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