To find a good reason why the waiter might think it would impress your date to offer her freshly ground pepper from what appears to be a small table leg, you’d have to go back centuries to Medieval Europe. (Of course, Freud might have as much to say about what this conveys as any historian. Lasting rituals rarely make sense at only one level.) In medieval times, pepper and other spices were status symbols, highly coveted, exotic, and expensive. So much so that its special place in our diet has carried over into today’s fine restaurants.
Spices were ideal for trade. They didn’t spoil and were light in weight. Essentially, foreign trade meant spice trade and the foreign lands from which the spices came were so remote as to be shrouded in mystery. By at least one estimate the average European never traveled more than 5 miles from home during his entire life (although given the lack of pedometers this would have to be considered a very rough estimate) and places as remote as Asia were idealized. To medieval Europeans, America was unknown but Atlantis was real, as was Paradise. And yes, by Paradise they meant the Garden of Eden. Spices were so aromatic, so rare, and so special that they were thought to come from there. (It seems reasonable to assume that trader who were happy to enhance demand for their product would make little effort to clarify that pepper actually came from India and the Maluku Islands in Indonesia.) Medieval Europeans believed that “pepper … grew on a plain near Paradise [and that] ginger and cinnamon” had been carried by the Nile straight from Paradise.
European food had yet to be infused with so many of the exotics to come from later stages of world trade, and spices were coveted for the simple fact that they enhanced the taste of food. Given the trade route was so long, spice prices were high and the products were essentially reserved for the elites. “In fact, pepper frequently took the place of gold as a means of payment.” And as with any highly priced item, spices conveyed status, a literal display of good taste.
But in the 1400s, the long trade routes were getting hit with tariffs by new rulers, and growing wealth among Europeans meant increased demand. As a result, spice prices went up 30x. If a person could find better trade routes to India, a way to avoid the tariffs levied in the Middle East, he would be rich. A taste for spices drove explorers to find a new continent. Columbus, who ventured out into unknown seas in search of it, would have known that America was truly a land of great wealth if he knew that it was a place where waiters came to your table and offered you as much fresh ground pepper as you wanted.
Mostly drawn from Wolfgang Schivelbusch, translated from German by David Jacobson, Tastes of Paradise: A social history of stimulants, and intoxicants [Vintage Books, New York, NY, 1993]