By Bob Schwabach

Originally published in the Chicago Tribune, March 12, 1979

In 1934 an Armenian named Garabed Bishirgian tried to monopolize the world supply of pepper. For six weeks he succeeded. When the crash came, three old-line London brokerage houses went under and a number of Wall Street speculators in New York went broke. Bishirgian had managed to corner 16,000 tons of pepper in London warehouses on notes using the pepper itself as collateral. That was 10 times the entire English supply for the previous year.

In January, 1935, the price of pepper started moving from 12 cents to 36 cents a pound. Then on Feb. 9 growers in India and Indonesia shipped 20,000 tons of pepper to London and the corner collapsed under the massive supply. There was enough pepper on hand to supply all of Europe and America for three years.

In the ensuing chain reaction over the manipulation of a seemingly trivial commodity, the British pound dropped 11 cents in two days. This precipitated a drop in the Argentine peso and the Polish zloty, making Argentine wheat and Polish rye cheaper on the American market. Farmers found they could not sell their grain above production cost and started a campaign in Congress for price supports. Hardly anyone could understand why the manipulation of pepper could cause such a fuss. A few centuries earlier no one would have been surprised.

THE DESIRE FOR pepper started the British Empire and marked the fall of the Roman. The search for it started the age of exploration and the getting of it, the wealth of nations. For centuries its value was so great a pound of black pepper was considered a suitable gift for one king to give to another. Rich men bequeathed single jars of pepper to relatives, rents for land and houses were once set in peppercorns, and London dock workers who unloaded pepper ships had to have their pockets sewed closed. Continue reading



By Bob Schwabach

Originally published in The Chicago Tribune, October 23, 1978.

Let us speak now of garlic. Allium sativum. It is a member of the lily family. It is a cornerstone of the three great cuisines of the world– French, Italian, and Chinese– and permeates, so to speak, our very culture.

To wit:

  • Garlic and war: Roman soldiers ate garlic before going into battle. It was believed to give courage and ferocity. At any rate their enemies were always taken aback. This is, in fact, how the use of garlic spread throughout the western world.
  • Garlic and sport: Aristophanes noted that athletes used to eat garlic before the Olympic games.
  • Garlic and aviation: In 1971, a BOAC DC-10 had to be abandoned at takeoff when two bottles of garlic concentrate broke in a passenger’s suitcase in the luggage compartment. The plane was finally cleared out by a crew wearing gas masks.
  • Garlic and the electric light: Scientists discovered in the 1930s that garlic vapor produced a full spectrum light like sunlight when excited by an electric current. Very little has been done with this.
  • Garlic and education: In 1937 several students at Flossmoor Public School were temporarily suspended when they got into a garlic breath contest in class. Continue reading


By Bob Schwabach

Originally published in the Chicago Tribune, January 22, 1979

Woody AllenWoody Allen has this routine in which he talks about a country where anything sexual is perfectly all right but food is dirty. He checks into a hotel room in a sleazy district and ask the room clerk to send up a tuna fish on rye. The food is brought by a beautiful girl, a lady of the supper, so to speak. He asks if they can eat a bagel together. She says, “I don’t do that.”

Well, sex and food have caused their share of anxiety, and as Freud once said, anxiety is the source of humor. But times change. There no longer is any anxiety about sex, so the only thing left to be funny about is food. Considering there’s a lot of anxiety about food, you better have something amusing to say if you still think mussels are biceps instead of bivalves. So we went to some of America’s funny people for help. Continue reading


By Bob Schwabach

Originally published in the Chicago Tribune, October 16, 1978

“Sugar,” she said.

“Honey,” he said.

“Sweetheart,” she said.

“Cupcake,” he said.

He thought she was a real tomato — a dish. She thought he was sweet– he made her mouth water. The feeling welled up inside. Finally it burst out in an almost unbidden rush of affection: “I could just eat you up,” he said.

Cheesecake, beefcake, chick, pumpkin, cookie (It was poet John Ciardi who once remarked about the Girl Scouts: “Remember, today’s Brownie is tomorrow’s cookie.”). Something seems to be going on here. Continue reading

Bob and Joy Schwabach Spend the Weekend at a Frank Lloyd Wright House

By Bob Schwabach

We knew it was the Wright house as soon as we saw it.

Those long horizontals hugging the earth, that flat roof and overhanging eaves, those clerestory windows high away from prying eyes . . . this was the place. And if we needed any further confirmation, the house was signed. There by the door was a red ceramic tile set into the wall, inscribed with the hand-scratched letters “FLLW”– for Frank Lloyd Lincoln Wright. Most people forget the “Lincoln,” which was his given middle name, but here he had inscribed it with his own hand, along with the other “L” for “Lloyd,” his mother’s maiden name. Continue reading

A Guidebook that Hits You Right Where You Live

Copyright Oct. 18, 1981  For an interesting comparison with today, please visit

By Bob Schwabach 

All right, we know it. You’ve been thinking on and off for years about what it would be like if you moved to another city.

Would the food be the same? Do the people talk funny? Do they speak English? Three psychologists at C.W. Post College on Long Island have been wondering the same thing and they have put out a book on the subject, “Finding Your Best Place to Live in America” (Red Lion Books).

The thesis here is: “We have discovered that where a person lives dramatically affects his happiness and success in life.” We all suspected as much.

But what they have done is put together in a reasonably conveinent way a list of pluses and minuses for various places so you can figure out what bothers you most where you are now, and where to go for less of it, and what you like best and where to go for the most of that. Continue reading

Beware those ‘collectibles’: You may have to keep them

By Bob Schwabach

Originally printed in the Chicago Tribune, August 31, 1981

The floor has dropped out from under the Oriental rug market. Stamps look like they might be getting back

to postage values, and all those Bicentennial quarters you’ve been hoarding can be sold almost anywhere – for a quarter.

Things are not looking good in that vast area of hard goods called the “collectibles market.” This covers anything from the nut finge- barbed wire or telephone insulation – to those who think they’re more prudent and sophisticated and so bought diamonds and Oriental carpets. Continue reading