This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode The Spice Curve: From Pepper to Sriracha with Sarah Lohman, first released on November 29, 2016. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
SARAH LOHMAN: When I was sixteen, my mom told me I was too old to sit at home over the summer any more and that I had to get a job. And she happened to work at a living history museum. That’s like à la Colonial Williamsburg or maybe Plymouth Plantation. I was really embarrassed to go work for my mom at this history museum. I wanted to like, go work at Arby’s with my friends, and that wasn’t an option, at least in my mom’s mind. But then it turns out it really changed my life.
CYNTHIA GRABER: So I went to Colonial Williamsburg when I was a kid, and, well, my life didn’t change.
NICOLA TWILLEY: In England we have Jorvik, the Viking Museum, which is kind of the same thing. I remember it smelled really bad.
GRABER: But for our guest this week, Sarah Lohman, spending a whole summer at a living history museum didn’t just get her more comfortable in those huge, unwieldy skirts. It helped her figure out what she wanted to do with her life.
LOHMAN: Well, I look at the food of people of the past to both understand their lives and also I use it to understand not only why we eat what we eat today, but who we are as a country both today and in the past.
TWILLEY: Sarah is a historical gastronomist.
GRABER: That’s an unusual sounding profession.
TWILLEY: I know, I don’t remember that being an option when I was in school. And she is also the author of a new book called Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine. We’re going to be talking about two of those eight flavors today.
GRABER: You’re listening to Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history. I’m Cynthia Graber.
TWILLEY: And I’m Nicola Twilley.
TWILLEY: OK, back to the living history museum.
LOHMAN: The museum is laid out as this big outdoor museum. There were multiple houses sort of around a village green and, at its peak, there were 40 or 50 people on staff. So it really was this world populated with characters and I worked in a house with a family group. Every house had an assigned cook and someone who wasn’t an assigned cook was not allowed to cook. And I was so fascinated with the cast iron wood burning stove and it was the first time I had looked at historic recipes, and it just—I don’t know—something clicked with me and I just wanted so badly to do it. But the director of the program was kind of a difficult person and she just didn’t trust me. She wouldn’t let me try.
GRABER: But one day the cook was out sick. And Sarah saw her opportunity.
LOHMAN: And I begged, I begged. I was like, just let me try. Just let me try and if it’s—if I mess it up, if it’s terrible today then you don’t have to let me do it again. I don’t know why, what changed her mind, but in that moment she said all right. And so I baked a pound cake.
TWILLEY: And it turned out perfect.
LOHMAN: Not to brag or anything.
GRABER: But Sarah noticed something strange about that pound cake.
TWILLEY: And actually, it was something missing, something that was missing from everything she made that summer.
GRABER: Sarah started to collect historical recipes, and it was missing from all of them, too.
LOHMAN: And I just suddenly realized that I had not seen vanilla in any American cookbook really before the 1840s. And that I mean that’s baffling when we think about how often we use vanilla extract. We put it in everything—we put it in chocolate cake. You know, it is the foundation of baking in this country. And you page through those recipes of the first 50 years of American cookbooks, there’s no vanilla. Rosewater was used the same way that we use vanilla. And I realized that there must be a story there because then by the end of the nineteenth century we use vanilla just as commonly and all the same ways that we use it today.
TWILLEY: Sarah wondered if this kind of shift was true for other flavors, too, not just vanilla. So she put on her gastronomic detective hat, and tried to map out when flavors came into American cuisine, and, then, for some of them, when they left.
LOHMAN: Kind of like a timeline of taste. So I pulled cookbooks in 50 years—50 year increments published in America and I just created a long list of all the ingredients used that would have been primary flavorant ingredients. And once I got that list I would kind of hashtag how many times I saw something mentioned. That I would start narrowing it down even more to like the things that were really used really often. I would look at different eras: 1800, 1850, 1900, 1950, and sort of outline what food tasted like and then why. You know, why were these ingredients shifts happening? Who were were the people bringing them to this country? Was there something fashionable happening? Was there something in science and technology that changed?
GRABER: Sarah came up with about 30 winners—30 ingredients that were hugely popular at different times in America’s kitchens. But some of them, like rosewater, were basically fads, they were really popular at one time but then faded away.
LOHMAN: But I realized that there were a sequence of flavors that arrived, sometimes very suddenly, and that only grew in popularity, didn’t decline. And then I also realized that those flavors, those ones with that particular sort of arc, or I guess climb is a better way to put it, often said bigger things about how we were changing as a country in different time periods and what our attitude was as Americans too. They have these much, much, much bigger stories behind them.
