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Not one of the burning issues of the day, but something I've wondered about on occasion at your fancy restaurants. Why do master chefs wear those tall white hats? Something so silly must have a logical reason for being. --John Rawls, Atlanta

When you get into these how-did-that-get-started things, John, you realize the formula works like this: silly hat, silly reason; sensible hat, silly reason too. Here's the story I've heard, which sounds so cockeyed you know it's got to be the truth. Lay scholars who took refuge in seventh-century Byzantine monasteries during persecutions adopted headgear based on that of their clerical hosts. You've seen pictures of Greek Orthodox priests with those crowned black hats with the high band, right? Well, that's what the lay scholars wore, only their version was white, so as not to confuse the faithful.

Exactly how the scholar's cap came to be the chef's cap is a little murky, but we know many of the scholars were Greeks, the Greeks were among the first gastronomes, the scholar's cap was a mark of distinction, cooks wanted a mark of distinction ... OK, it's not going to get me an award from the historical association but it's enough to fill out the column. The top of the cap got progressively poufier over the years as master chefs sought ways to indicate that they outranked the pot washers.

But didn't you say something about a logical reason for being? The purpose of the cap, as opposed to its origin, is the same as for the caps worn by all food workers: it keeps your hair out of the soup.

Why can't Prince Rainier become a king? You will probably find this question really stupid, but no one can tell me. --L. Cord, New York

If you've been reading this column long, L., you know that stupid is not a major disqualifier, questionwise. All we ask is a certain redeeming whimsicality, under which heading you're in like Flynn.

The short answer to your question is that the male heads of the ruling Grimaldi family have styled themselves princes for something like 700 years, and it would be a little presumptuous for Prince Rainier to give himself a promotion now. The long answer is that prince is the title traditionally given to the head of a vassal state, that is, one under the protection of and hence subordinate to a larger and more powerful ruler.

That pretty much describes the case with Monaco. Except for interludes with Spain and Sardinia, it's been under the thumb of neighboring France ... well, that's the wrong way to put it. Let's say France guarantees its independence. During the French Revolution France welshed on the deal and annexed the 0.7-square-mile country, but Monaco regained its independence following the fall of Napoleon.

Today Monaco is a sovereign state but as a practical matter remains so at the sufferance of France. It has only a token military. It uses French currency, the official language is French (although there is a Monegasque dialect), and France supplies the gas, water, and electricity. When France is peeved, as happened in the early 60s when Monaco became a haven for rich folks trying to evade French taxes, the Grimaldis perspire. (Except Grace, of course. She glowed.)

The solution then was to close a few tax loopholes. The bigger deal long-term is a 1918 treaty with France: if the Grimaldis don't produce an heir, Monaco becomes an "autonomous state under the protection of France." (Probable translation: everybody pays French taxes.) It's only a guess, but if Rainier suddenly started taking on kingly airs, Monaco might find itself incorporated into its larger neighbor a little sooner than expected.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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