Pepper: A History of the World’s Most Influential Spice

Marjorie Shaffer, Author
Marjorie Shaffer. St. Martin’s/Dunne, $26.99 (288p) ISBN 978-0-312-56989-1
Reviewed on: 11/12/2012
Release date: 04/02/2013
Open Ebook - 320 pages - 978-1-250-02100-7
Paperback - 302 pages - 978-1-250-04866-0
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Shaffer’s book is less comprehensive food history than a chronicle of pepper’s centuries as valued commodity from imperial Rome to present day. Its trade began in the classical era, continued through the Middle Ages, and exploded during the era of European imperialistic exploration and nationalist rivalry. Players included Asian, British, Iberian, and Continental crown and capital powers. The game ensnared proto-entrepreneurial and corporate-raider types such as explorer Vasco da Gama and colonial operator Sir Stamford Raffles. Erstwhile private agencies and startups like the Jesuits and the U.S. even got sucked into the business. Shaffer makes well-intentioned use of the records of the story’s many colorful figures, including future saints, obscure seamen, and gender-bending stowaways, and at the center is the epic competition between two monolithic archrivals, the British and Dutch East India Companies. From humble beginnings, through expansion and market dominance, and into eventual decline, their fiercely capitalistic, sometimes violent competition provides the book’s primary focus. A historian’s more than a gastronome’s book, its circling initially seems apropos, but becomes repetitious despite the decor of sidebars and maps. The result is a well-documented if scattered companion to Mark Kurlansky’s Salt. (Apr.)
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