TWILLEY: Those eight flavors—the ones that stuck around—those are the eight flavors Sarah writes about in her book.
GRABER: You’ll have to buy the book to find out what all of the eight are. We chose two to focus on, the oldest in the book and the most recent one.
TWILLEY: Sarah’s book starts with pepper, so we started there too.
LOHMAN: I was at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and I was planning a class I was teaching. I think it was teaching it in the spring but I was like there in February to start doing research for this class. It was like a class in botanic cocktails or something. Anyway, Brooklyn in February is terrible, terrible. It’s like, you know, zero degrees and that wind, and it’s just miserable. So I hid in the greenhouse, the Tropical Pavilion at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and they have a really beautiful, healthy example of a black pepper vine. It’s this dark green plant with spear-shaped leaves, and it has these things that pop out of it called pepper spikes. They’re like little, little fingers that come off and they’re covered in berries.
GRABER: Yes, black pepper is actually a berry.
LOHMAN: And the berries start green and then they ripen to red. And what color pepper you want, that reflects when the pepper is harvested. So like, if I want white pepper, white pepper is actually just the seed of this berry. I harvest those berries when they are almost totally ripe and a lot of their chemicals have fully matured, and then that’s when I harvest it, dry it, process it.
GRABER: If you want black pepper or green pepper, you harvest the berries when they’re relatively unripe. The longer they’re left to ripen on the vine, the less spicy they get.
TWILLEY: Black peppercorns are boiled and dried, so their skin wrinkles up and becomes black. Green peppercorns are just the unripe berries, preserved in such a way that their skin stays green. And pink peppercorns, FYI, are not even pepper. They’re berries too, but berries from a completely different plant. White, green and black are the three varieties of real pepper.
LOHMAN: They’re native to the Malabar coast in India. And our supply in America originally came from Sumatra.
GRABER: And we absolutely loved it. Pepper was in almost every recipe in early America.
LOHMAN: We didn’t have our first cookbook in America until 1796, but we do have manuscripts from earlier. One of those is a collection of papers that historians call a “book of cookery,” and it belonged to Martha Washington.
TWILLEY: As Sarah went through Martha’s recipe collection, she realized that black pepper cropped up again and again.
LOHMAN: It’s used in some of the same ways that we know it today. In fact, she has a venison recipe, which I put in my book, that’s crusted with black pepper and lemon peel which is so good, but it’s also the ancestor of steak au poivre. You know, this really sort of classic French, Franco-American dish of steak crusted in peppercorns. But something else that really interested me was a recipe for essentially what was like a gingerbread cookie. She called them pepper cakes. And the pepper cakes had spices like coriander and ginger, but it also used black pepper alongside the sweet spices. And that’s a way of using pepper that we have forgotten in the modern era. We use it only in savory things, but historically it was used in sweet dishes as well.
TWILLEY: We’re used to having sort of sea salt on our cookies now and thinking that we’re wild and crazy, but black pepper is a whole new step into the unknown for me. What happens when you eat a black pepper cookie?
LOHMAN: I mean it just—it just tastes nice.
GRABER: Sarah’s recipe is basically for a version of lovely spice cookies, where the pepper plays against the other spices like ginger and coriander. But Sarah adapted it from the original.
LOHMAN: I will say the original recipe is pretty—is pretty bad. They’re actually called “pepper cakes that can be kept in your house for six months to a year.” I’m paraphrasing a little bit.
GRABER: I kind of love it though. I think it’s so funny—the idea is just to keep them around forever.
LOHMAN: Yeah, just let them hang out. I also see that in nineteenth-century recipes too, like, these will keep for a month or two. And I’m like who is keeping these cookies around their house for a month or two? Like, that doesn’t make any sense.
TWILLEY: Also, I just feel like cookies that last for a month or two are clearly not the most delicious cookies. They would be eaten.
LOHMAN: So I, you know, the only thing that we kind of treat like that in the modern era is fruitcake, right? So there’s this idea that flavors can mature over time or even ferment a little bit and make something nicer. I don’t get that when it comes to a cookie. Yeah. They were… ugh, ew.
GRABER: You sound really enthusiastic.
LOHMAN: Yeah they’re pretty bad. They are flavored with molasses so they were really dense, sticky cookie. And just as the recipe promised, I cut them out, I baked them up, I put them in tins and I put them in the back of my pantry. A year later they looked exactly the same. Like, nothing had changed about them.
GRABER: I have to say I’d prefer that over the McDonald’s french fry.
