The next time you grind a little black pepper onto your steak, think about this:
The pepper trade was responsible for the deaths of thousands of people, the enslavement of countless others, the establishment of the opium trade in India and the extinction of the dodo.
Now, enjoy your dinner.
Marjorie Shaffer, a science writer and editor at the New York University School of Medicine, thoroughly examines our culinary friend in Pepper: A History of the World's Most Influential Spice (St. Martin's Press). In her preface, she calls pepper "the Zelig of the culinary world."
Pepper was used by the Greeks, Romans and Chinese for medicinal purposes. In medieval times it was used as currency, at times worth more than gold or silver. And the pepper trade, with its substantial import duties, contributed mightily to the treasury of a fledgling United States in the early 19th century.
Pepper, a dried berry from a vine indigenous to India, is a tropical plant and won't grow just anywhere. Columbus didn't sail from Spain looking for America; he was seeking the Far East and its spices, i.e., pepper. (Shaffer tells us that Columbus carried peppercorns with him to show the natives he encountered exactly what he was looking for.)
European explorers and traders in the 17th and 18th centuries had much the same goal, though the primary traders, the Dutch and the English, were much more aggressive. Such commerce didn't come without a price. Ships could lose a third or more of their crew on the long journeys. Those who survived left a lasting mark on the native people they dealt with — conquest, imperialism, slavery and genocide, as Shaffer details — and the islands they visited, wiping out entire populations of birds, tortoises and other creatures.
Today, pepper is more than a kitchen staple. Researchers are studying its medicinal properties, and it has shown promise in the treatment of a variety of problems. So the Greeks, Romans and Chinese were on to something.