this issue: october 1, 1999
Books / Digital Culture:
Selected Past Articles:
Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World is the spirited, thorough history of coffee by investigative reporter and caffeine fan Mark Pendergrast (For God, Country and Coca Cola). I don't really care for coffee--I'm a tea drinker myself--but those massive derelict hulls on the Brooklyn, NY and Hoboken, NJ waterfronts interest me. So does the history of the so-called fourteen families in Central America. I also admit to wondering who started brand names and why is coffee sold in tin cans or vacuum packed bags anyway? Pendergrast somehow manages to tie all these events, places and characters to the coffee trade.
Pendergrast traces coffee from its discovery in Ethiopia around the dawn of Islam, follows it through the Arab and European worlds, and fixes his focus largely on the US and its consumption and marketing of coffee from the Wild West to Starbucks. Pendergast has an engaging, direct style not often seen in books praised as "exhaustive" or "thoroughly scholarly." He knows how to tell a story and weaves a narrative that takes in every aspect of coffee. My one compliant with this approach is that once you get into the flow, he moves right onto the next point. The intrigue surrounding foreign policy is fascinating and truly did transform the tropics, physically, politically and socially. Pendergrast entwines their story with the story of the US coffee trade: its sellers, advertisers and nation of consumers. In light of all the impact coffee has had on the tropics, the book's emphasis on the US seems a bit lopsided. But I prefer the blood-and-guts to the business so this is largely a question of preference. I wanted less advertising jingles, more machetes.
The business, however, is behind the blood and guts and it is given center stage. Pendergrast describes the rise and fall of one-time giant Arbuckle Coffee--the builder of the Brooklyn waterfront processing plant that once comprised twelve city blocks--and its successors. These "coffee barons"--the small group of who made Post, Maxwell House, Hills Brothers, A& P and several now forgotten but once powerful brands household names--made coffee the "second most valuable legal traded commodity on earth, second only to oil." The history of Latin American coffee is discussed in relation to the speculation-depression cycle of American and European coffee consumption, the effects of speculation and frost in Brazil (and the windfall each Brazilian misfortune meant to Colombia) and the fate of the Maya Indians in Guatemala. Pendergrast has a great understanding of the financial cycles surrounding coffee speculation and does manage to tie them to the political maneuverings of the US government, the coffee oligarchies in Latin America and later Africa, and the rise and fall of commodity prices. Coffee has changed the way Americans look at the world--advertising, commodities trading and speculation are certainly heirs to the coffee trade, but the tropics were changed in immediate, disruptive ways.
So the stakes are high when it comes to coffee. How did it transform our (the American) world? It spurred commercial packaging. It started advertising and the need for copywriters since the coffee sold in the US for many years was uniformly bad. The tactics used to sell coffee--the first ever "jingle" was coined by a copywriter on a Maxwell House campaign, who was later quoted as saying "I invented things that I now apologize for"-- were copied by the nascent advertising industry and have become part of American culture. Coffee is so necessary to Americans that General Food's largest coffee roasting facility in the world, with a 42 foot high neon cup that announced "Last Drop" once occupied Hoboken's waterfront. Though some say you can still smell coffee (is that what that is?) in Hoboken's air, the massive plant has been derelict for years.
The book ends with the Starbucks era--a revolution in itself given the dominance of long-established giants like A&P and Procter & Gamble--and touches briefly on the political and environmental toll that still taints the coffee trade. But Americans are so used to cheap coffee (boycotts and riots resulted when the price of a cup of coffee increased from 5 to 7 cents after the Second World War) that the movement toward "eco- friendly" coffee remains a tiny portion of coffee consumption. Some would argue that the guilty ramblings of "huppies" (hippie/yuppies in the term of one coffee grower in Costa Rica) merely opened the doors for inferior, yet expensive blends that use guilt rather than quality to generate consumers.
At over 500 pages including advice on how to brew the perfect cup, Uncommon Grounds is a fast-moving, multifaceted look at the impact of coffee on the world. Its scope is large enough almost to overwhelm, but it does deliver the caffeinated goods. If Pendergrast is up to the task I'd like to see him take on sugar.
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