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Chef's Table: The Spice King
By Jim Coleman with Candace Hagan

Chef Jim Coleman If you think "Dress Down Fridays" are extreme, consider the crafty 16th century sea merchant who initiated what may be the oddest dress code in workman's history: "NO POCKETS AND NO CUFFS." It seems the dock workers were stuffing their clothing with peppercorns, the most valuable commodity on board. In those days, pepper was held in more esteem than gold, and represented a steadier currency standard because the coins contained variable amounts of the precious metal. People often paid their rent in peppercorns, and debts could be erased for the appropriate amount of pepper. Families endowed their daughters' dowries with the spice and it wasn't uncommon for a down-on-his-luck noble to marry beneath his class for pepper. This offended certain aristocrats, and in an extreme case of over-seasoning a few of the pepper-hungry suitors were forced to gorge on the spice. Pepper was sprinkled liberally on government affairs as officials accepted pepper bribes for legislative favors, and used it in turn to lure prospective voters. In those days, a man might have been the salt of the earth, but if he had no pepper he was worthless.

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