The next time you grind a little black pepper on your steak, think about this:
The pepper trade was responsible for the deaths of thousands of people, the enslavement of countless others, the establishment of the opium trade in India and the extinction of the dodo.
Now, enjoy your dinner.
Marjorie Shaffer, a science writer and editor at the New York University School of Medicine, thoroughly examines our culinary friend in “Pepper: A History of the World’s Most Influential Spice” (St. Martin’s Press). In her preface, she calls pepper “the Zelig of the culinary world.” It’s an apt description.
Pepper was used by the Greeks, Romans and Chinese for medicinal purposes. In medieval times it was used as currency, at times worth more than gold or silver. And the pepper trade, with its substantial import duties, contributed mightily to the treasury of a fledgling United States in the early 19th century.
Pepper, a dried berry from a vine indigenous to India, is a tropical plant and won’t grow just anywhere. Columbus didn’t sail from Spain looking for Ohio; he was seeking the Far East and its spices, i.e., pepper. (Shaffer tells us that Columbus carried peppercorns with him to show natives he encountered what exactly he was looking for.)