The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

January 11, 2014

The king of spices

By David Christy, News Editor
Enid News and Eagle

— I pick up column ideas out of nowhere sometimes — from a snippet on TV, the Internet and sometimes from simple observation.

Was dousing my favorite chicken-noodle soup with black pepper while eating at my work computer desk this week, when I remembered something I had seen years ago about the black spice we still take for granted.

Black pepper today is cheap, widely used on a variety of foods, is good for us and has a history that goes back nearly to pre-history.

And, at one time in antiquity, black pepper was ranked along with gold, jewels and other assorted items we equate with great wealth. Kind of hard to believe.

A flowering vine that produces fruit which is dried and used as a spice and seasoning in everything from stews to mashed potatoes, black pepper is native to India and known there since at least 2000 BCE.

Remember reading in grade school about the spice trade, Marco Polo and caravans coming from the East to Europe? Well, see black pepper.

Discovered this oddity: black peppercorns were found stuffed in the nostrils of  the great pharaoh Ramesses II as part of his mummification in 1213 BCE, yet little is known how pepper made its way to the ancient Egyptian empire.

Early Romans were well acquainted with pepper, calling it “piper.”

And this from the writings of fabled Pliny the Elder in about 77 A.D.: “It is quite surprising that the use of pepper has come so much into fashion, seeing that in other substances which we use, it is sometimes their sweetness, and sometimes their appearance that has attracted our notice; whereas, pepper has nothing in it that can plead as a recommendation to either fruit or berry, its only desirable quality being a certain pungency; and yet it is for this that we import it all the way from India! Who was the first to make trial of it as an article of food, and who, I wonder, was the man that was not content to prepare himself by hunger only for the satisfying of a greedy appetite?”

Because black pepper had to be brought by pack animal or cart all the way from India, at great personal peril as well as expense, the dark spice in early history was astronomically more expensive than paying a few bucks for it in a nifty little McCormick spice tin.

While we certainly take pepper for granted, not so our long ago ancestors.

While it was found in a 3rd-century Roman cookbook, pepper was included in a majority of food recipes.

And, it was so valuable long ago, it often was used both as collateral and as currency.

One story goes that while at war with the Romans, Attila the Hun and the Visigoths each demanded a ransom of more than a ton of pepper from a besieged Roman city during the 5th century. And, through much of history, black pepper was only considered a spice of the rich. Many times, it was used as currency, and considered as valuable as gold in Europe.

Called the king of spices for centuries, pepper and the spice trade during the Dark Ages was controlled by Islamic influences, and in later Mediterranean culture by Italy, especially Genoa and Venice. And the spice trade became a principal funding mechanism for these great city-states.

Also an interesting side note to the history of this spice are its link to health.

Black pepper still is ascribed as an aid in the digestive process and preventing indigestion, and has been touted for helping relieve a cough and stuffy nose from the common cold. It also was prized over the centuries to help relieve gas, aid the body in using nutrients more efficiently, is a natural anti-depressant and has anti-bacterial properties to help keep clear skin by stimulating circulation.

History is chock full of ties to pepper, and the spicy-black peppercorn once commanded up to 70 percent of the world’s spice trade.

In fact, the high cost and high demand for pepper helped begin the age of discovery, for men like Christopher Columbus, Vasco de Gama, Sir Francis Drake and other world explorers. Weary of paying exorbitantly high prices for pepper, European’s tired of Venice controlling its import and went seeking other lands where pepper could be procured.

Columbus himself stocked the holds of his ships with what he believed to be black pepper and returned to Spain from the West Indies with his thought-to-be prized cargo. Turned out, it was not expensive peppercorns but nearly worthless chili peppers.

So, the next time you dump a little or a lot of black pepper on a dollop of potatoes, you continue to contribute to the history of a spice that helped write world history.

Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle. Go to his column blog at http://enid news.com/historicallyspeaking.