TWILLEY: I was going to say, it’s like a Twinkie.
LOHMAN: So I think the main complaint I had about these cookies is that they use almost as much ground spice as they did flour. Which is interesting that like, you know, cinnamon and ginger were sort of used as flour in this recipe, which means that this is like a decadent recipe. So the taste is extremely strong and the texture of it was more, I think, showing off and would have been appreciated because it had all these spices in it that it was, yeah, this really weird decadent flavor. But by modern standards it was a really, really unpleasant experience.
GRABER: OK, so no early American six-month pepper cakes.
TWILLEY: But you know, even though Sarah didn’t like them, lots of Americans obviously did. Martha’s recipes called for a lot of pepper.
GRABER: But then our supply got cut.
LOHMAN: Well the British weren’t, like, so keen on trading with us after you know we just kind of won.
TWILLEY: There’s no need to rub it in.
LOHMAN: Yeah, sorry. That’s why I was pausing to say it as nicely as possible.
GRABER: Yes, Nicky, we did win the Revolutionary War.
LOHMAN: But the problem was nobody knew were black pepper came from. This was a problem with several commodities. The British had a monopoly on the black pepper trade on the planet and they kept their secret. You know, they didn’t want anyone else breaking in.
TWILLEY: And then along came the Crowninshield family of Salem, Massachusetts. George Crowninshield was apparently something of a character. That’s the nice way of putting it.
GRABER: He had eight kids, and here’s a telling story about George: one day each of his children begged for a different drink with breakfast—milk, tea, water, hot chocolate, etc. So what did George do? He took all those drinks, poured them all together in one bowl, and told the children to help themselves.
TWILLEY: That will have taught them. But George was not only a short-tempered disciplinarian, he was also an ambitious sort of a guy. He had established his own successful sea-merchant business, and he expected his sons to join in and build a trade empire.
GRABER: Pepper could certainly make an already wealthy family like the Crowninshields into bazillionaires. But, as Sarah said, there was a problem. Where in the world did pepper grow?
TWILLEY: It was another Salem ship captain who first figured that out.
LOHMAN: They got this hot tip that black pepper was grown and sold on the northwest coast of Sumatra. So he came back to Salem and this captain and a wealthy investor got together another voyage, and they just brought back hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of black pepper in that time’s money. You know, we’re not even amping this up for inflation. This black pepper trade made the first millionaires.
TWILLEY: George Crowninshield was not one to stand by as others made their fortunes, and so he sent his son John off to Sumatra with instructions to find black pepper and bring it back.
GRABER: Which he did.
LOHMAN: And we actually have the journal of John Crowninshield, one of the sons of this family. And when I read through this document, one of the things that really struck me was how nice he was to the people in Sumatra, and would write these really genuine things about like how much he liked the people there. And he said that at the end of his trip, like, after all the pepper was loaded onto the ship and they were paid and everything was done, and, again, this is my modern paraphrase, but he was like, “You know what? You guys are really cool. And I had heard that you were mean and violent and scary.” And then apparently the native peoples, people living in Sumatra, were like genuinely hurt. They were like, “Really? You heard that about us?” And then they thought about it and they said, “Well, you know, sometimes between two nations which are so different there’s bound to be misunderstandings.” And John sort of replied and he’s like, “Yeah, and you know what? I think that the British were saying mean things about you because they wanted to scare us away. But I really like you guys and I’ll be back.”
TWILLEY: Yet more shade on my people. And it gets worse. It wasn’t just that the Brits had been badmouthing the Sumatrans to try to scare off the competition. It’s that they were complete arseholes to do business with, too.
GRABER: But didn’t the British also—but weren’t they also they weren’t quite as nice as John was, right?
LOHMAN: Well they were not, no.
TWILLEY: Why are we lingering on this?
LOHMAN: I’m sorry Nicola. Well, because there was this like thing that Britain did, like the Colonial, you know, the British Empire and it wasn’t a great thing. And their foreign policy for a couple of hundred years was about colonization and subjugation. And so the same tactics they were employing around the planet, they were employing in Sumatra. And so they were sort of paying off local leaders to force people to grow pepper. If they weren’t producing a certain amount there were punishments, and they weren’t paying a lot of money so they were also keeping this population in poverty. They were forced into growing this product, they weren’t paying them a fair price, and it was just this really vicious cycle of poverty and abuse. And then the Americans show up .
GRABER: We don’t do— we’re pretty bad in a lot of parts of the world so it’s really nice to have a good story.
