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, unlike salt, it is not a universal flavor enhancer, and it can easily overpower subtler flavors. So what’s the deal with waiters who grind pepper directly onto your plate?
The curiously popular tableside service 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.
In the 19th century, there had been two kinds of U.S. restaurants: low-end places for working men and high-end French restaurants staffed by impeccably trained waiters. At a place like this, each waiter would be assigned to a single table and would be expected to hover nearby 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 la carte, and servers determined how much (and what quality) meat and vegetables you got.
But near the beginning of the 20th century, mid-range establishments began appearing to cater to the middle class. These new restaurants innovated the practice of putting your meat and sides on a single plate prepared by the chef. Their role thus diminished, servers had to find new ways to earn their tips — including flourishes like grinding pepper directly onto diners’ plates.
Other factors may have contributed to the rise of tableside pepper-grinding, too. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, 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 demonstrated that it was pure and not cut with charcoal.
Fears about charcoal-infused pepper have long faded from the public mind, and it’s generally accepted that servers deserve fair compensation even though they no longer personally slice your meat. 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. (“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 1974 Saturday Night Live sketch.