At the first bite Rory felt his eyes watering, and it was all he could do not to spit the food out. Esmie's face had gone bright red, and she coughed so hard Rory thought she might be choking. Beside her, Sara had been caught with his cup empty and was scrambling for the pitcher of ale. In his rush he knocked it over so that Gilda and Frodo both leaned backward to get away, Frodo upending his chair.
Down past Gilda, Merry calmly plowed through his bowl, not looking the least bit perturbed.
Rory managed to swallow his bite and wash it down with a gulp of ale. He fixed Bilbo in a stare that every hobbit in the Hall knew and feared. "What's the meaning of this?" he demanded.
Bilbo, showing neither fear nor shame, innocently shrugged his shoulders. "Nothing so out of the ordinary," he said – a statement belied by Sara beside him, slapping his chest desperately. Bilbo offered him his own drink and, after he had drained it in a single gulp, Sara thanked him hoarsely. "Let's see," Bilbo said, turning his attention back to Rory. "Ground beef, stewed tomatoes, navy beans, onions, a little cheese." He smirked at Rory. "And of course the spice that Gandalf sent me last month."
Frodo, having picked himself up off the floor, brought the water-pitcher and refilled Sara's and Bilbo's cups. "He's been saving it just for you," Frodo said.
"How considerate," Sara said. "And just what is this spice?"
Fishing in his pocket, Bilbo pulled out the red, wrinkled pod and set it on the table for all to see. "The Southrons call it pippalih." Smiling at everyone's confused expression, he added, "Pepper, in the common tongue."
"It's not like any pepper I've ever tasted." Esmie exclaimed. "Ground pepper will liven up a meal well enough, but this!"
"What can I say?" Bilbo said, waggling his eyebrows. "Some like it hot."
At the far end of the table, Merry held out his empty bowl. "Please, Bilbo, can I have some more?"