Skip to Main Content

Eight Flavors

The Untold Story of American Cuisine



Free shipping when you spend $40. Terms apply.

Buy from Other Retailers

About The Book

“Very cool…a breezy American culinary history that you didn’t know you wanted” (Bon Appetit) reveals a fascinating look at our past and uses long-forgotten recipes to explain how eight flavors changed how we eat.

The United States boasts a culturally and ethnically diverse population that makes for a continually changing culinary landscape. But a young historical gastronomist named Sarah Lohman discovered that American food is united by eight flavors: black pepper, vanilla, curry powder, chili powder, soy sauce, garlic, MSG, and Sriracha. In “a unique and surprising view of American history…richly researched, intriguing, and elegantly written” (The Atlantic), Lohman sets out to explore how these influential ingredients made their way to the American table.

She begins in the archives, searching through economic, scientific, political, religious, and culinary records. She pores over cookbooks and manuscripts, dating back to the eighteenth century, through modern standards like How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman. Lohman discovers when each of these eight flavors first appear in American kitchens—then she asks why.

“A fresh, original perspective to American culinary history” (The Christian Science Monitor), Eight Flavors takes you on a journey through the past to tell us something about our present, and our future. We meet John Crowninshield a New England merchant who traveled to Sumatra in the 1790s in search of black pepper. And Edmond Albius, a twelve-year-old slave who lived on an island off the coast of Madagascar, who discovered the technique still used to pollinate vanilla orchids today. Weaving together original research, historical recipes, gorgeous illustrations, and Lohman’s own adventures both in the kitchen and in the field, Eight Flavors is a delicious treat—which “may make you hungry” (Bustle).


Eight Flavors One Black Pepper
AMERICANS HAVE COOKED with black pepper for hundreds of years, and it will be a part of our pantries for hundreds of years to come. It’s integral to American cuisine: the United States is the largest black pepper importer in the world. According to Al Goetze, McCormick’s spice buyer of more than thirty years, black pepper is currently the number one selling spice in America, representing 10 percent of all retail spice sales, and Americans use more than 158 million pounds of it per year. Slate recently wondered if there was a spice or seasoning that would better serve as salt’s accompaniment. In a reader vote, 34 percent of people voted to keep pepper in its place, the largest percentage. A few of the runners-up—garlic (powder), MSG, and Sriracha—are featured later in this book.

Until recently, I took black pepper for granted. But in the late eighteenth century, black pepper was difficult to come by. In 1801 a merchant from Salem, Massachusetts, named George Crowninshield and his son, John, made plans to seek out pepper at its source. The black pepper trade would make them some of the richest men in America. Because of the Crowninshields and other Salem merchants like them, black pepper became the American pantry staple it is today.

I cooked with black pepper never thinking about its origins until a frigid day in February 2011. I was visiting the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, gathering ideas for a class I was teaching in the spring. I decided to seek refuge from the outdoor arctic temperatures in the Tropical Pavilion, a great, glass-domed greenhouse where the season never changes. I pushed through the door, and into the humid air, dense and pungent with the scent of earth. When I entered this world, it felt both familiar and alien, an island of the Tropics in the middle of the city.

As I walked through the Pavilion, I came across a deep-green vine climbing up the trunk of a palm, its foliage so dense it could be mistaken for the tree itself. Teardrop-shaped leaves reached out from a ropelike stem that spiraled upward. The color range would have made Pantone proud: everything from the purest spring greens to the deepest forest hues. Amidst this frenzy of emerald were strings of ruby berries, growing on stalks. This botanical specimen, native to southern India, was Piper nigrum—a black pepper plant, the first I had ever seen in person. I would later learn that a peppercorn is this plant’s dried berry, with a husk, pulpy middle, and a seed in the center.

