We've had a hard time recently finding the popular Szechwan (Szechuan? Sichuan? Sichwan?) peppercorns. But until I heard on "Splendid Table" this week about the great Szechwan pepper famine I wasn't sure why!
Since 1968, the federal government has banned the import of Sichuan peppercorns, which are the dried berries of the prickly ash shrub. The Agriculture Department did not really enforce the ban until two years ago, and its effort is expected to dry up supplies soon. Some chefs and retailers say that they are unable to find the peppercorns, which are often an ingredient of five-spice powder, a common Chinese seasoning. Others say they are selling what was stockpiled before the enforcement effort began.
The details are a bit complicated, but if you can believe the New York Times, there is no good reason for the ban other than excessively broad bureaucratic classifications (a related item endangers citrus crops).
There are still some available but apparently when they're gone, they're gone until or unless something changes, when existing legal supplies are depleted, that will be the end. Lynn Rosseto Kasper recommends firing up a peppermill with regular peppercorns, whole all spice and a touch of dried lemon peel as a substitute. I'll give it a try and report back!