD, King Alairc demanded three thousand pounds of peppercorns, along with gold, silver, and other valuables, as the ransom required to end his siege on the Eternal City. (It didn’t work, by the way, hence the official Sack of Rome.)
Salt, essential to human survival, and pepper, essential to European cookery of all kinds, are two prime examples of how disconnected we are from both our food and how its history intertwines with ours as a species. Read on as we examine salt and pepper, the overlooked duo that live next to our stoves. We also have general guidance on selecting each seasoning and recipes that highlight them.
For a few recipes highlighting salt and pepper, click here.
“Where would we be without salt?”
The human body requires salt to survive; it’s why our tongues are equipped with specific salt taste receptors. It’s also why we can’t eat just one potato chip. Salt has been vilified by the last generation or two of general health advisories, and still is in some circles, despite the fact that it’s been five years since the American Journal of Hypertension published its findings that no strong correlation exists between salt consumption and heart attacks, strokes, or death caused by high blood pressure.
In the American diet, most of the salt consumed is unintentional (as opposed to additions during cooking or at the table via salt shaker). Massive amounts of salt are added to commercially prepared foods, from frozen dinners and canned veggies to salad dressings and jarred sauces. In some ways, salt is the great divider—people with diets made up of fresh and natural ingredients find the saltiness of processed foods somewhat intolerable, while people with diets based largely on processed foods struggle to find joy in the flavors derived from fresh and natural ingredients.
Table salt, from the 1920s until the last decade or so, has been fundamental to health in more ways than one. Certainly humans and animals require salt to live; without it, according to Mark Kurlansky, author of Salt: World History, “We’d be unable to transport nutrients or oxygen, transmit nerve impulses or move muscles, including the heart.” Fortified, or iodized salt was introduced in the early part of the last century. It’s a combination of potassium iodide, sodium iodide, and sodium iodate. These chemicals promote thyroid health. Iodine deprivation is also the leading preventable cause of mental retardation around the world. A decade or so ago, when America became fascinated with the Food Network and celebrity chefs, we all swapped our boring table salt in for sea salt, potentially creating a nationwide mineral deficiency with a long-term impact we have yet to understand.
Today, twenty-six ounces of Morton salt costs less than a dollar. So how is it that just 150 years ago, Mexicans and Texans waged war over the salt lakes at the base of the Guadalupe Mountains? The El Paso Salt War, also known as the San Elizario Salt War, began in 1866 and lasted until 1877. At the time, salt was not only an important component of the human diet and necessary for replenishing the electrolytes lost by people and animals sweating all day in a warm climate, but it was also used, like anything valuable, as a trade commodity. Its role in the preservation of meat and its part as a fundamental component in the extraction of silver ore from the Chihuahua mines made it an incredibly valuable resource. Access to the salt in the lakes was granted to the native community by the King of Spain and was later grandfathered in by the Republic of Mexico. Until 1866, that is, when the Texas Constitution attempted to waive that access, granting individuals the opportunity to stake a claim for mineral rights. Men were killed, crops were lost, and more than a decade of political unrest gripped the region. By 1883, the Mexican population lost all political influence in the area. This is just one of many histories that revolve around salt access and ownership. As lowly as it now is, salt—through its value and scarcity—has caused thousands, perhaps millions, to lose their lives.
Salt is now ubiquitous because it has been industrialized and is now harvested in several manners, some of which were unavailable at the time of the El Paso Salt War. Salt is deep-shaft mined, like many other minerals, from underground deposits in ancient seabeds. The type of salt typically produced from deep-shaft mining is what we call rock salt. Table salt is derived from a method known as brine solution mining, where fresh water is injected into wells built over seabeds, with the resulting salty runoff hauled to a plant where the final step of evaporation is employed. Solar evaporation is the most ancient technique, where sun and wind are used to evaporate shallow ponds of salt lake or seawater, leaving crystallized salt behind. This process was naturally occurring at the base of the Guadalupe Mountains, where the shallow water table of the region’s salt lakes periodically drew exceptionally pure salt to the surface.
Pythagoras said, “Salt is born of the purest parents: the sun and the sea,” which was once true but only applies situationally today. Modern Americans have dozens of salt varieties to choose from, sourced from seas and lakes all over the world and available in any number of textures, grain-sizes, and strengths. Each salt contains its own mineral makeup and unique flavor profile; attentive home cooks have good reasons to keep at least three or four in the pantry.
In cooking, salt still serves the purpose of preservation, but it’s also fair to say that some flavors are barely perceptible to the human palate without the addition of salt. As David Chang, king of the Momofuku empire, once described, “There is an objectively correct amount of salt, and it is rooted in a counterintuitive idea. Normally, we think of a balanced dish as being neither too salty nor undersalted. I think that’s wrong. When a dish is perfectly seasoned, it will taste simultaneously like it has too much salt and too little salt. It is fully committed to being both at the same time.” Chefs must work to establish a perfect and consistent seasoning technique, a simple fact of cooking for a living that diners take for granted.
