I grew up accustomed to the taste of black pepper. My mother, traditionally enough, did most of the cooking at least until my middle years of high school. She had many virtues as a person and as a mom, but a knack in the kitchen wasn’t one of them. It was her notion that there was nothing wrong with any dish that more black pepper couldn’t address successfully. (My dad didn’t agree, but didn’t say so, and instead pled a sensitive stomach in order to get an un-spiced version of whatever was on the stove, or, if that wasn’t possible, a very small portion of it; what he ate for lunch is anyone’s guess.) Unsurprisingly, heavily peppered food became my baseline for what was “normal,” and, as I grew older, I added to my array of preferred spices, dumping Tabasco sauce on this and curry powder on that. To this day, my favorite cuisines are Mexican and Cajun, and I’m convinced that no dish is spiced correctly unless it makes sweat break out on your forehead.
“Why is ‘mild’ salsa even offered for sale?” I once wondered. “Who would buy it?” The answer, of course, is lots of people. It didn’t take me long to discover that there are at least as many mild spicers as hot spicers in the world, and that I’m located pretty far to one end of the bell curve. Still, most people like at least some, and apparently always have.
Black pepper is one of the oldest traded spices, first imported from India by ancient Mesopotamians no later than 2000 BC. The peppercorn-bearing shrub is native to Java, but was transplanted to the tropical Asian mainland very early. Cinnamon, ginger, and cloves also were coveted in ancient times. (Spices, as a matter of definition, are the seeds, fruit, or bark of a plant; the leaves are herbs.) In the
New World, bell
peppers, vanilla, allspice (Pimenta dioica), and
chili peppers were favorites of native peoples, and, with the arrival of the
Spanish, these also became part of European cuisine. For reasons that are not
entirely clear (though there are many theories) the use of spices increases the
closer one gets to the equator; the explanation may be simply that the plants
mostly grow in this region.
Some people claim that spice preferences are related to personality. Dr. Alan R. Hirsch, for example, at the Smell & Taste Research Center in
"Cravings definitely have a physical component, but they also give some
insight into the type of person you are." Maybe, but I’m not convinced. According to his list, spice-lovers
are fastidious, like order, and pay attention to details. Anyone who has seen
my desk knows that is untrue, at least in my case. I suspect that a taste for
spices has more to do with early exposure to them, though I’ve met a few people
who learned to like them later on. Chicago
Spicy foods, by the way, do not cause ulcers or digestive disorders. Nor do they kill taste buds. They do, however, trigger symptoms if you already have an ulcer or other disorder. If you can handle spices, though, there do seem to be some health benefits (see http://www.self.com/health/blogs/healthyself/2010/09/5-healthy-benefits-of-eating-s.html.)
In one of those ironies of life, it so happens that virtually all of my friends are light-spicers or no-spicers. Accordingly, when we go out or when I have guests, the menu is blander than when I order or cook for myself. In truth, I have learned to appreciate unadorned meats and veggies as well; they just aren’t my default choice.
Tomorrow, May 11, is a special day, however. According to the holiday-tracking site Gone-ta-pott, it is Eat What You Want Day. No kidding: Google it. At my house it will be jambalaya and curry chicken, with hot cherry peppers for dessert.
A Burger After My Heart