Most kitchen tables — and restaurant booths and tables — have a set of shakers full of two of the most popular spices in the world: salt and pepper. You can probably close your eyes and imagine exactly what each tastes like. In fact, give it a try right now.
If you're thinking of salt, you might be imagining fresh, hot French fries sprinkled with just enough salt to make them a tasty treat for your tongue. When you think of pepper, you might think of a smattering of black dots on mashed potatoes, eggs, or gravy, giving them a slightly spicy edge.
But just how did salt and pepper rise to the level of prominence that made them fixtures on nearly every dining table in America and many other parts of the world? Historians believe that salt and pepper have been paired together as condiments ever since 17th-century French chefs decided that the two were the only spices that didn't overpower the true taste of food.
Salt has been around since the beginning of time. Since salt is a naturally occurring chemical compound (sodium chloride or NaCl), it could be found in nature. It wasn't long before people realized that it could improve the taste of food. Scientists now know that saltiness is one of our primary taste sensations, and that our tongues contain special salt-sensing taste buds.
More importantly back then, though, people also discovered it could be used to preserve foods. This was critical, since refrigeration didn't come along until much, much later. Salt was so valuable at one point in history that it was traded with a value greater than gold.
Pepper was also once extremely valuable as a trading commodity. Grown primarily in India initially, it quickly became popular in Europe. It was 17th-century French chefs who incorporated pepper into much of their cuisine, giving it the importance it retains today.
But what exactly is pepper? It's not a natural compound like salt. So what is it? Black pepper is actually made from the unripe fruit (called peppercorns) of a plant called Piper nigrum. This flowering vine is native to Southern India, but much of our pepper today comes from other countries, such as Vietnam, Indonesia, Brazil, and Malaysia.
To make black pepper, the unripe, green peppercorns are cooked in hot water and then dried. As they dry, they become dark, wrinkled, and hard. They are then crushed or ground up to make the black pepper we're used to seeing in shakers along with salt.
You may have noticed cooks on television using pepper mills, which grind up peppercorns on the spot to create spicy black pepper. Pepper mills are used often by chefs, because ground pepper tends to lose its flavor quickly. To get the most flavor from black pepper, chefs like to grind it fresh as needed before adding it to their dishes.
Some chefs also like to grind salt fresh, too. You can now find salt and pepper grinders on grocery store shelves that can be used to replace traditional salt and pepper shakers on your dinner table at home.