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

HELP! HELP! I’VE BEEN BURGLARIZED

By Bob Schwabach

Originally published in the News-Journal, August 7, 1973, reprinted in the Chicago Tribune and other Knight papers.

Wilmington, Delaware —

WE ARRIVED home from vacation at three in the morning. I knew something was wrong as I looked in the living room window and saw the desk drawers and papers strewn over the rug, and bookcases knocked flat in the hallway.

The entire house had been ransacked. Room after room: drawers, clothes, books, boxes, closets, all emptied into piles on the floor. All very thorough. Lots of time. Continue reading

FOOD ON OUR MINDS

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

THE BATHROOMS OF EUROPE: A GUIDE ON WHERE TO GO

By Bob Schwabach

Originally published in the Philadelphia Inquirer

I felt the need soon after I entered the bathroom downstairs from the restaurant in Malaga, Spain.

There were all sorts of guide books to Europe–far too many guide books, in fact. But not one of them dealt with a basic problem certain to be encountered by every single traveler, young or old, of whatever nationality. I tentatively decided to call it “Where To Go In Europe” — in homage to a previous, mere local, guide book of two decades ago: “Where  To Go In London.”

Victoria Station

This was a superbly practical book, giving directions, hours of availability, and a rating to every public bathroom of any note in the London area. I remember that the public room in Victoria Station were given three-and-a-half pissoirs, and drew the rave comment: “A veritable symphony of public hygiene.” (Though I understand from more recent visitors that Victoria Station has definitely gone downhill since then, and it is now questionable whether it is even worth rating.)

There was a time for all these musings, and much more, because when I entered the stall of the bathroom downstairs from the restaurant in Malaga, in southern Spain, the handle came off in my hand.

Now this bathroom was in most ways no different from an ordinary American public bathroom, and in my proposed guide of “Where To Go In Europe” it would not rate so much as a single pissoir, nor even a paper towel epaulet. Continue reading

NO SWANK RESORTS, BUT NOBODY GOES TO EGYPT FOR FUN

By Bob Schwabach

EGYPT —

Originally printed in the Philadelphia Inquirer,  March 16, 1975

Ramses II, Valley of the Kings

Luxor is what the Greeks called Ancient Thebes, to distinguish it from modern Thebes in Greece itself, and everybody who was anybody built a temple here. Across the river, on the western bank of the Nile, is the Valley of the Kings. The  dead live on the west bank of the Nile, where the sun sets, and the living on the east, where the sun rises.

It is all planned out that way and has been that way for six or seven thousand years. Death is the business of Egypt; it is what tourists come to see and what they have come to see ever since the first millennium before Christ, when Herodotus complained that the tour guides were selling fake antiques to the Athenians.  Now Americans, Frenchmen and Scandinavians gawk where Caesar did, and we are the new Romans.

Nile boats

The Egyptians are as prepared for us as they were for them. Hotel rooms are scarce, the Nile boats are booked months in advance, the food is spotty, the service poor, and nobody speaks the language very well. It probably wouldn’t matter if they put people up in tents and fed them K-rations. Because this is Egypt, and nobody comes here for the resort cum fun and sun atmosphere of the Riviera and the Costa del Sol or even to sample the native food and rummage the bazaars for brass plates. This is The Land of the Pharaohs, as Cecil B. DeMille kept reminding us, and by gum it really is.

Sphinx

A lot of it has the air of some leftover movie set. The pyramids, the Sphinx, the great temples of Karnak and Abu Simbel, look disappointingly just like their pictures and everything is instantly recognizable. The Great Pyramids of Giza are just on the edge of Cairo, a one dollar taxi ride from the center of town. Turn right at the “Pirate’s Cove” nightclub. Continue reading