I first read this article when it was published a couple of years ago, and I've thought about it many, many times since.
Slate's Sara Dickerman challenges the notion that ground black pepper has properly earned it's place next to salt as the other ubiquitous element with which we season our every meal:
Salt, of course, is a seasoning beyond question. When it’s well-used, salt manages to make food taste not salty, but more like itself. Almost everything we eat has some sodium in it, and we have receptors on our tongues devoted to the taste. The human need for salt is so innate that it’s only natural to adjust our dosage at the table.
But pepper? It can be terrific: It’s a great beef spice—a rib eye calls out for a rough crack of black pepper; Caesar salad needs a little of its musky prickle, to be sure; I like a spicy ginger cookie with a bit of the black stuff. But pepper isn’t particularly aromatic, and it can bulldoze over other flavors with its scene-stealing pungency. Even the pricy Telicherry kind, served from a footlong Peugeot grinder, is strong, invigorating, but also a little obtuse. Why should this brawny spice be kept on the countertop at all? Why not stash it in the rack with the fennel seed, the mustard seed, and the cinnamon—all the wonderful spices that add life to our food but are by no means all-purpose? I think we’d appreciate pepper's qualities all the more if we used it just for specific dishes, not universally.
Dickerman falls just short of nominating one of my personal favorites- Pimentón (Spanish smoked paprika)- as the potential black pepper alternative. Regardless, she is asking the right question and has several great answers.
It's probably not hyperbole to say that as a home cook who loves to veer off-script, this article contributed as much as anything to reframing my approach to seasoning.
Be sure to head over and read the whole thing for yourself. ◉