Saturday, January 15, 2022

Kitchen Pepper

For as long as there have been organized societies on this planet, there has been a spice trade. For most people, that trade is associated with the "silk road," which connected the Far East (principally China) with the rest of Asia, Europe and Africa.  The silk road began around in the third century, B.C.E and continued until the Ottoman Empire effectively shut it down in 1453. What may be less known is the network of "silk roads" that date back to 2,000 B.C.E. This network facilitated the trade in, among other things, cinnamon from Ceylon (now, Sri Lanka), and cassia from China. These routes also gave rise to the trade in cloves and nutmeg from the "spice islands" (later conglomerated into what became Indonesia).

Other roads - or more appropriately, voyages - added to the spice trade by introducing ingredients from the "New World."  These ingredients included allspice from Xaymaca (now Jamaica), along with chiles and vanilla from Anahuac (the Nahuatl name for what is now known as Mexico). 

In sum, the spice trade introduced a wide range of new ingredients -- black pepper, cardamom, cassia, chiles, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, ginger, mace, nutmeg, saffron, star anise, and turmeric -- to cooks around the world. Cooks from around the world began incorporating these spices into mixes, adding new spices as they became available. These spice mixes include Berbere in the Horn of Africa, the masalas of the subcontinent, and Baharat in the Middle East. 

European cooks in the 15th century began to categorize (loosely) those mixes. They fell into three categories: powder blanche, powder deuce (sweet) and powder fort (strong). The mixes eventually were lumped together into one common term, "kitchen pepper." 

The story of kitchen pepper is not a uniquely European. The reason is that other voices have contributed to the narrative. These voices include the enslaved Africans, who worked in the kitchens on plantations in the New World and elsewhere in colonies across the globe. For example, Hercules Posey, the enslaved African who served as the cook (really, the chef) for George Washington, is believed to have used a kitchen pepper mix that featured nutmeg. James Hemmings, the enslaved cook (again, chef) for Thomas Jefferson is thought to have used a mix heavily studded with black pepper.  And, then there was Polly Haine, who may have used allspice as part of her kitchen pepper spice mix. Polly Haine went on to use that mix to create her Caribbean Pepper Pot soup, which she sold on the streets of Philadelphia in the late 18th century. Each of these examples underscores the primary characteristic of kitchen pepper: everyone has their own individual mix. All of those mixes that give rise to the story.

Michael Twitty
I first came across kitchen pepper while reading Michael Twitty's The Cooking Gene, which won the James Beard award in 2018 for the best food writing and book of the year. The award is well deserved. The Cooking Gene is his personal mission "to document the connection between food history and family history from Africa to America, from slavery to freedom." This book introduced me to Twitty's work.  As a writer, scholar, culinary historian and cultural interpreter, Twitty has dedicated his work to preserving and promoting African-American foodways. (A foodway is defined as the culinary practices and eating habits of a people, region or historical period.) Twitty's work, along with that of other writers, historians and interpreters, is bringing to life an important part of the culture and cuisine that has defined not only the United States, but the world for centuries.

Kitchen pepper is an example of this exploration.  Twitty's recipe apparently draws inspiration from the spice mixes developed by Hercules, James, and Polly by incorporating nutmeg, black pepper and allspice. Twitty builds upon that inspiration by adding other spices, including cinnamon, crushed red pepper, ginger, mace, and white pepper to his recipe. The end result is, at least for me, reminiscent of spice mixes that I have encountered throughout my years of cooking. Yet, this particular spice mix - the kitchen peppers developed by enslaved African cooks - is something that does not garner the same attention as those other mixes (like masalas, Berbere, etc.). I am thankful for the opportunity to learn more about kitchen pepper, and, it is an opportunity that I may not have had without Michael Twitty's work. 

If I had to summarize kitchen pepper, then I would do so in the following way: kitchen pepper is about the artistry of an untold number of individual, enslaved cooks, each of whom crafted his or her own spice mix. It is about an unspoken effort to assert one's individuality while subjugated in a brutal, dehumanizing system that was intended to deny that right and freedom to that individual. 


Recipe by Michael Twitty, available at Bittman Project 

or Michael Twitty, The Cooking Gene, pg. 24


  • 2 tablespoons coarsely ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1 tablespoon ground allspice
  • 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoon ground ginger
  • 1 tablespoon ground mace
  • 1 tablespoon ground white pepper
  • 1 tablespoon ground red pepper flakes

Combine all of the ingredients and mix well.  Store in an airtight container. 


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