LOHMAN: Right. And the most important thing that the Crowninshield and the merchants who came after them did in Sumatra was they paid a fair price for pepper. They paid about twice as much as the British had been paying. And yeah, you’re totally right, Cynthia, we—we have done a lot of bad in the world over a couple of hundred years and so that’s why this story to me was really meaningful, that we as a country had had this great early success just by being nice people.
TWILLEY: Who would have thought it. Being nice to people. A completely foreign concept for us Brits.
GRABER: So the nice Crowninshields got insanely rich—I mean, they were literal millionaires in 1815 money. Crazy rich.
TWILLEY: And the Crowninshields’ success meant that Americans also had their pepper back. Martha could make her six month pepper cookies, everyone could enjoy their venison with a nice pepper crust. Pepper was back to being the spice of choice for America.
GRABER: So how were nineteenth-century Americans buying their pepper? Were they buying whole peppercorns, was it pre-ground, what were they eating?
LOHMAN: Yeah. Early on we were buying pepper often as we do today, as whole peppercorns that we were then grinding, but by the end of the nineteent century we were looking for convenience food. Women were really tired of cooking, to be frank, like, you know, you were finishing cooking one meal and you were starting the next one. It was a lot of labor. So by the end of the nineteenth century, early twentieth century, we were looking for ways to cut corners and we started buying pre-ground pepper.
We really hadn’t done this before because pre-ground pepper was easier to adulterate than whole peppercorns. They would mix it with some sweepings from the pepper warehouse floor. or pieces of ground olive pits or even worse. It would just be like burnt bread crumbs to bulk up the product and make more money. And you really couldn’t do that with whole peppercorns. So the shift happened greatly after 1906 and the Pure Food and Drug Act, and that was the first law to prevent adulteration, to require ingredients listed, to prevent false advertising. It represented a huge change in American culture.
So after that point not only did people begin to trust food more but food makers realized it was in their best interest to follow this law because then they got to advertise saying “My food is good and pure.” So like, McCormick advertises its ground black pepper as being absolutely pure. So people don’t want to grind their own peppers so they—they buy the pre-ground stuff and that’s pretty much how we use pepper for most of the 20th century.
TWILLEY: So what brought freshly ground black pepper back into American kitchens and restaurants?
LOHMAN: I think it’s the Food Network. That’s the first time I remember seeing people using pepper grinders, period. You know, my family grew up with a little pepper shaker. And the disadvantage to that is you lose a lot of the aromatics of pepper when it’s pre-ground. They evaporate and you’re left with a lot of piperine, that spicy hot chemical. So you’ve got an ingredient that’s spicy but not flavorful in the same way that fresh ground pepper is.
So I remember tuning in to the food network in the early days and watching like Mario Batali and Rachael Ray, everybody, everybody, everybody, they weren’t using pepper from a pepper shaker. They were using fresh cracked pepper. And that brought us into this era of mimicking chefs and cooks that we saw on TV, and more recently on blogs and online. And so now that has become what we’re used to, the sort of de facto, like, we’re going to use fresh cracked pepper, which is much how Americans were using it 200 years ago.
GRABER: We are going to do a tasting with you later of a peppercorn.
LOHMAN: Oh my god. I’m actually like a little bit mad at you guys.
TWILLEY: I went a little insane.
GRABER: Nicky went a little nuts.
LOHMAN: I love that you decided to do this despite the fact that in my book I literally say this was a terrible idea.
GRABER: We like to do things that other people think are terrible ideas.
TWILLEY: Those are my favorite kind of ideas.
GRABER: Before we move ahead with that horrible plan to bite down on plain, whole peppercorns—again, this was not my idea—we want to tell you about a couple of sponsors.
TWILLEY: So Sarah’s book starts with black pepper, which is why we started with black pepper. And her book ends with sriracha. This is something Martha Washington wouldn’t have recognized, but that even Martha Stewart loves today.
GRABER: If sriracha hasn’t yet made it to your corner of the world, it’s a kind of hot sauce.
TWILLEY: So, in some ways, Sarah’s eight flavors are on a kind of spice curve. Which is funny, because American food has a reputation for being bland.
LOHMAN: Yeah, it’s nonsense that Americans don’t like spicy food. It’s a very strange stereotype of us that I can’t quite figure out, because according to documents, the earliest hot pepper sauce made and sold in America was from the early nineteenth century. And it was made from bird peppers which are like those little, little peppers that are so hot. Jefferson actually grew them in his gardens too. So they’ve been in America a long time. And I mean, even Tabasco, still a major brand today, they were founded in the 1860s. So how can you look at that and say Americans like bland food?
