PEPPER IS NOTHING TO SNEEZE AT

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

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GARLIC: SOME TALES TO TAKE YOUR BREATH AWAY

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

JOKES TO STOP ALMOST ANY SERIOUS DISCUSSION OF FOOD

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