SALT AND PEPPER - that familiar pair graces almost every table in America. Every culture seems to have something salty and something spicy for diners to add to their food: soy sauce, hot sauce, Japanese gomasio, chili paste.... But for most of us, it's two pure, simple substances: salt (a mineral crystal) and the ground-up berries of the pepper vine.
The scientific symbol for salt is NaCl, or sodium chloride. Salt can be either sea salt or rock salt. To get sea salt, seawater is pumped into shallow ponds (called salt pans). The sun evaporates the water and leaves the salt behind. The salt is scraped up and refined.
Rock salt is dug from mines. In prehistoric times, inland seas dried up. They left behind huge crusts of salt, which were buried under sediment. Several big salt deposits exist in the United States. Did you know that miles of salt-mine tunnels have been dug under Detroit? Most rock salt is used in the chemical industry and to salt roads.
Humans have salted their food for ages. It makes food taste better, but it's also considered an essential nutrient. Trade routes were created to get salt, and battles were fought for control of salt supplies. Salt was especially valuable before refrigerators or freezers were invented. Meat and fish were preserved in salt. Salt sucks the water out of food, killing the bacteria and mold that would spoil it. Heavily salted foods would be soaked in water to remove some of the salt before they were eaten.
Pepper is known as "the king of spices." The first pepper vines were grown in India. The ancient Greeks knew all about pepper. The Romans were crazy about it. They paid huge sums to Arab traders who brought pepper from India. When barbarians came to sack Rome in the 5th century, one of their demands was 3,000 pounds of pepper! Pepper was the most important spice that Columbus hoped to find when he went searching for a route to India. Instead, he found America and its chili peppers (totally unrelated to black pepper). Vasco da Gama was more successful. In 1498, he went around Africa to India and secured the spice trade for Portugal. A century later, the Dutch and British grew tired of Portugal's monopoly and the astronomical prices of its merchants. So they set up their own spice trade. By 1800, the biggest pepper-trading hub was Salem, Mass.
Today, most black pepper is from Indonesia, Malaysia, India, or Brazil. And you don't even have to be rich to enjoy it!
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor