A Corrective History Of Coffee

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The literature of coffee has produced a new genre: corrective history. Illustration by Ilya Milstein

An essayist’s review on one of our favorite topics is a nice surprise for a start to a new week:

The War on Coffee

The history of caffeine and capitalism can get surprisingly heated.

What would life be without coffee?” King Louis XV of France is said to have asked. “But, then, what is life even with coffee?” he added. Truer, or more apt, words for the present moment were never spoken, now usable as a kind of daily catechism. At a time when coffee remains one of the few things that the anxious sleeper can look forward to in the morning (What is life without it?), giving as it does at least an illusion of recharge and a fresh start, the charge has invariably slipped away by the time the latest grim briefing comes (What is life even with it?). Imagining life without coffee right now is, for many of us, almost impossible, even though the culture of the café that arose in America over the past couple of decades has, for some indefinite period, been shut down.

The growth of coffee as a culture, not just as a drink, can be measured in a unit that might be called the Larry, for the peerless comedy writer Larry David. In “Seinfeld,” which he co-created in 1989, coffee came as a normal beverage in a coffee shop—bad, indistinct stuff that might as well have been tea. (Paul Reiser had a nice bit about the codependency of coffee and tea, with tea as coffee’s pathetic friend.) Then, on “Friends,” the characters gathered in a coffee-specific location, Central Perk, but the very invocation of a percolator, the worst way to brew, suggested that they were there more for the company than for the coffee. Six or so Larrys later, by 2020, the plotline of an entire season of David’s own “Curb Your Enthusiasm” turned on a competition between Mocha Joe’s and Latte Larry’s—the “spite store” that Larry opens just to avenge an insult over scones, with many details about a specific kind of Mexican coffee bean he means to steal. The audience was expected to accept as an obvious premise the idea that coffee was a culture of devotion and discrimination, not just a passable caffeinated drink.

This change is real, and is reflected in the numbers. As Jonathan Morris documents in his recent book, “Coffee: A Global History” (Reaktion), epicurean coffeehouses in the United States numbered in the hundreds in 1989, and in the tens of thousands by 2013. A lot of that is Starbucks, but not all. Roasters in Italy went from exporting twelve million kilograms of espresso in 1988 to more than a hundred and seventy million in 2015. Not surprisingly, the growth of a coffee culture has been trailed, and sometimes advanced, by a coffee literature, which arrived in predictable waves, each reflecting a thriving genre. First, we got a fan’s literature—“the little bean that changed the world”—with histories of coffee consumption and appreciations of coffee preparations. (The language of wine appreciation was adapted to coffee, especially a fixation on terroir—single origins, single estates, even micro lots.) Then came the gonzo, adventurer approach: the obsessive who gives up normal life to pursue coffee’s mysteries. And, finally, a moralizing literature that rehearsed a familiar lecture on the hidden cost of the addiction.

The most entertaining of the coffee-as-adventure books is Stewart Lee Allen’s “The Devil’s Cup” (1999), which helped establish the wild-man school of gastronomic appreciation. Allen, in a tone that marries Anthony Bourdain with S. J. Perelman, ventures jauntily on a pilgrimage to all coffee’s holy places, from Ethiopia to Turkey, meeting everyone from the keeper of Rimbaud’s house in Harar to someone who still knows how to make coffee from roasted leaves. Searching for the origins of the coffeehouse, Allen supplies much lively anthropological detail, dense with many stalwart sentences: “Everyone had warned me against taking the overnight train from Konya to Istanbul. They said it took twice as long as the bus (nonsense), that it was unsafe (rubbish) and so overheated that passengers’ clothing caught fire (this is actually true).” There is also much lubricious detail:

In the Oromo culture of western Ethiopia, the coffee bean’s resemblance to a woman’s sexual organs has given birth to another bun-qalle ceremony with such heavy sexual significance. . . . After the beans are husked, they are stirred in the butter with a stick called dannaba, the word for penis. . . . As the beans are stirred another prayer is recited until finally the coffee fruits burst open from the heat, making the sound Tass! This bursting of the fruit is likened to both childbirth and the last cry of the dying man.

For all the book’s Hunter S. Thompson curlicues, the essential information is communicated. The coffee bean comes in two basic families, arabica and the inferior (though easier to grow) robusta. It thrives in high terrains, and, like wine grapes, it does best in seemingly inhospitable environments—rocky and volcanic soil on mountainsides. An alternative to alcohol, coffee was central to teetotalling Islamic civilization in the Middle Ages, and spread from Turkey to points west, where the coffeehouse became the cockpit of the Enlightenment, and even up to little Iceland, where it became the national sacrament. Throughout, Allen’s assumption is that everyone craves coffee, and that, while the craving may lead to many superstitions and black-market absurdities, the craving in itself is good. In the spirit of the time, craving was living.

It was fun while it lasted. Now the strictures of a corrective literature have come for coffee. Augustine Sedgewick’s “Coffeeland: One Man’s Dark Empire and the Making of Our Favorite Drug” (Penguin Press), as the title announces, tells a story not very different from the kind that might be told of Colombian cocaine production and narco-terrorism, with another product that offers simulated energy to money-driven people. Coffee got produced by something like slavery and was then pushed on a pliant proletariat by big business and the Yanqui dollar. Americans, under the pressure of mass marketing and pseudo-scientific propaganda, have been encouraged to drink ever more coffee while the peasants of El Salvador suffer and die in the brutally efficient coffee monoculture promoted by plantation growers. Both North and Central America became “coffeelands”—a peasantry making the drug, a proletariat consuming it…

Read the whole article here.

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