As I examined the plant, a large family of tourists came around the trail. As they peered at the vine, I gathered they weren’t sure what they were supposed to be looking at. I gently tapped a woman about my age on the shoulder and pointed out the cherry-red berries. She looked at me, amazed, as if I had performed a magic trick. She showed the fruit to her family, who flashed their cameras and exclaimed to one another in at least two languages. I wasn’t the only one who was fascinated by this spice in its natural state.

That day, when I got home, I unscrewed the top of my pepper grinder and rolled a few peppercorns into my hand. I examined the dry, wrinkled berries closely for the first time. I tossed one in my mouth and bit down: a hot, burning sensation covered my tongue and the back of my throat; I coughed. When the heat was gone, the aromatics remained—floral and earthy.

I felt driven to understand this plant better, but it’s difficult to fully comprehend the cultivation of an exotic species half a world away. I scratched my head reading paragraphs of advice on loamy soil and light requirements. I decided there must be a better way to learn how pepper grows. So I bought a pepper plant.

A month after my visit to the Botanic Garden, I did some Googling and I found a greenhouse in Delaware that would deliver a baby pepper vine to my door. My excitement built as I tracked the plant in transit. When the postman finally arrived with a telltale box, I treated him as if he were the stork delivering a newborn.

“He’s adorable!” I chirped when I unwrapped my little pepper vine from the cozy newspaper packing. No more than four inches tall, my vine had five stems, each topped by a cheery leaf that stretched upwards, searching for the sun.

Pepper plants can be grown from a seed, but the seed has to be unprocessed, so you can’t just plant a kitchen peppercorn and expect it to grow. My baby pepper vine was grown the way most are cultivated—from a cutting. I gave him water and set him in a windowsill. He doubled in size in less than a week. Pepper-farming guides recommended setting up a post for him to start climbing right away, so I moved him to a large pot, equipped with a six-foot stick for him to ascend.

He was happiest the year he summered in Ohio with my parents. He baked in 90-degree heat on their asphalt driveway and exploded in dark green foliage. When the weather changed, he returned home to my Queens apartment; and with him came soil gnats, which required an intensive treatment that nearly killed my other houseplants. But my pepper vine seemed largely unaffected. I babied him, while my roommates (and cat) swatted bugs and slowly went insane from the infestation.

And then to my great surprise, one October morning, I saw a pepper spike amongst his leaves. A pepper spike is about an inch long, shaped like a rounded pyramid, and covered in rows of very light green, miniscule buds that would eventually fruit. I had no idea if black pepper vines could self-pollinate, or what sort of help they might need to do so. I blew on the pepper spikes, rubbed them between two fingers, and did any number of other ill-informed and vaguely erotic gestures that I hoped would result in pollination. The flower buds shriveled, and then swelled and looked promisingly like pepper berries. But eventually the spikes died and fell off. To this day, I haven’t had any luck growing my own pepper berries, though my plant still sits near my window, now four feet tall and growing.

It’s likely I had so much difficulty reaping a pepper harvest because the vines are much more comfortable in their native climate of Southeast Asia. Pepper was first collected wild on the Malabar Coast of India long before modern records began. Pepper vines were first brought to Sumatra, a large Indonesian island just southwest of the Malay Peninsula, from India sometime before the seventh century. This island is where American merchants like the Crowninshields originally imported their black pepper.

Pepper is harvested the same way in Sumatra today as it has been for at least two hundred years. Small family landowners produce the bulk of the crop and large, commercial farms are rare. When pepper berries ripen, they turn from bright green to yellow to Christmas red. Male workers lean wood ladders against the trees or posts that support the pepper plants, then ascend to harvest the berries by hand. A pepper vine produces four types of pepper, depending upon when its berries are harvested: green, black, white, and red.