In fact, looking at my—looking at my research, we have liked increasingly hotter and hotter foods. We pursued black pepper in the late 18th and early 19th century and piperine is very similar to capsaicin and capsaicin is that spicy hot chemical in chili peppers. It’s just like not quite as hot but irritates our mouth in the same way. So we went from like piperine to, I talk about chili powder in my book too, made with ancho chiles to, I also talk about curry powder too, which has hot chilies in it. And the last chapter is about sriracha sauce, jalapeno pepper sauce made in Southern California.
GRABER: And now, enter David Tran.
LOHMAN: David Tran is the man who created sriracha sauce and he is from Vietnam and he was there when Saigon fell and his family is ethnically Chinese.
TWILLEY: Before everything went to hell in a handbag in Vietnam, David had a nice little business making sriracha hot sauce.
GRABER: Sriracha is a type of hot sauce originally from Thailand. David’s version was popular in Vietnam. It was apparently used to pep up roast dog.
TWILLEY: And like Sarah said, David’s family is ethnically Chinese.
LOHMAN: And these were one of the groups that were targeted at the rise of communism in Vietnam. They were in many ways forcibly removed from Vietnam. So Tran and his family escape by boarding a dilapidated freighter called the Huey Fong. And it has about three times as many people as are supposed to be on a boat like this and sort of limps its way towards Hong Kong. And Hong Kong at the time says no, turn around. You can’t enter here, nope nope nope nope nope.
And so the captain of the ship, he parks in international waters and waits because he says that people are threatening to kill him if he turned around to go back to Vietnam. Eventually, Hong Kong becomes an international port to accept refugees and the ship is allowed to land after about a month at sea just waiting. And the whole family and everyone on it are processed into UN refugee camps and then eventually placed around the world. Tran and his family, part of them end up in Boston in January of 1980. So there we can think about coming from Vietnam to Boston in January.
GRABER: That sounds really uncomfortable.
LOHMAN: It sounds pretty shocking. And the other half of his family ended up in the LA area and David told me he just remembered, “I got to do something and got to support my family.” And back at Vietnam he had made a pretty successful little pepper sauce. So he called his brother outside of L.A. and said “Do they have chili peppers there?” And his brother said yes. So David packs up his family, moves to L.A., and by February of 1980 he starts producing sriracha sauce from locally grown red jalapeno peppers, locally grown garlic, a bit of sugar, a little vinegar, and he says that ever since then he’s never been able to make enough of this hot sauce to meet demand.
TWILLEY: David calls his new company Huy Fong Foods, named after the ship he escaped on.
GRABER: He designed the bottle—the label on it, the big rooster, is because the rooster is David’s sign of the zodiac. People even call it rooster sauce.
TWILLEY: And every single bottle of Huy Fong Sriracha is made in one factory in Irwindale, in Southern California.
LOHMAN: The peppers come in, they’re washed, they’re ground. Everything is done on site. Even the bottles are manufactured on site. The bottles are made, they’re squirting into the bottle, they’re packaged there. Everything is done in one facility and, in fact, all of the jalapeno peppers come from one farm—Craig Underwood, Underwood Family Farms. He wrote the Trans a letter about 30 years ago and said, “Can I grow hot peppers for you?” And they said, “Sure, let’s give it a shot.” And they’re still working together and actually have changed the agricultural makeup of that particular part of Southern California, which used to be a lot of orange groves, is now fields and fields and fields of jalapeno peppers to meet the demand for peppers and the spicy sauce.
GRABER: In a weird way, this insanely popular hot sauce—it’s actually like a local food thing. The peppers are off the farm and in the factory and made into hot sauce in only three hours.
TWILLEY: And the factory, get this: when they wash the peppers, they collect all the dirt that comes off them and send that precious soil back to the farm.
GRABER: And it’s really seasonal, too. The color of the sauce changes depending on the growing season. Experts—true sriracha aficionados—they can tell when the sauce was made by just looking at it.
TWILLEY: Top tip if you wish to look like an expert: the sauce gets slightly darker towards the end of the growing season in November.
GRABER: So the next question is: how did sriracha take over America?
LOHMAN: So, especially in California where there was a lot of Asian kitchen staff, they were using sriracha first. And that was really David Tran’s intention, that he wanted to make a sauce. He said, OK, there’s going to be a lot of people living in Vietnam, they’re going to miss their sauce from home. I want to provide that for them here, because they need it for this particular dish.
GRABER: And one particular Vietnamese soup—pho, or pho, as many Americans pronounce it—starts to become popular with non-Vietnamese in America too.
