How did salt and pepper become the standard table spices?

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Dear Cecil: We have been puzzled for a while about how salt and ground black pepper became the standard spices on the American dinner table. Why don’t we use cinnamon or oregano or something else instead? Joe and Fern S., Beverly Hills, California


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

This is just the kind of thing that fascinates historians, gang, something you may want to consider next time a historian asks you out for a date. Actually, the popularity of common salt (sodium chloride, or NaCl) is pretty easy to account for. It stimulates one of the primary sensations of taste, via the salt-sensing taste buds at the tip of the tongue. (The other primary tastes, of course, are sweet, bitter, and sour.) It has long been used to preserve meat and fish, obviously a matter of considerable importance in the days before mechanical refrigeration. It is essential in humans and animals, playing a vital role in body heat regulation, among other things. To maintain health you must consume between three and eight grams a day.

Salt’s popularity, therefore, is not surprising. Every major civilization has cherished it. It has always been an important object of trade and at times has been a medium of exchange. Roman soldiers, among others, were paid in salt, which gave rise to the English word “salary.”

Pepper is a different story. In terms of total volume, it isn’t even in the same league with salt. Every year Americans douse their food with a staggering 6.5 million tons of sodium chloride, whereas during the same period they use a measly 27,000 tons of pepper. (That is to say, black pepper, the fruit of the plant Piper nigrum. Red pepper adds another few thousand tons.) Pepper nonetheless is among the most popular of all the spices, and always has been. (Salt, strictly speaking, is not a spice.) In terms of total tonnage, it lags behind sesame seed and mustard consumption in the U.S. But whereas the latter two are largely confined to the hot dog and hamburger biz, pepper you can cheerfully dump on nearly anything.

Indigenous to India, pepper came to the Romans around the first century BC. They became so fond of it that they established special pepper storehouses (horrea piperataria). Partly because of its scarcity, the stuff became extremely valuable; it’s said Alaric the Goth demanded the Romans give him a ransom of 5,000 pounds of gold, 30,000 pounds of silver, and 3,000 pounds of pepper.

But it was only in the late Middle Ages that pepper got really hot, so to speak. After centuries of tasteless gruel, Europeans developed a craving for certain spices that could be obtained chiefly from the East, among them pepper, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and ginger. Pepper, being pungent, became particularly popular, since it could be used to disguise the taste of semirotten meat, a commodity then in abundant supply. So precious did pepper become that at times, like salt, it was used as money. The popularity of pepper dropped off a bit after 1650, partly because the European diet became more varied and there was less need of it, but it remains an extremely common seasoning today.

What exactly accounts for pepper’s popularity, apart from its evident versatility, is hard to say. Given its usefulness in decayed beef, we may speculate that the rise of the fast food industry has done much to prop up the market. More generally, I would say that pepper’s macho fieriness gives it a broad cross-cultural appeal that must forever elude such justifiably obscure herbs as fennel, which sounds like something out of Rosemary’s Baby.

Cecil’s own researches in the kitchen (he is to spaghetti what Mozart is to music) persuade him that pepper plays a vital if indefinable role in the human diet. Many are the hours I have sweated over that damn pot trying to get the proportions of salt, pepper, and garlic—the Magic Triumvirate—exactly right. But it’s been worth it, needless to say; we’re talking about a dish that will heal the sick and raise the dead. Play your cards right and I’ll invite you over for a plateful.

Cecil Adams

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