Peppery Ties to a Pantry Long Past

ON the top shelf of a cabinet in my kitchen sits a can of pepper that is virtually a family heirloom. The package says:

Red Label Brand

Ground Black Pepper

Packed Expressly For

S.S. Pierce Co.

Contents 1 lb.

A crest, claiming ''Puritas et Cura'' and emblazoned with three lions and an eagle, adorns the face of the can.

I don't know exactly how old this pepper is - it's been on the fringes of my life for so many years - but I can account for at least 50 years of its existence. My grandmother had it in the pantry next to her kitchen when I was a little girl. It was the biggest can of pepper I'd ever seen, measuring 6-1/2 by 3-1/2 by 2-1/2 inches.

I loved my grandmother and I loved her kitchen, the source of all kinds of culinary delights. It was different from ours, old-fashioned, with a well-scrubbed pine floor, a combination coal and gas stove, and two big soapstone set-tubs, where she did all the wash by hand. Near a window she kept a rocking chair; I could sit there and watch her, breathe in the aromas of her cooking, and eventually have a sample.

With apparent ease, she could cook anything you could think of. I can see her now, bending over the stove, stirring something in a stewpot with a long-handled wooden spoon, then turning to stand at her counter to roll out the wafer-thin dough for my favorite molasses cookies. She would get them all baked while the bread dough she had already mixed was rising.

When I was old enough to cook, I used to ask her how to make some of her delicacies, but I never got very far with them. I didn't have her knack for judging a pinch of salt or pepper or ''butter the size of an egg.'' It had to be real butter, too, not some pale substitute. She was fussy about every ingredient she used; this can of pepper was the prestigious S.S. Pierce Company's best grade.

When my grandmother died and it fell to my father to clear out her house, he brought back the can of pepper, two-thirds full. For some reason, it was never used. I found it in his kitchen, still two-thirds full, when he died, long after I was married. It's been on our top shelf ever since. Although I've always felt skeptical about using it, I could never quite bring myself to throw it away. Every time I started to, something stayed my hand. Year after year it has remained in the same spot.

My five-year-old granddaughter, Katherine, who notices everything, noticed it there one day.

''What's in that big red can?'' she asked. ''Why is it way up there?''

''Because I haven't needed it. It's pepper, and I have other pepper. That can belonged to my grandmother.''

''Your grandmother?'' The very concept stopped her in her tracks.

How long does pepper keep? Occasionally, I've wondered if it was still good. I've even taken it down, brushed the dust off the top of the can, opened it up, and sniffed warily. It looked and smelled just liked the pepper I bought. Examining it, I would feel a wave of memories of my grandmother's artistry with food wash over me. I'd remember Christmas Eve feasts, true smorgasbords of Swedish meatballs, scalloped potatoes, special breads, and elegant desserts.

I would think, too, of the tasty results of her regular Saturday baking - baked beans, Swedish rye bread, coffee cake, little cardamom-flavored buns she called bullars, little curved cookie rings called kringlers - and on and on. Then, bemused, I would return the can of pepper to its place on the shelf.

Once, before putting it back, I went so far as to stick a finger in and cautiously taste a few specks. They tasted like pepper. Continuing the test, I tried another few specks from the can I was currently using: no difference.

I considered making a serious effort to learn about the life expectancy of pepper, but where should I look or whom should I ask? Would the food editor of a newspaper have such information? And who but me was likely to have other old cans of pepper to use as controls? My pepper-research project ended abruptly.

Katherine was visiting me one sunny spring morning when we decided to make the leek and potato soup she likes so much.

''Can I help?'' she asked.

''You can wash the potatoes.''

While she was reveling in the running water, I began assembling the other things we would need - broth, leeks, onions, seasonings. Alas, I didn't have everything.

''We don't have any pepper. I forgot to buy it,'' I said.

''So?''

''So, the soup won't taste right without pepper. Maybe we shouldn't....''

''But I've already washed some potatoes!'' she wailed.

I held out the small pepper can. ''Empty,'' I said. ''And we really need pepper.''

She whirled around, pointing to the pepper shaker.

''Empty too,'' I said. ''I guess we'll have to skip....''

Just then a knowing smile lit up her elfin face. Tilting her head back, she looked toward the top of the cabinet. ''I know where there's some pepper,'' she said brightly. ''Up there.''

I looked up at the old can.

''I don't know....'' I hesitated; the pepper had tasted all right.

''Please?''

So we made the soup, and it turned out fine; the vintage pepper gave it just the right tang. Pepper keeps a very long time, as long as old memories.

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