LOHMAN: So it starts there with Americans eating pho and noticing the sauce and the bottle is really recognizable.
TWILLEY: But at that point sriracha is just like any ethnic food. It’s not mainstream. It’s not an American flavor.
GRABER: So there’s this place called the Center for Culinary Development, and their theory is that there there are five stages for a flavor to make it big.
LOHMAN: In phase one it appears in foodie dining establishments. Like, Momofuku was one of the first places to put sriracha sauce on the tables too, David Chang’s ramen restaurant. So we start seeing these sort of high-end foodie places. And then in stage two, it’s picked up by gourmet magazines. So like, Cook’s Illustrated declared sriracha the best hot sauce in 2012. It was in Bon Appetit too. So it’s like this high end food media covers it. And then three, it starts trickling down and trickling broader. For sriracha, it suddenly appeared as a dipping sauce in Applebee’s. And so it’s these sort of mainstream restaurants that reach a lot of people. Once they begin adapting it, then things are getting big. And then in stage four, you see it on a lot of recipe websites and also in magazines that aren’t necessarily food focused. For sriracha, that happened in 2011. It was covered both on Martha Stewart Living and the Food Network blog too. And then, in the last stage, it appears in major chain retail stores. So, now you can buy it and Walmart and also, in 2013, Subway introduces sriracha sub sauce, and that’s the same year that Lay’s introduced sriracha flavor potato chips too. So it’s like these huge brands in terms of food and retailers are now selling these products, and, in my mind, like once it’s in Walmart, it’s American.
TWILLEY: And now there’s sriracha flavor popcorn—
GRABER: And sriracha seaweed chips—
TWILLEY: Sriracha hummus, sriracha baby food, sriracha chocolate bars—
GRABER: Sriracha mayonnaise, sriracha lollipops, sriracha ice cream.
TWILLEY: And just the other day, I saw a sriracha inspired Lexus. It’s red, obviously, and it comes with a boot full of hot sauce.
GRABER: Translation for non-Brits, a trunk full of hot sauce.
TWILLEY: Our point is, sriracha has definitely made it. It is a fully American flavor now. But why do we love it so much?
LOHMAN: One of the advantages of sriracha is that it is not as hot as something like Tabasco or a ghost pepper sauce. It’s made from jalapenos, which it’s maybe like, a third or maybe even a fifth less spicy than the pepper used in Tabasco. So it is being embraced by a broader audience because it’s less intimidating, because you can use more, and kind of manufacture the heat of every bite. It’s harder to go too far like you can do with some of the hotter hot sauces. And it’s also the viscosity too. It’s a little bit thicker, so it kind of stays where you put it, and that’s something that has been really appealing about this particular hot sauce.
GRABER: Plus there’s sugar in it, it’s one of the sweetest hot sauces you can buy. It is, yes, delicious.
TWILLEY: And there’s just the basic biology of spicy foods. They trigger feel good endorphins in our brains. It’s like the pain in our mouths is a prelude to a wave of well-being.
GRABER: Speaking of pain, I think it’s time to leave sriracha, and get back to that whole black peppercorn tasting we promised you.
TWILLEY: So first of all, I mean, I do at least, I have to confess, I think of black pepper as this monolithic thing. Black pepper is black pepper. Like it’s not like salt where we think about different salts from different places and we know that they taste different. But you say that’s wrong. Right? Black pepper is a thing that has the taste of place.
LOHMAN: Yeah, I don’t even know if I read that black pepper had different flavors. I was, just went to the spice store, went to Kalustyan’s here in Manhattan, which is an incredible store, and saw there were like six different types of black pepper. And I’m like, well, there must be, or I wonder if there are differences?
TWILLEY: So I also went to this famous spice store in Manhattan, and I went slightly insane. They actually had nine different kinds of peppercorn when I visited, and I bought them all!
GRABER: I’m not sure my taste buds will make it through nine.
TWILLEY: Where should we start? Do you have a recommendation for where we start?
LOHMAN: Alright, well, I see that there are sort of old world and new world peppers. So let’s start with Malabar because that is where botanists believe pepper originated. So this is like the original pepper.
GRABER: OK, Malabar.
TWILLEY: And how does one taste a peppercorn? Do you sniff it or do you put it in your mouth or do you crunch? What’s the technique?
LOHMAN: Well, one of the reasons black peppercorns are preferred in kitchens is because, I mean, they don’t really smell like anything before you crack them. Whole spices are always preferred because they are—their shelf life is essentially indefinite. They can just sit there and then once they’re cracked, that’s when the smell is released. So let’s just bite down and see how it goes.