Three different peppercorns are sold in the multicolor pepper grinders, which can be found in grocery stores. Green peppercorns are freeze-dried, unripe berries. They taste fruity and are not too hot, although chomping down on a green peppercorn still makes my eyes water. White pepper is harvested when the pepper spike is almost fully ripened and all the berries are red or yellow. These berries are soaked in water, historically in a running stream, and the outer husk and pulp is degraded by bacteria. In the final stage of the process, the husk is rubbed off, leaving behind only the grayish seed of the pepper. White pepper has a distinctive funky taste from the slight fermentation, which reminds me of stinky feet. Red peppercorns are fresh berries and are used as a condiment in areas where pepper is grown. But don’t confuse them with the pink “peppercorns” that are sometimes included in multicolor pepper mixes. These are not peppercorns at all, but the seeds of an unrelated shrub native to South America, Schinus terebinthifolius—more commonly (and festively) known as Christmas berry or Florida holly. This invasive species produces berries that more closely resemble rose hips than peppercorns, but their heat can nicely round out a pepper blend.

Black pepper is harvested when only a few berries on the spike have turned yellow, the midway stage of ripeness. Aromatics decrease as the berries ripen, so the slightly unripe berries are more flavorful than a fully ripe berry. After harvesting, the pepper berries are either blanched briefly in boiling water or left in piles to ferment for several days; each process is particular to the producer and results in different coloration and flavor profiles in the final product. Then, women and children spread the berries on a concrete floor or bamboo mats and leave them to dry in the sun. The pepper berries are turned with feet, hands, or rakes, working through the peppercorns like black sand to ensure the pepper dries evenly. As the peppercorns dry, the outside husks turn black, while the pulpy inside remains light.

Once properly dried, the harvested pepper is collected and usually sold to a large export house, which sorts, washes, and bottles the peppercorns before they’re sent to grocery stores around the world.

There are many different varieties of black pepper, each with their own distinct flavor. At New York City’s spice and condiment mecca Kalustyan’s, I found six different types of black pepper. Overwhelmed by choice, I organized a pepper tasting: I taught a class on the history and uses of black pepper at the Brooklyn Brainery, a learning center that offers “casual classes for curious adults” on everything from macramé to . . . well, the history and uses of black pepper. I asked my fifteen students to taste six types of pepper. It was an awful idea. We were all beading sweat and breathing fire by the time we were done. It’s funny, because you don’t think of black pepper as being “hot,” but black pepper packs the punch of piperine, a chemical irritant that is responsible for bite, pungency, and the sneezy sensation in your nose. An essential oil called oleoresin contributes to black pepper’s aromatic qualities, in combination with up to 135 other compounds.

My tasters and I were shocked to discover that not all black pepper tastes the same. Malabar pepper, from India, had intense heat but with hints of coriander and a tannic, tealike flavor. Sarawak pepper, native to Malaysia, had distinct lemon and ginger notes. And Lampong pepper, from Sumatra, was the hottest, due to a high piperine content. It’s one of the most popular peppercorns in America today.

Colonial Americans were just as unfamiliar with black pepper’s origins as I was when I first saw that vine in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Although black pepper had been used in Western cooking since the Roman Empire, it wasn’t until the end of the seventeenth century, when the British East India Company established reliable trade routes with Asia, that pepper became relatively affordable. American colonists bought most commodities, including pepper, through England and had little idea where it originated.

What were Colonial Americans cooking with all that pepper? To find out, I turned to the recipes of one of the period’s leading ladies: Martha Washington. The future first lady was a widow when she married George; she got hitched to her first husband, Daniel Custis, in 1750. When she was married, she received a stack of recipes from her in-laws as a wedding present. The manuscript is known to scholars as “A Booke of Cookery,” and it features recipes from the tail end of the Middle Ages through the Colonial Era. Copied and passed down by Washington’s in-laws in the kitchens of early America, it reveals clues about what Americans ate long before the first cookbook was published. And the way black pepper was used in these recipes surprised me.

