Like Pepper for Pepper

by Sarah West

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Most people who went to grade school in the United States know that in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue. As I remember it, he was hired by the king of Spain to sail farther west than anyone before him had (anyone, that is, on 15th Century Europe’s radar) and to settle, once and for all, the age-old argument over whether the earth was round or flat. In third grade, that logic was good enough for me. And, becoming something of a Columbus Day protestor in my teenage years (after my brother read a book called, Lies My Teacher Told Me, that detailed all the atrocities Columbus unleashed upon the New World), I put the whole story on the back shelf.

Years later, I picked up a library book about the spice trade (Spice: The History of a Temptation, by Jack Turner), where I promptly learned that Columbus headed west not to solve some existential puzzle, but for the very practical reason of securing a more direct trade route to import black pepper from India. He did it for two reasons that sound jarringly familiar to our contemporary minds: money and ego.

Pepper, that uber-ordinary seasoning we take completely for granted, was as precious as gold in Columbus’ day—a sign of wealth, a highly valued commodity in very short supply, a craze. Men lost their lives fetching pepper, and everyone thought it was worth it. With the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Silk Road became too dangerous for commerce, so the Portuguese (who monopolized the spice trade at the time) took to the sea, rounding the horn of Africa in order to reach the pepper-producing coast of southern India. Spain, with Columbus’ help, was looking to outdo their northern rival by finding a shortcut.

When Columbus landed in the Bahamas, he thought it was (or close enough to) the East Indies. And when, in keeping with his plan, he looked for black pepper, he came upon chiles. Of those arresting fruits he and his fellow explorers found in such profusion, one crewmember wrote: “In those islands there are also bushes like rose bushes, which make fruit as long as cinnamon, full of small grains as biting as [Asian] pepper; those Caribs and the Indians eat that fruit like we eat apples.”

Our modern palates separate the two peppers by a wide margin—black pepper is floral, pleasantly bitter, stinging the tongue with a quick zing only when eaten in excess; chile peppers are fruity, acidic, sour, often sweet, with a sensation we call heat that ranges from a mild tingle to something akin to the mind-altering hammer of a white-hot brand. Europeans had trouble with chiles (and still do), though hot peppers found a home at the margins—Eastern Europe’s paprika, Southern Europe’s spicy sauces and cured meats.

Where it’s hard to imagine that chile peppers were only introduced a mere 500 years ago is nearly everyplace else: Korea, India, Thailand, Ethiopia, China, and Senegal, to name a few famously spicy Diasporas. These cultures quickly adopted the chile pepper as their own, exploring its wealth of genetic traits and producing a mind-boggling collection of new varieties (one that continues to grow today). At a recent count, there were 79 distinct varieties passing under the umbrella of “Thai pepper,” a barometer that helps to translate the enormity of chile pepper diversity.

Then, of course, there is Mexico—the chile’s homeland and where its role in the cuisine is still, arguably, the most refined. Believed to be one of the first domesticated plants, chiles, along with corn and squash, constituted a mainstay of the Central American diet. From my own quasi-European perspective (averse, I hesitate to admit, to all but modest chili pepper heat), I’ve never thought of chiles as more than a seasoning. Like the black pepper they are named for, chiles unquestionably add dimension to a dish, but not substance, not weight. I did try to make myself more tolerant of them once, devoting an entire summer to cooking progressively spicier dishes until the persistent heartburn and other unpleasant side effects forced me to admit defeat. But even then, they were an addition, an adornment, a very small percentage of a dish’s overall volume; not at all, as that Spanish sailor reported, like apples.

But he (and the sophisticated cuisine he observed) was right. The first time I fully appreciated chiles in their own rite was when I watched friends make red mole from scratch. The pile of dried chiles and their seeds—toasted separately and ground together with water, warming spices, and nuts; thickened by hours of stirring and simmering; and at the very end, finished with dark chocolate—was, to my eyes, overwhelming. While the process was beautiful and ritualistic, I wasn’t entirely sure I would be able to eat the results. But the sauce, only mildly spicy, exuded a graceful, effortless richness that compelled me to keep spooning it into my mouth, that fed both my simple, daily hunger and the one that no apple has ever quite quenched: the hunger for enchantment, for transformation, for food that drops an anchor and lingers, warmly, long after the meal is finished.

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