GRABER: Well, it tastes like black pepper.
LOHMAN: Tastes like black pepper.
GRABER: And very, that very shocking, like, hot. You know.
LOHMAN: Well—that doesn’t come to the end
LOHMAN: There’s a long time where you’re just chewing and chewing the aromatics but then…
GRABER: Yeah, those aromatics are lovely and then the heat hits.
TWILLEY: Oh my god, that’s such a delayed wave of fire.
LOHMAN: Yeah, and that’s something that really struck me when I first did this because, again, we don’t think of black pepper as being spicy hot but it clearly is like, it’s a little painful at the end.
TWILLEY: Can I tell you also what it says, it says it’s a taste heightener and a brow warmer. I feel like my brow is warmed.
GRABER: Oh yeah, oh no. I was actually just thinking, like, I’m getting a little warmer already.
LOHMAN: All right. We’re having the same bodily reaction as if we’d actually consumed something hot. Those receptors in our mouth have been tripped and our brain is panicking and pretty soon endorphins will be really—we’ll be really riding high.
TWILLEY: I’m waiting.
GRABER: So give me some more endorphins.
TWILLEY: OK, so what’s next?
LOHMAN: Tellicherry, which is one of the most popular peppers in America today is tellicherry pepper. Also from India.
GRABER: So it tastes a little bit earthier to me. I’m getting the aromatics before I get the heat.
LOHMAN: Pine, almost a little cumin. Oh my god, it’s hot.
GRABER: Oh. Wah. Nicky, what are you doing to us?! That was a bad idea.
TWILLEY: This is smokier to me.
GRABER: It is smokier, I agree.
LOHMAN: And actually, that’s one of the ways that pepper is processed, particularly in areas that are humid. Traditionally it’s laid out to dry in the sun but sometimes pepper houses smoke it to get to dry it. So this actually might be a pepper that came from a pepper house that smoked their pepper. You got that extra flavor.
TWILLEY: It’s definitely got a smoky note to it. It’s also, even though I cannot speak anymore—
GRABER: My eyes are watering.
TWILLEY: Yeah. It’s also like woodier than the other one the other one was more floral-y or fragrant, you know?
LOHMAN: Yeah, totally. So even in just these two peppers that are both from India, and not that far away, we’ve got really different flavors in the two of them. I’m going to vote that we skip the third Indian one.
GRABER: Great. I was going to vote for that too.
TWILLEY: No kidding.
LOHMAN: OK, the Sarawak and the Lampung are probably the ones that Americans were eating first when you’re importing pepper, probably the Sarawak, maybe the Lampung, it’s really hard to know, but one or the other of these is what Martha Washington would’ve been using.
GRABER: OK, so here goes the Sarawak.
TWILLEY: Channeling Martha Washington.
LOHMAN: That one had a really different texture for me, it was much lighter, and it’s very sweet.
TWILLEY: Oh yeah.
LOHMAN: And even though it does have the delayed burn it’s not like the Tellicherry which just—
GRABER: Yeah, the burn’s not as hard, right.
TWILLEY: Much lighter, practically refreshing compared.
GRABER: I’m not sure I quite agree with that, but OK.
TWILLEY: The label says it’s ideal to use in a sweet custard or fruit salad. So maybe Martha Washington was onto something using pepper in her cookies.
GRABER: At this point, my mouth was on fire, my brow was more than slightly warmed.
TWILLEY: I had taken off most of my clothes because I was sweating so much. Yes, this episode of Gastropod ended up with me half naked.
GRABER: Thank god we weren’t recording this together. We tried a couple more Indian and Malaysian peppers. Then we tried one from Brazil, from the new world, so to speak, not from its original home.
TWILLEY: And that tasted bitter and disgusting, sorry Brazil.
GRABER: Sarah wanted us to taste a Talamanca pepper from Ecuador next. I honestly was ready to put an end to all this pepper tasting. And then Nicky had a brilliant idea.
TWILLEY: For a change.
TWILLEY: Can I propose an alteration in our trajectory because they—I have the actual labels here, and the Talamanca, it says that’s the highest in piperine and I don’t know if I can do it.
GRABER: Don’t think so.
TWILLEY: I would like to try the Wynad, the Parameswaran Wynad, because it says these specially selected pepper berries are left on the vine until fully ripened to further develop and intensify the berries’ inherent flavor.
TWILLEY: So I feel like we should try them.
GRABER: I’m getting like really interesting notes. You were saying chocolate before but I’m getting these kind of tangy chocolate-y, pineapple-y flavors there.
