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.

Transcript

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

Comments

  1. The attribution of modern peppercorn use to the Food Network is misplaced, in my opinion, perhaps it says more about your guest’s age than anything else. While we had a pepper shaker as kids in the 1970s, I saw more and more pepper mills in the 1980s (before FoodTV was a thing by about a decade). I’d probably put far more emphasis on the use of pepper mills in _restaurants_ than FoodTV. I don’t remember specifics of dining out in the ’70s much (in Manhattan, and Connecticut), but in the ’80s, the waiter was always there with the huge pepper mill. I assume that far more people in the US were exposed that way than watched FoodTV—I never even saw that network until around the time my daughter was born in the early 2000s.

  2. I really enjoyed this episode, it’s fascinating to think about how food has changed over the generations, and I loved how Sriracha was used as an example of how different immigrant groups have brought new flavours to the American table.
    I especially enjoyed the discussion around the different types of pepper as well. I never really liked the burn of black pepper but I really like the aromatic spice flavour of it in my mum’s black pepper cake and especially her black pepper ice cream (which might be a good way to appreciate the flavours of all your different peppers without blowing your head off).
    For the ice cream you make a basic ice cream mix like you would for vanilla but infuse the peppercorns into the milk first so you get all of the spice flavour and none of the heat (if you want some heat you can grind some pepper into the finished ice cream at the end).
    For the cake: 4oz butter, 1 cup sugar, 2 cups flour, 1 cup milk, 2 eggs, 3 tsp baking powder, 1 tsp ground ginger, 1/2 tsp clove and 1 tsp ground pepper (you can actually add more pepper than this if you want, but this is the gentle version).
    Happy Experimenting!

  3. One of my favourite episodes so far. Loved it!

    I’d really like to host my own black pepper tasting. Any chance y’all are going to market a ‘peppercorn tasting kit’?

    Now…. I have been a kitchen implement junkie since highschool (mid 70s – gah!). I bought my first pepper mill while still an undergrad, early to mid 80s, perhaps at the first Williams-Sonoma store in Atlanta? Food Network execs actually came to me before they launched and asked what I thought would set them apart. I said, “Grind your peppercorns as needed.” Obviously, they followed my advice.

    I do enjoy your podcast. Thanks for all the time you put in.

    ~Allen
    .

  4. I absolutely love this podcast. I recently discovered it and have been binging on all the previous episodes. It makes my long drives and dog walks so much more enjoyable, even if it does tend to leave me craving whatever food the topic was. Thank you for covering such a “hot” topic, the wonderful world of spice! I found the history of pepper in the USA really interesting, and was so happy you covered my favorite hot sauce, Sriracha!

  5. The mention of the pepper cookies reminded me of my absolutely favorite Christmas cookies, pfeffernüsse. Pfeffernüsse, are traditional German Christmas cookies with black pepper (but no nuts) in them. One year when my niece was making the recipe she mistook the teaspoon indication for a tablespoon, and we had much spicier than usual cookies, which I actually preferred to the usual recipe.

  6. Please do not pronounce Pho as “Foe” or encourage other Americans to do so. It is pronounced like “Fuh”. Hearing you say Pho wrong just hurts.

  7. When I was younger and visiting a restaurant that takes a long time to serve the food, I would often put as much pepper as I possibly could on a piece of buttered bread (literally covering it with a layer of pepper) and eat it. Bread, butter and pepper being among the things restaurants often have on the table when you arrive. The point is that the pepperiness forces you to eat the bread *slowly*, and therefore helps to pass the time. Try it. I dare you.

  8. Love the podcast! Has become a favorite on my walk home. Particularly loved this episode, because I found an unexpected kinship with Martha Washington. As Sarah Lohman described her “Pepper Cakes,” I realized she was talking about the “Pepparkakor” of my people (Swedes). They sell these at Ikea or Whole Foods as “ginger thins” (yawn) but any Swedish American knows them as pepparkakor, a Christmas staple. Sarah’s development of a modern version, as described on her blog, follows the evolution of the Swedish recipe (described here: http://www.swedishfood.com/swedish-food-recipes-biscuits-cakes/240-gingersnaps). I think Martha W. must have had a Swedish friend. 🙂

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