Why is a ‘pepper’ different from ‘pepper’?

Christopher Columbus had a problem.

Less motivated by discovery than by opportunity, he had promised the riches of Asia to his patrons, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain. Against all odds, he had sailed across the Atlantic and docked in the Caribbean, where the Taíno ate plants and foods Europeans had never seen or tasted. These included members of the capsicum family, which today range from sweet bells, to the ubiquitous jalapeño, to the lethally hot Carolina Reaper. Their heat gave Columbus an idea: He could equate the fleshy fruits with pepper, or pimiento.

This was an inspired decision. “Second only to [gold], Ferdinand and Isabella hoped for black pepper” from Columbus’s expedition, writes Richard Schweid in Hot Peppers: The Story of Cajuns and Capsicum. Instead, Columbus came across what the Taíno called axí, or the unrelated capsicums. They ate the spicy berries abundantly, Columbus wrote in 1493. Already, he began to build their profile. The peppers, he wrote, were “more valuable than the common sort”: that is, more valuable than black pepper. Not only that, but they could be attained much more easily than the fabulously expensive black pepper. “Fifty caravels might be loaded every year of this commodity at Española,” he wrote. His mercantile-mindedness made sense. One of the reasons the Spanish monarchs wanted pepper so badly was that the rise of the Ottoman Empire cut off the traditional pepper routes from Asia.

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