A notion you can't shake: Pepper mills are cranky

April 21, 1999|By ROB KASPER

I HAVE HAD MORE pepper mills than Madonna has had boyfriends. Big ones, small ones, fat ones, skinny ones. They arrive good-looking and full of promise. They leave, their gears stripped, their performance diminished, a shadow of their former selves.

I have had pepper mills made of clear plastic and shiny metal. I have had multistory mills that had salt in their penthouse and peppercorns in the basement. I have had a series of pepper-only mills including the much-touted Unicorn Magnum, a sleek, side-loading model from a Maine outfit called Tom David. This mill was rated best by Cook's Illustrated (March/April 1996) and Good Housekeeping (May 1997) magazines in separate grind-offs.

My wife gave me one and a matching salt mill as a Christmas present two years ago. The pepper mill stayed around longer than any of the other ones. But after about 12 months of daily duty, it ground no more. The salt mill continued to work fine.

So last Christmas, I gave my wife a new pepper mill, a $20 number that turned with a crank. It stayed on the job until last month, when a tiny screw fell out of its gears. I tried and tried to put the screw back in, but it was inscrutable and unscrewable.

Since the pepper mill lost a screw, it has been temperamental. Some days it grinds the peppercorns into flakes. Some days it grinds some of the peppercorns some of the time. Some days it doesn't grind at all.

The most distressing of those instances occurs when it grinds some of the peppers, letting other whole peppercorns drop into the food. You will be munching along, then Hello! you hit a whole peppercorn and your supper gets fiery real fast.

I realize that complaining about my peppercorn problems could open me to criticism. There are folks out there who feel that pepper mills -- and the cadre of fussy waiters who tote them -- are part of the froufrouing of food, a movement that has transformed the primal pleasure of enjoying a good meal into an elaborate tea-party ritual.

I am willing to risk the ridicule -- being called pro peppercorn -- because I believe that grinding your own can be a productive culinary experience, and because it is a hoot.

Pieces of freshly ground pepper -- I'm a coarse-grind kind of guy -- add distinctive flavors to food. Moreover, the simple mechanical movement of the mill and its characteristic gnashing sounds remind you of the daily grind of existence, of the cog-in-the-wheel aspect of everyday life. In addition, when you feel the need to pulverize something -- an opponent, a troubling problem, a recalcitrant peppercorn -- you grind away. A simple pepper shaker doesn't offer that kind of therapeutic relief.

Finally, it seems to me that this pepper-mill problem is one that society should have been able to solve by now. Michele Anna Jordan, in her new book "Salt & Pepper" (Broadway Books, 1999), writes that, as far back as the 4th century B.C., Greeks have been grinding black pepper. Since that time we have figured out how to put a man or two on the moon, nitrogen bubbles in cans of draft beer and mute buttons on the remote controls of TV sets.

These are all, in my mind, terrific accomplishments. The next great step forward for civilization should be making a pepper mill with a backbone, one that commoners can afford, one that doesn't quit when the grinding gets tough.

The other day I broke down and bought an elite pepper mill, a $54 metal Perfex that was made in France. It cost more than a meal at a good restaurant. But it's tough and is supposed to last forever.

I think the demise of previous mills might have something to do with some unexpected trips they took from the table to the kitchen floor. I am hatching a plan to recoup the outlay. Basically, my scheme is to rent the prize pepper mill out to cooks who want everything to go right during big dinner parties.

I am working on a pepper mill-leasing ad that will run in appropriate culinary publications. So far it reads: "If you seek perfection in pepper -- nothing too coarse in your coq au vin -- you should consider leasing a top-of-the-line mill.

"For a mere $5 an evening, you can lease the ultimate grinder. Weekennds are extra. Some restrictions apply. References required."

Pub Date: 04/21/99

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