LOHMAN: And you know it’s not spicy as the others.
GRABER: Oh, I liked that. Thank you, Nicky, that’s a much better idea.
TWILLEY: Wow, that’s delicious!
GRABER: That’s really good. I’m having another one. That’s how crazy I am.
LOHMAN: It’s because, like I said earlier, the longer a peppercorn ripens, its piperine content decreases. These have ripened and so they have significantly less piperine than what black pepper normally does. And it’s a totally different flavor.
GRABER: Oh, it’s great. I love it.
TWILLEY: Yeah, that’s really nice.
GRABER: A much nicer one to end on.
TWILLEY: As you said, it was a terrible idea, but super fascinating.
GRABER: But really fun anyway.
TWILLEY: Thank you.
LOHMAN: And you know, listeners at home, go ahead, invite your friends, have your own black pepper tasting.
GRABER: Have some milk ready!
LOHMAN: OK, well, here’s the flip side, we’re simultaneously miserable and happy. Like, I suddenly have a big smile on my face because now my brain is reacting and it’s like, have some endorphins, it’s going to be OK. And so here we are, I’m a little bit high too.
GRABER: That’s a good note to leave it on.
TWILLEY: And I have like, literally a thousand peppercorns in front of me so I’m going to be high all week.
LOHMAN: Just put them in your pantry, they’re whole peppercorns, they’re going to last forever.
LOHMAN: Put them in your pepper grinder. Create custom blends, make some black pepper cookies, make some steak au poivre and go crazy with it.
TWILLEY: I have a whole new respect for black pepper now. Which is good because I also have a lifetime supply now.
GRABER: I’m kind of sad you didn’t send me more of that final Indian one. It was delicious.
TWILLEY: Well, historically we Brits have not been good at sharing black pepper. Sorry. But, you know, the stories of black pepper and sriracha—
GRABER: And vanilla, and curry powder—
TWILLEY: And all the other of Sarah’s eight flavors—they all have fascinating back stories. But there’s a larger point here. For Sarah, these flavors are American. But why? What makes these flavors American?
LOHMAN: Well, maybe there’s two sides to that. And one is the practical approach, and the practical approach is, we use a lot of these flavors. And, in a lot of cases, we use more of the flavors I talk about in my book than any other country in the planet. For example, my second chapter, vanilla, America buys more than half of the vanilla that’s available worldwide.
But one flavor I often get a lot of pushback on is curry powder. And I think the one that I get the second most amount of pushback on is sriracha. How can you say that these two things are American? Sure, OK, I have black pepper in my kitchen, I use it every day. But, like, sriracha, that’s not American. Curry powder, that’s not American. But I think what this book is really pushing for is not just to define American cuisine by its flavors, but to propose a broader idea of who an American is. Because, in terms of curry powder, we’ve been cooking curries in our kitchens in this country for over 200 years, and we have immigrants from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh coming to this country for over 100 years. Sriracha was created by a family of refugees who came here in 1980, needed to support their family, started a business, followed the American Dream. And the sauce is entirely made in Southern California and produced with ingredients from Southern California, made by a refugee family and a fourth-generation farmer.
These are the people that make up our country and make our country tick. So I think we have to stop thinking about America as being New England, white, because even those Puritans, those pilgrims that came on the first boat, they were immigrants too. The face of the immigrant has changed, the place that they’ve come from has changed, but they are often the ones affecting the foods we eat. And it’s time to stop saying that these people in these cultures are not a part of American culture, because when you see foods and flavors happening that you don’t see anywhere else in the world happening here—what can that be other than American?
TWILLEY: That’s it for this episode, and in fact, it’s the second-to-last episode of this season. So if you like what we’re doing and you want to help make next year happen, now is the time to become a supporter.
GRABER: You can become a sustaining supporter either at our website, gastropod.com, or on our Patreon page: patreon.com/gastropod. Sustaining supporters get a special extra each episode with some of our favorite details that we couldn’t fit in the show.
TWILLEY: But a gift of any size is very welcome indeed. And for those of you who can’t give, we love it when you recommend us to others and review us on iTunes, so we can get more listeners.
GRABER: Huge thanks this episode to Sarah Lohman, the historical gastronomist and author of Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine. Go buy it at your local bookstore, it’s great fun.
TWILLEY: And thanks also to our awesome volunteer Ari Lebowitz for her help this episode. And we’ll be back in two week with…
(SOUND OF SODASTREAM, POURING SPARKLING WATER)
GRABER: That’s right, seltzer. Till then!