The Spice Curve: From Pepper to Sriracha with Sarah Lohman

American food has a reputation for being bland—but, according to historical gastronomist Sarah Lohman, "It's nonsense that Americans don't like spicy food." Lohman is the author of a new book, Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine, which explores the stories behind the flavors that have come to define American cuisine. In this episode, she takes us on a journey through the history and science of black pepper, the oldest flavor described in her book, to the hot new taste sensation that is sriracha.

Ever since she spent a summer baking cakes in a living history museum, Sarah Lohman has been fascinated by old recipes: collecting them, cooking from them, and reading them to try to understand the lives of generations past. She noticed that, over the years, different flavors have come and gone. For example, rosewater was the standard flavoring for desserts and baked goods in colonial America, until vanilla took its place. Lohman gradually assembled a timeline of taste, charting the arrival and disappearance of different flavors in American cuisine. From that, she distilled a list of eight flavors that became popular at different moments in American history—and have remained favorites ever since.

In this episode, Lohman introduces us to the historical and biological secrets behind two of those winning flavors: black pepper and sriracha. Black pepper is such a staple that it's hard to imagine the American dinner table without it. But we have a grumpy Massachusetts colonial-era merchant and his much friendlier son, as well as the Food Network and a pain-inducing chemical called piperine, to thank for the spice's ubiquity today.

Sriracha is the latest addition to the American flavor palate, with everything from sriracha-flavored potato chips to sriracha baby food sweeping the market. But how on earth did a Vietnamese spicy sauce used to pep up roast dog become a staple on the shelves of Walmart? Join us this episode as we find out the history and science behind these flavors' successes—and survive our first, and, we hope, only, black pepper tasting session.

Episode Notes

Eight Flavors by Sarah Lohman

Sarah Lohman is a historical gastronomist and the author of the blog Four Pounds Flour. Her new book, Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine, examines the eight most popular flavors in American cooking as a way to define not just American food, but the American people.


For a transcript of the show, please click here. Please note that the transcript is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.