Spice of Life

I ran out of black pepper a month ago. What is in my pepper grinder now is peppergrass seed (Lepidium spp.), or sometimes a mix of the seven kinds of chile peppers I grew and dried this year.

pepper grinder

But let’s get back to that imported black pepper (Piper nigrum). Why should the fruit of a vine that grows on the Malabar Coast be so ubiquitous in our food, and almost always paired with salt?

Well, back in the days when sailing ships ruled the trade routes, spices were great cargo because they didn’t spoil, didn’t weigh much, and were worth a lot of money. The food the sailors ate during those voyages was often preserved by salting. Imagine sitting down to a meal of salt-preserved fish served with a dry cracker—bit hard to get down. But black pepper, besides being tasty, has the medicinal property of causing salivation, which makes heavily salted food more palatable and easier to digest. So anytime folks got ready for a long journey they made certain to include a ration of black pepper to go with the salt-preserved food. Hence the familiar pairing of salt and pepper.

I was actually happy when I ran out of black pepper. Now, I thought, I will really find out what here tastes like. No more taken for granted seasoning in the background of every savory recipe. Now I’ll have to pay attention. And it’s true, I am paying more attention to what those peppery notes actually do (besides making me salivate). If it’s a similar flavor I want, I’ll stick with that peppergrass I mentioned. If it’s a bit of burn I’ll go for the chile peppers. But sometimes I’ll reach for the spicebush berries instead.

These are dried spicebush berries:


The field guides usually recommend using spicebush berries as an allspice substitute, but I find they have a much more complex flavor that includes a citrus-y note and a peppery taste as well. I like using dried, ground spicebush berries in savory dishes as much as in sweet.

What other “unusual” spices am I using? (And isn’t it weird that something from the other side of the world seems usual and something that grows here seems unusual?) Well, there’s the wild ginger (Asarum canadense) that I told you about before, and I long ago stopped using commercial bay leaves. Instead I use Northern bayberry (Myrica pennsylvanica) leaves.

Northern bayberry

These are all spices that the indigenous peoples around here used, but which the European settlers ignored. They are native to our Northeastern woodlands—truly what here tastes like.

So now you’re thinking, Great, Leda, but I can’t get any of those wild local spices. Well, actually you can. For starters, you could sign up for some wild edible plants classes next year and learn to identify them for yourself. For the gardeners among you, it is not hard to find mail order nurseries stocking wild ginger, Northern bayberry, and spicebush plants. And last but not least, you can mail order dried spicebush berries from Integration Acres. That doesn’t help me this year because they are outside of my 250-mile radius—I did my own collecting this year. But I’ve ordered from them in the past and the quality of their service is excellent. Just be aware that they call spicebush “Appalachian allspice”.


Not sure what this is about? Read Getting Ready for the 250-Mile Diet and The Rules

One response to “Spice of Life”

  1. acmeplant says:

    I’d like to taste the peppergrass seed when we have supper. I’ve never tried it on food, just in the field.

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