Salt and pepper weren't always a matching set. Here's how the pair came to be.

By Yana Gilbuena
May 10, 2021
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In most western tablescapes, one will find two lone towers, one ebony and one ivory,  dominating the flatness, like remnants of a forgotten chess game. However, salt and pepper didn't always come in a set, and the two seasonings were individually used for thousands of years before they were ever combined. How and why this classic pairing came to be was purely preferential. Read on to learn where salt and pepper came from and who finally decided to use them together.

The History of Salt and Pepper

Salt has always been a tenet of flavor and a necessity for survival. As humans, sodium chloride (NaCl) is needed for respiration, digestion, fluid regulation, and more. It is also a signal of protein in nature. One can say the birth of civilization was based on the pursuit of salt. Animals naturally gravitated to salt licks, and humans followed and made settlements near it.

The power of salt not only lies with its culinary function, but also in preservation and medicine. The oldest record of salt cultivation was in Shangxi province in China around 6000 BCE.

The most popular application was salting fish for preservation. The Chinese, Egyptians, and Romans had an iteration of that in some form, whether it's accidentally making soy sauce, mummifications, or antiseptics.

Given its array of uses, salt was considered the first commodity to be traded. Interestingly enough, a lot of our common phrases and words trace back to salt, much like the roads to Rome. For example, "salt of the earth," "not worth his salt," and my favorite: salary, which comes from a Roman's soldier's pay, part in, you guessed it, salt.

Pepper, black peppercorn in particular, also has a storied and glamorous beginning much like its tabletop mate. Indigenous to Kerala, India, black peppercorns were touted as "black gold" and were used as a form of commodity money, just as salt was.

In ancient times, black pepper was often confused and synonymous with long pepper, its hotter cousin. It was seen to have curative, medicinal, and preservative properties, especially in Ayurvedic medicine. Ramses II had black peppercorns stuffed in his nostrils as part of the mummification ritual. Even in those times, salt and pepper were already applied together.

Black pepper was so sought after that it was even used in lieu of dowries, taxes, and rent, most known as peppercorn rent. However, the meaning today has evolved into the opposite of what it used to be. Seen as another luxury, pepper only graced the kitchens of the rich and the noble, mostly due to monopolies in trade. It wasn't until the Age of Discovery that pepper became a seasoning for the average joe.

High Angle View Of Salt And Pepper Shakers On Table
Credit: Marilyn Volan / EyeEm

Salt Meets Pepper

Salt and pepper were fated to end up together inevitably, but it was a Frenchman, Francois Pierre La Varenne, France's first celebrity chef and a royal chef to Louis XIV, who encouraged folks to combine the seasonings in the 17th century. It was said that King Louis XIV was a picky eater and didn't want seasonings to overpower the taste of his food.

La Varenne wrote the cookbook Le Cuisinier François, a revolutionary book instrumental to propelling French gastronomy to the modern era, and made a pivotal demarcation between serving savory and sweet dishes in a meal. Salted foods were eaten throughout the meal because they stimulate the appetite. Sweet plates were served at the end; they satiated the appetite and shut down our desire to eat. That little modification in the sequence of dining service changed the role of pepper in the kitchen. Now, its realm has been confined to the savory.

The pairing was a smash hit because pepper was the only spice that complemented salt and didn't dominate the taste. The use of salt and pepper as tableside condiments has since spread throughout Europe and the Americas, though it's quite uncommon in Asia where soy sauce, fish sauce, and oyster sauce are predominantly used as a sodium source. 

Salt and pepper are still considered each other's ride-or-die, all because one man decided they go well together.

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