• Kosher salt is simply salt that’s not had iodine added. It’s used to make meats kosher by removing surface blood; it’s not actually made in accordance with kosher guidelines.
• In China, consumption of too much salt (one kilogram’s worth) was once used by nobles as a method of expensive ritual suicide.
• Don’t believe everything you read: Campbell’s twenty-five percent less sodium tomato soup had exactly the same amount of sodium as its regular tomato soup until four New Jersey housewives sued the company in 2011.
• In the early 1800s, salt on the American frontier cost four times as much as beef, since it was essential to keep people and livestock alive.
• Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting of The Last Supper illustrates Judas knocking a salt shaker over, intended to symbolize an act of the devil.
Unlike salt, its pale counterpart, pepper is not a necessity. But most cooks can attest to its fundamental contribution to cuisine. There are plenty of spices with the word "pepper" in their name, but most of them are derived from chiles dried and ground to impart heat and flavor—cayenne, aleppo, paprika, and many, many others. What we’re examining here is black pepper, or table pepper, which is the seed of Piper nigrum, a flowering vine in the Piperaceae family. Though peppercorns come in a variety of colors, they all come from the same source, their only difference being how mature they are when picked or the method with which they are treated post-harvest (see our pepper guide for details).
Pepper is indigenous to southwest India and for centuries has been prized for its flavor and medicinal qualities. Arabian pepper traders were recorded as early as 1000 BC. By 40 AD or so, Rome had developed a taste for the stuff. A collection of Roman recipes called De Re Coquinaria or The Art of Cooking, is the oldest surviving cookbook in history, and eighty percent of its recipes require black pepper. In fact, the first known omelet recipe is contained within; it’s seasoned with honey and, you guessed it, black pepper.
Medieval Europe loved black pepper, too. The more prestigious and wealthy a household, the more heavily its food was spiced. Some records say that Italy and Spain truly embraced black pepper during this period, while other countries began to use Grains of Paradise or Long Pepper in its place, but there are many conflicting accounts. Waverly Root, a respected journalist who passed away in 1982, is credited with having written that, “in medieval times the habit arose of expressing a man’s wealth, no longer in terms of the amount of land in his estate, but of the amount of pepper in his pantry.”
Black pepper’s medicinal properties had an impact, too. Noted for its ability to assist with digestion and stimulate the appetite, it was also prized for its ability to clear the sinuses, and it was believed to dissolve congestion in the chest, which could easily lead to death in those days.
Pepper’s bright and sometimes surprising flavor, combined with its rarity and expense, made it a highly prized commodity, but the “king of spices” had some adversaries. Pliny the Elder subtly complained about it in his book, Natural History. Today the Internet is full of articles written by people who aren’t fans, folks who believe black pepper no longer belongs on our tables, or that it’s only good when used to season beef or perhaps a salad. Spree’s contributing chef, Edward Forster, agrees (note he submitted a salt-centric recipe). Perhaps this disdain is only available to those with the luxury of access. Today, we can use any number of ingredients to brighten a dish, many of which may be more suitable in certain instances than black pepper. Lemon or lime, fresh herbs, vinegar, hot sauce—our access has given us palates that may have progressed beyond regular black pepper usage.
Chef Michel Nischan, three-time James Beard Foundation Award winner disagrees. He told GQ in July that black pepper “picks up every dish—even dessert. Add fresh black pepper, and it’s like a miracle, unreal. Aromatic. Not overly hot. It picks up almost every flavor in a dish. And often helps flavors in an odd contrast to come together in the middle.” No matter where you stand on the great black pepper debate, note that grinding it fresh is always preferable to shaking it from a dusty container pulled from the back of your spice cabinet.
• Pepper loses its flavor and aroma through evaporation, so its best to purchase it in small quantities and store it in an airtight container.
• Black pepper has long been purported to have medicinal functions, from preventing cancer and aiding digestion to use as an antidepressant and cold remedy.
• Who needs coffee? Black pepper has a very high caffeine content.
• Elias Haskett Derby was America’s first millionaire. He made his money importing black pepper.
• Whole peppercorns ground before eating provide a more intense flavor than pre-ground pepper or pepper powder.
For a few recipes highlighting salt and pepper, click here.
Christa Glennie Seychew is Spree’s former food editor, a freelance writer, and a hope-fueled Buffalonian. For more information on this topic, consider reading Salt: A World History, by Mark Kurlansky, and Marjorie Shaffer’s Pepper: A History of the World’s Most Influential Spice.