Tastes of Paradise

by Wolfgang Schivelbusch. Pantheon. $25.00. Mr. Schivelbusch begins his “Social History of Spices, Stimulants, and Intoxications” with the medieval passion for pepper, but stops short of serious consideration of the modern addiction to cocaine and its ilk. Along the route the historian finds normally overlooked connections between fads and finance or rages and religion. If coffee became the drink of choice in northern Europe, he reasons, it was because developing capitalism required a clear head. If chocolate became the preference of the Catholic south, it was because it provided nourishment on fast days. The text leaps from apparent trivialities like the proper manipulation of a snuff box to such large themes as the grim commercial depredations known as the Opium Wars. The argument is frequently unexpected and always engaging.