On Slate this week, Sara Dickerman asks a question that has bugged SFoodie for years now: Out of all the spices in the world, why has black pepper become the one we season everything with? Europeans have been importing black peppercorns from Asia since the early days of the Roman empire, but only since the Enlightenment has it has dominated Western kitchens. Many people won't eat their dinner without shaking pepper over top, in some sort of ritual akin to saying grace or wishing their tablemates "bon appetit."
[Pepper] can be terrific: It's a great beef spice--a rib eye calls out for a rough crack of black pepper; Caesar salad needs a little of its musky prickle, to be sure; I like a spicy ginger cookie with a bit of the black stuff. But pepper isn't particularly aromatic, and it can bulldoze over other flavors with its scene-stealing pungency.
Acknowledging pepper's main use -- to brighten up long-cooked dishes with a flash of vivid flavor -- she sets out to find a replacement she likes better. Cumin? Coriander seed? Long pepper, which the Romans preferred before black pepper came along?