In a manuscript of over five hundred recipes, black pepper is used about fifty times, usually in combination with other spices. Most of these mentions occur in recipes for meat, poultry, and fish, including sausage and pickled seafood. But the entry I found the most intriguing was called “To Make Pepper Cakes That Will Keep Good in Ye House for a Quarter or Halfe a Year.” Oddly, as the title suggests, these “cakes” could hang out in your house for six months. The spicing reflects a holdover from the Middle Ages: a time when pepper was used the same as any other spice, in the sweet as well as the savory. Although the recipe’s name includes black pepper, it is strangely omitted from the ingredients—though in the 1996 reprinted manuscript, culinary historian Karen Hess argued that it might have been left out accidentally. The recipe combined black pepper, ginger, coriander, and caraway with candied fruit, orange zest, and molasses.

The cakes are formed into “pritty large cakes about an intch and halfe thick at moste.” In shape and texture, they’re what we’d call a cookie today. They were then baked and could be stored for four to six months. I cooked a batch and, after half a year of sitting in the back of my pantry, they seemed oddly unperturbed by the passage of time. I took a bite. They were dense, sticky, and heavily spiced. With nearly as much ground seasoning as flour in the recipe, their flavor was overpowering.

But I found Washington’s “Pepper Cakes” inspiring. I love to look to the past to inform my contemporary kitchen. Often historical documents can be used as a jumping off point for new recipes that feel modern, despite being grounded in history. A little tinkering in the kitchen and I came up with a version of Washington’s cakes that blended black pepper harmoniously with other spices.

Black Pepper Brown Sugar Cookies

I choose to use Sarawak peppercorns from Indonesia, as the pepper has notes of citrus and coriander that lend itself well to desserts. But any black pepper you have will do. The result is a chewy cookie, speckled with pretty bits of black pepper.

Yield: makes 3 to 4 dozen, depending on the size of the cookie

4 cups flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper, plus more to top the cookies

1 teaspoon ginger

1 teaspoon coriander

3/4 cup (11/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature

2 cups packed light brown sugar

Zest of one orange

Juice of 1/2 an orange (about 1/4 cup)

2 large eggs

1. In a large bowl, whisk together dry ingredients and spices.

2. In the bowl of an electric mixer, add butter, sugar, and orange zest. Using the paddle attachment, beat on medium-high until light in color. Add the orange juice, and then add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.

3. With mixer on low, add the dry ingredients slowly. Stop and scrape the bowl, then continue mixing until combined. Divide dough in half, wrap in plastic wrap, and chill at least 1 hour and as long as overnight.

4. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. On a generously floured work surface and with a floured rolling pin, roll dough 1/8 inch thick. Using a pepper grinder, crack fresh pepper over the surface of the dough and then gently press the pepper in with the rolling pin.

5. Cut into desired shapes using a cookie cutter or knife. Bake on a cookie sheet 10 to 12 minutes, rotating the cookie sheet halfway through, until the cookies are brown around the edges. Allow to cool completely on wire racks.

Black pepper was a common flavor in eighteenth-century American kitchens, but when the colony broke ties with England, the spice was harder to come by. After the Revolutionary War, no one in America knew where black pepper came from. The British, by exporting the commodity from England, had kept it a secret. Until their secret was discovered—and the Crowninshield family of Salem, Massachusetts, took advantage of it.

I visited the Crowninshields’ home town of Salem in June 2012. I approached the city by driving down Chestnut Street, an avenue lined with mansions. Built in the Federal style of two hundred years ago, the exteriors are simple by today’s standards, but subtle gilding, carving, and Flemish Bond—one of the most expensive ways to lay brick—whisper “wealth” to those in the know. These were the residences of the richest people in Salem: traders, merchants, and sea captains. From the widow’s walks, they would have watched their ships come in to the port below.

Patriarch George Crowninshield’s three-story childhood home still stands, although now it’s owned by the Peabody Essex Museum of Salem, and was moved from its original site to a tiny village of historic buildings near the museum. It’s modest compared with the Chestnut Avenue mansions: two and a half stories with wood siding painted a cheerful yellow. Touring it with a museum guide, I saw that the house still included signs of the Crowninshield family’s journeys abroad: in a corner of the study sat a massive clam shell, dragged back from some tropical port, that looked worthy of Aphrodite. Next to a bed was a nightstand with a shaving mirror, a basin to hold water to wash the face, and a chamber pot, all in a wooden cabinet that could be closed up and loaded aboard a ship, ready to sail for distant shores.

