NEW YORK – After exploring the debate over whether restaurants should always have salt shakers on their tables, we at Slate wondered: What’s the deal with waiters who grind black pepper directly from a pepper mill onto your plate? Black pepper isn’t a rare or expensive ingredient, and it’s not so perishable that it needs to be ground seconds before consumption. Plus, as Sara Dickerman has argued in Slate, pepper doesn’t complement everything – unlike salt, it’s not a universal flavor enhancer, and it can easily overpower subtler flavors. So where does this curiously popular tableside service come from?
It probably started in the early 20th century. The pepper mill wasn’t even invented until the second half of the 19th century – Peugeot (yes, that Peugeot) began manufacturing its first model in 1874. By the turn of the century, the pepper mill was making its way to refined American tables: A 1903 publication called “The Steward’s Handbook and Guide to Party Catering” referred to the French-inspired “fashion of much silver bric-a-brac” on tables at dinner parties, including a salt cellar for each guest and a single pepper mill to be controlled by the host. This imbalance might have had more to do with timid American palates than anything else – at the time, heavily spiced foods were frowned upon by trendsetters – but it presages the trend of pepper-mill-wielding restaurant servers.
In the 1910s, America’s restaurant scene began changing in several significant ways, as Andrew Haley chronicles in “Turning the Tables.” In the 19th century, there had been two kinds of restaurants: low-end places for working men, which were cheap, sold mediocre food and put no emphasis on service, and high-end French restaurants, staffed by impeccably trained waiters. At a place like this, each waiter would be assigned to a single table each night and would be expected to hover near the table for the entire meal to respond to patrons’ needs. Waiters at this time had a lot of power over the quality of a customer’s meal: Food was served à la carte, and servers determined how much (and what quality) meat and vegetables you got.
But near the beginning of the 20th century, new mid-range establishments began appearing to cater to the middle class. These new restaurants, which might serve ethnic food (like Italian) instead of the traditionally revered French cuisine, invented the practice of putting your entire entrée – meat and sides – on a single plate designed and prepared by the chef. This innovation diminished the role of the server, who no longer controlled the quantity and quality of food served. As a result, servers had to find new ways to earn their tips – and personalized flourishes, like grinding pepper directly onto diners’ plates, created the sense that waiters still had an important role to play.
Other factors may have contributed to the rise of tableside pepper-grinding, too.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, unscrupulous vendors sold adulterated foodstuffs: milk thinned with water, grass clippings passed off as basil, flour mixed with chalk. (Such tainted products were eventually outlawed by the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.) Grinding pepper in front of patrons could be a way for mid-scale restaurants to demonstrate that their pepper was pure and not cut with charcoal. And because chefs moved around a lot, trends spread quickly among restaurants: The iconic red-checkered tablecloths, candles in wine bottles, and singing waiters were already standard in Italian restaurants in the 1920s. It’s very possible that tableside pepper-grinding got its foothold in the marketplace in the same way.
Fears about charcoal-infused pepper have faded from the public mind, and it’s generally accepted that servers deserve fair compensation even though they no longer personally slice your meat for you. But pepper-grinding has persisted, acquiring a bit of a ridiculous image along the way. Then-New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni wrote a nine-paragraph rant against the practice in a 2006 column about a new Italian restaurant in TriBeCa (“How is a diner expected to know whether he or she wants more pepper if a dish hasn’t been tasted yet?”). But Bruni’s chances of putting a dent in the practice were slim – after all, tableside pepper-grinding had already survived the greatest indignity imaginable: Being performed from between Adam Sandler’s legs, in a “Saturday Night Live” sketch from 1994.