I learned to cook without black pepper in the place where it is king: Tellicherry, a small town in a remote part of southwestern India. Its shadowy warehouses overflow with sacks of the spice, bound for markets all over the world after being harvested from the vines and sun-dried.
I’d traveled to Tellicherry—called Thalassery in Hindi, although that language isn’t spoken in South India—a few years back to explore the rich, complex cuisine of the Mappilas (Muslims), descendants of the Arab traders who plied the Malabar Coast centuries ago.
I’ll never forget my amazement when I discovered that the Mappilas, who originally controlled the pepper trade, have never used the spice in their cooking. The reason stands in prosaic contrast to the rippling Malayalam exchange my translator had with everyone I asked: Why use what you can sell?
I was reminded of this when I recently ordered a new pepper mill. We’ve all fended off an over-eager waiter brandishing this indispensable tool, but, really, how often do we use it simply out of habit?
Cut to a recent dinner with Allen Smith, a cherished friend and, way back when, my first instructor at Peter Kump’s New York Cooking School. There he made me laugh, cry, and develop the confidence—along with the knife skills—to buy interesting things like pheasant or squid or oxtails and turn them into something delicious.
This night, he stoked himself up for an enjoyable rant. I was grateful I was lolling at the dinner table instead of standing in front of him wearing a crumpled, sweaty, smeared apron. “As an instructor,” he said, “I watch students pepper everything, and I constantly read recipes that put the obligatory salt and pepper on the whatever.” His Texas twang got twangier, and he paused for emphasis. “It drives me crazy!”
“My number one rule,” he continued, “is that if you are seasoning a protein with pepper, then the vegetables you are serving it with don’t need pepper as well. The aftertaste is flat, cardboardy. Steak au poivre doesn’t need vegetables au poivre”
I thought back to the years Allen spent cooking in France, and the way he bent, very quiet and focused, over veal sweetbreads in class. Two grinds of the mill— precise, not fussy—were all it took. They enhanced, rather than blanketed, the food.
The hour was late, and I guiltily confessed to loving a baked potato with butter and sour cream, salt and pepper. “Oh, my god, that’s wonderful,” he said. “Eating that on the sofa in front of the TV is heaven, especially in your underwear.”
You’ll die wondering.