Issue Forty-Three - Winter 2024

Peppercorns – The Tiny Fruit

by Susan Little

Earle, Arkansas. 1950. We were a house divided: Mother and brother against Daddy and me. Divided. Over pepper. Mother and brother couldn’t shake enough black pepper onto their food. Daddy and I could barely stand the aroma of it floating around the table. In those days, in our home, there was no fancy pepper mill. Just a can of commercially ground pepper from the McCormick spice company in a metal tin with a top that slid back and forth from shake to pour. From this can Mother filled her pepper shakers for use at the table. She had many salt and pepper pairs—ceramic, fine china, carved wood, sterling silver, plastic—and she matched them to the occasion.

Mother loved what she called hot stuff. Pepper of all kinds, the rough, wrinkly little balls of the fruit of piper nigrum, as well as everything belonging to the Capsicum family. In fact, even when she was battling small-cell lung cancer—a heavy-duty killer from which she emerged into the rarified air of the fully recovered—she turned to hot sauce for renewal. After her infusions of cisplatin (a platinum compound drip drip dripped into her vein) she’d say to me, “Darlin’, can we please stop and get some Mexican food?” Other patients were home by then vomiting and weak. Maybe all that Tapatio hot sauce burned up some of her cancer cells.

I don’t recall the details of my conversion to the dark side of peppercorns. I know it started while in college where I was exposed to all manner of foods never before experienced. I remember being at a dinner party where my hostess served steak au poivre and everyone else at the table oohed and aahed as they salivated in anticipation. I stared at my dish. How could I start? Mother may not have taught me to enjoy pepper, but she certainly taught me to eat (and show appreciation for) whatever I was served in someone’s home. I continued to stare. There was no way to scrape the pepper off to the side and smear it with mashed potato. There was no way to rid the dish of pepper which had been pressed deeply into both sides of the raw steak before cooking. There was no way to separate the silky butter sauce from its load of barely crushed peppercorns. There was no way to avoid the maximum crunch and rush of pepper in every bite. Ouch!

Relying on my gustatory preferences for a rare, well-salted beef tenderloin and an expertly prepared butter sauce covering almost anything, I cut a tiny bite and lifted it on my fork. I held my breath as the tiny bite moved up and up and closer and closer and then and then into my mouth. I felt the familiar pleasure rush of the tender meat on my tongue and the warm, savory butter spreading throughout. When I encountered an uncrushed peppercorn, I swallowed it whole and I emerged from the experience, a changed woman. That was my first step onto the dark path. I continued on the path with a cosmopolitan boyfriend, who swept me through a panoply of fine restaurants in Boston. And New York. I ate black pepper beef, black pepper chicken, biryani, pulao, dal paired with pineapple and plums, black pepper biscuits, paprika and peppercorn shrimp, sausage pancakes with black pepper syrup.

I’ve had many pepper mills—in the kitchen and on the table. A few years ago they began to be all the rage as gifts. They come in many sizes, large, medium, small, and various designs, rustic, elegant, even “vintage Ottoman.” I’ve owned an assortment of everything from—God help us—mortar and pestle types all the way to battery operated. I like the fine grind that those produce, but they are heavy and the batteries don’t last very long. Some pepper mills are combined with a salt dispenser—grind or shake types. Now you can even buy your peppercorns packaged in a disposable grinder unit to be added to the landfill when empty. All of these have gone the way of my discarded kitchen detritus.

Recently I received yet another pepper mill as a gift. In order to evaluate it, I placed it alone on the gleaming surface of my polished cherry dining table. I asked the glamorous copper peppermill three questions: 1) are you useful? 2) are you beautiful? 3) do I love you? Yes, YES, YES.

It is an eight-inch copper column, one and a half inches in diameter, with a brass crankshaft at the top that powers the grinding mechanism. From its website:

“The original Greek mill is a unique piece of European tradition that is functionally the best in the world. Handmade to exacting standards. Flanged base for stability. Durable all metal body. The design is based on a coffee mill that was used by Greek soldiers in the early 20th century. Manufactured by a small, family-run company in northern Greece.”

I don’t know how much of that is true, but I do like the idea of Greek soldiers preparing their coffee in such a device. In their war against the Turkish National Movement during the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire between May 1919 and October 1922, soldiers would certainly have needed more coffee than pepper to keep them going.

I am continually adding pepper in new ways to my home cuisine. I have come to appreciate pepper bacon. Heating pepper reduces the pungency, and it makes the bacon a delicious accompaniment to our Sunday baby bella mushroom and sharp cheddar omelettes. Pepper bacon can occasionally present a problem. When our two-year-old granddaughter was visiting and announced that she loved bacon very much and would like a big pile of it for breakfast, I thought, Great. I’ve got lots of bacon. And then, Oh no. “Will she eat pepper bacon?” I inquired of her mother who stood with folded arms and a raised eyebrow look that said, Are you kidding me? What could I do but remove the strips from the package and, one-by-one rinse them under the faucet, dry them on paper towels and finally carve off the top part where the pepper was concentrated? That worked well enough, but I must remember to lay in a supply of non-pepper bacon—probably the maple kind—for the next toddler visit.

Or maybe I can begin tempting her over to the dark side. Never too early.

Another change in my use of pepper has been forced on me. My husband, Greg, needs to reduce his salt intake. Now I use very little salt in cooking and he uses none at the table, just heaps on the pepper in vast quantities. I turned to the internet to uncover the harmful effects of consuming pepper. How much, after all, is too much? I found that Greg is not the only person substituting pepper for salt these days. Lots of people do it. This could be a good thing.

Different studies show that the active ingredient piperine may protect against cell damage, improve nutrient absorption, and aid digestion; that black pepper extracts stopped up to 85% of cellular damage associated with cancer development; that black pepper may improve absorption of beta-carotene which in turn may combat cellular damage thus preventing conditions like heart disease; that black pepper may prevent diarrhea by inhibiting digestive tract muscle spasms; and that rats on a high fat diet treated with black pepper and piperine decreased free radical levels to amounts similar to those in rats fed a normal diet leading me to conclude that I can eat all the pepper bacon I like. All good—right? The more the better—right?

Not so fast.

From WebMD: “Taking large amounts of black pepper by mouth, which can accidentally get into the lungs, has been reported to cause death.”

Pepper can kill. Or almost. I saw it happen once. In 1967 I was at dinner with friends in a restaurant in Amman, Jordan. We sat around a low circular brass table on traditional hand-knotted rugs. It was hot in the crowded restaurant in late May. A few small fans were placed strategically among the tables and rotated in a 180 degree arc. Waiters delivered dishes by kneeling beside the tables.

My companions and I munched roasted chickpeas, hummus, and pita while we awaited the arrival of our kebab tuhal of lamb, parsley, pine nuts, and hot green peppers. The disaster unfolded as in slow motion but so fast I could do nothing to prevent it. At two tables to my left after a waiter placed dishes in front of guests, a second waiter arrived holding a bowl of ground pepper in his left palm and knelt down beside the table to sprinkle the pepper onto the plates with a large spoon and then as he did so, the proximate fan circled slowly, slowly, slowly back around and blew air directly over the pepper bowl delivering a cloud of black dust into an unsuspecting diner’s face.

He gasped. The pepper filled his lungs. He screamed in pain. He rinsed his eyes with water. The agony in his lungs continued. Finally someone got to the only phone located in the kitchen and summoned emergency services. They arrived and whisked the moaning man away in an ambulance.

Our kebabs came shortly thereafter and then another server with another bowl. “Pepper, lady?” he offered.

“Yes. Thank you. But, min fadlak, turn the fan away.”

After my mother defeated her lung cancer, we had three more years to reminisce and to travel and to giggle together. Today, as I swirl a heap of black pepper into a skillet of melted butter to toast for cacio e pepe, I think of her. I think of the ways she shaped me. Effervescent hospitality. Resilience in the face of betrayal. Faith in the future. And, of course, pepper pleasure.

Copyright Little 2024