It’s unlikely George spent much of his boyhood running around the halls of this home. George Crowninshield turned fifteen the same year Martha Washington received her stack of recipes; by then, he had already been sailing on trade ships for seven years. That wasn’t uncommon at the time: boys as young as nine were admitted into the U.S. Navy.

Eight years later, in 1757, at the age of twenty-two, Crowninshield married into big money: he won the hand of Mary Derby, sister to Salem’s wealthiest merchant. The Derby family’s wharf is preserved in Salem, a testament to their economic power 250 years ago. Mary’s brother Elias—or “King” Derby, as he was nicknamed—was a successful merchant who became even richer by operating a fleet of privateers during the Revolutionary War.

Crowninshield and Mary Derby had a batch of children together, eight of whom survived infancy: six boys and two girls. Crowinshield’s time at sea left him rough in appearance and language, and by all accounts, he grew into a grouchy patriarch. A guest once recalled breakfast at the Crowninshield house; each of the children wanted something different to drink: tea, milk, water, hot chocolate, and so on. Irritated by his sons’ and daughters’ individual requests, George asked a servant to bring a cup of each and a large bowl. He poured the drinks all together, stirred them up, and said, “Now, children, help yourselves.”

By the time of the Revolutionary War, the Crowninshield family became moderately successful merchants. As the boys grew older, they were expected to become sailors, like their father. George Crowninshield dreamed of building a trade empire with the partnership of his sons. Some took to it better than others. The youngest son, Edward, was known to be timid and introverted. Sent to sea by his father at the age of eighteen, he was brutalized by the ship’s captain and later committed suicide. The incident was seldom spoken of by the family.

Other sons survived their father’s tyranny to work in the family business. After the war, Salem-based merchants, including the Crowninshields, wanted to expand their interests to the Far East. The pepper trade was potentially lucrative—but how to break in when no one knew where pepper plants grew?

Finally, around 1790 the source of pepper was revealed when a Salem captain named Jonathan Carnes was docked in Sumatra. He received a hot tip that pepper grew wild on the island’s northwestern coast. With this bit of information in hand, Carnes returned home and convinced a wealthy merchant named Jonathan Peele to fund an expedition to search for black pepper. Carnes’s ship, the Rajah, left Salem in 1795; the crew kept its destination a secret. When the ship returned to port eighteen months later, it had pepper “shoveled right into her hold like gravel.” The crew brought home an estimated 100,000 to 150,000 pounds of pepper, which sold for 37 cents a pound—an astounding 700 percent profit. This shipment was the first load of pepper ever imported directly to the United States from Sumatra.

It would have been to Peele’s and Carnes’s advantage to keep the source of the pepper secret, like the British East India Company had; but someone on their staff or crew let the cat out of the bag. Old Crabby Crowninshield caught wind that pepper could be found in Sumatra. Crowninshield dispatched his son John to Sumatra in 1801 as captain of a black pepper expedition.

Blond and blue-eyed, John was considered handsome at twenty-nine years old when he departed Salem on the America III. On July 2, 1801, he laid eyes on Sumatra. It was a sight that only a few Americans had witnessed: green mountains ascended from the rocky sea and disappeared into the mist. On these volcanic slopes grew pepper vines, entwined around the trunks of jungle trees.

I imagine John was as captivated as I was by the pepper vine when he first laid eyes on it. Here was the key to his family’s budding fortune. But if he was, he didn’t mention it in the journal he kept of his expedition. What he did talk about was how much he liked the local people, the Acehnese.

When a ship like the America III sidled up to a town along the coastline of Sumatra, such as Rahnoo or Telloo Gootupang (both known as “considerable pepper ports”), a rowboat was sent ashore to inquire if pepper was available for sale. Ships would stay in port until they could purchase a full hold of pepper, which could take an entire year.

