As author Marjorie Shaffer points out at the start of "Pepper: A History of the World's Most Influential Spice," black pepper -- Piper nigrum -- is not related to chili pepper (crushed red pepper, etc.), but rather belongs to its own distinct family of plants.
Black pepper is the same thing as white pepper, too. Black pepper is picked when the vine's berries are green and white pepper is picked later, when the berries have ripened into red and maybe, sometimes, pink. The black peppercorn is the shriveled skin on the white seed, and it is washed off with water to make white peppercorns.
At any spice store and many good supermarkets, you'll see blends that include black, white, green and pink peppercorns. But Ms. Shaffer notes that "the sweet pink little balls in some peppercorn mixes aren't true peppers but hail from the cashew family in Brazil."
There are other variants I'd like to get my hands on, including long pepper, or Piper longum, which is native to northeastern India, where it's not nearly as crazy popular as its cousin, Piper betle, or the betel that is chewed across Southeast Asia.
Because I'm South Indian by marriage, I do like Tellicherry black pepper. Penzys in the Strip District sells an extra big and "Extra Bold" version that's slightly more expensive ($3.79 for a 1-ounce jar) than the regular ones ($3.55), which are the same price as the less spicy Malabar peppercorns.
Dave Johnson of Savvy Spices on Banksville Road points out that one of the more exciting pepper isn't pepper at all, but the berry of a different plant, Szechuan or Sichuan pepper. Banned in the U.S. from 1968 to 2005 because of worries that it carried citrus canker, it's a very interesting taste experience that can include some numbness to the mouth.
Bob Batz Jr.: firstname.lastname@example.org and 412-263-1930 and on Twitter @bobbatzjr.