About The Author

William Heath

Sarah Lohman is originally from Cleveland, Ohio, where she began working in a museum at the age of sixteen, cooking historic food over a wood-burning stove. Lohman moved to New York in 2006 to work for New York magazine’s food blog, Grub Street, and now works with museums and galleries around the city to create public programs focused on food. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and NPR, and appeared in the Cooking Channel’s Food: Fact or Fiction. The author of the blog Four Pounds Flavor, Eight Flavors is her first book.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (November 14, 2017)
  • Length: 304 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781476753966

Browse Related Books

Raves and Reviews

“A unique and surprising view of American history… richly researched, intriguing, and elegantly written.”

– The Atlantic

"Engaging...[Lohman] writes with passion and insight."

– USA Today

"Very cool...a breezy American culinary history that you didn't know you wanted."

– Bon Appetit

"Warning: This book may make you hungry."

– Bustle

“It is a nifty idea, cleverly executed and well written — the kind of book that makes the reader annoy her family by constantly exclaiming ‘Gosh! Did you know . . . ?’”

– The Financial Times

“In this convivial book, Lohman tells the stories of eight popular flavors….Lohman makes the stories of these flavors fascinating, and by focusing on the influence of immigrants, brings a fresh, original perspective to American culinary history.”

– The Christian Science Monitor

"Lively...Lohman will win you over with her detailed exploration of how each ingredient was introduced to the country and how it’s impacted our cooking over time."

– Passport Magazine

“In this convivial book, Lohman tells the stories of eight popular flavors….Lohman makes the stories of these flavors fascinating, and by focusing on the influence of immigrants, brings a fresh, original perspective to American culinary history.”

– The National Book Review

“Lohman’s thoughtful, conversational style and infectious curiosity make the book wholly delightful… Lohman’s book gives fascinating new insight into what we eat.”

– Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)

“This delicious history of these now-ubiquitous ingredients will have readers savoring each page and licking their lips for a taste for more.”

– Booklist

“A tasty historical study of flavorful mainstays of American cuisine… A tantalizing look at flavors of the American table that foodies will absolutely devour.”

– Kirkus Reviews

“Knowing more about these everyday kitchen items can help us become both better cooks and consumers, plus readers will be able to astound friends and family with newfound knowledge of soy sauce brewing… A lively compendium of facts and trivia about essential ingredients.”

– Library Journal

"Lohman's delectable book illustrates the deep connections between culture and food, reminding us that the flavors that enhance our foods represent the people who cook it."


"A compulsively readable, surprising and deeply researched culinary history."

– Brooklyn Based

“In this affectionate and insightful history of America cookery, Sarah Lohman tells a story filled with surprising characters, unexpected history - and the occasional irresistible recipe. Eight Flavors is a flavorful delight, start to finish.”“In this affectionate and insightful history of America cookery, Sarah Lohman tells a story filled with surprising characters, unexpected history - and the occasional irresistible recipe. Eight Flavors is a flavorful delight, start to finish.”

– Deborah Blum, New York Times bestselling author of The Poisoner's Handbook

"Packed with personality and a journalistic resolve to uncover the truth, Sarah Lohman's Eight Flavors takes deep dives into the history of some of the ingredients that define our modern American cuisine--from black pepper to sriracha to the oft-vilified MSG. You'll find yourself saying "wait, really?" at every turn of the page, ultimately coming out the other end with a deeper understanding of why our food tastes the way it does (not to mention helping you win the Food category at trivia night)."

– J. Kenji-Alt, Managing Culinary Director of Serious Eats and New York Times bestselling author of The Food Lab

“Eight Flavors is a hunger-inducing culinary voyage through America’s pantries, past and present. Our witty captain, food historian Sarah Lohman, provides us with tasty recipes and unique insight into America’s food landscape, in all its umami-spicy-garlicky-sweet glory.”

– Novella Carpenter, bestselling author of Farm City

Resources and Downloads

High Resolution Images