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Published 10/6/1999

UNCOMMON GROUNDS: THE HISTORY OF COFFEE AND HOW IT TRANSFORMED OUR WORLD

By Mark Pendegrast
Basic Books,
$27.50, 520pp.

With cream? Sugar? Both or neither? Do you prefer your brew scalding hot, gulped down straight from Mr. Coffee’s mouth, or tempered by the jazz-steamed atmosphere of a earth-toned espresso bar, cushioned with a cloud of foamed milk?

Aw, come on, who ever thinks that much about their daily cuppa joe? Mark Pendergrast, that’s who. Devoted documenter of dark, caffeinated beverages (he also wrote For God, Country and Coca-Cola), Pendergrast has produced a compendium of coffee lore that’s anything but a coffee-table book.

Rather, it’s an exhaustively researched text that covers the zippy bean’s rise from Ethiopian goat fodder (at least 1,000 years B.S. – Before Starbucks) to internationally revered ritual stimulant, with dark detours through centuries of colonialism, slavery and global price-gouging, not to mention some difficult decades, right here in America, of really badly brewed java.

Coffee was first grown and enjoyed in the Arabic countries. But once Europe had developed a taste for coffee, by the late 1600s, it needed the beans to fuel its growing coffeehouse industry.

The coffee trade flourished, and with the European invasion of the Americas came the discovery that coffee could grow in the so-called New World, too. (The first coffee plant in Martinique crossed the Atlantic in the care of a Frenchman who shared his water supply with it – it’s said that much of the world’s current coffee supply originates from that tree.) Subsequently, the indigenous people of Latin America and the Caribbean were forced off their land or into growing coffee.

European sugar plantation owners started growing coffee as well, and brought additional slaves from Africa to harvest the labor-intensive crop. And so it went, until Brazil, the last of the coffee-producing countries to do so, put an end to slavery in 1871.

By that time, however, the industrialized world was hooked on its daily grind, and the global economy was firmly hinged on the price of coffee.

Coffee runs as freely as tap water through American households, regardless of class or income. In the early part of the century, people were encouraged to use less grounds to get more cups of coffee, in the interest of economy. In the latter part of this century, Americans deem coffee worthy of whatever price tag is placed on it, in the interest of small luxuries.

Globally, people spend about $80 billion on coffee each year, while each American uses up 10 pounds of coffee beans in that time. Joe McBratney, a chef in Staten Island, N.Y., drinks about 50 cups a day.

But that single daily cup (which is what it would amount to if each person on Earth had an equal share) comes at a cost far higher than any designer latte.

Pendergrast leaves little doubt that coffee oils the capitalist machinery of the industrialized world while the parts of the world where coffee grows – mainly underdeveloped countries – get the dregs.

The cost to the world’s environment is only one part of the equation. In coffee-growing countries, whole forests are often razed or burned to make room for higher-yielding coffee bushes (better, environmentally friendly coffee is grown in the shade of a forest canopy, but such crops are smaller and more expensive, and therefore usually only found at chic coffee boutiques or in lefty mail-order catalogs). In many places, fertilizers and fermented coffee mucilage (the outer layer of coffee beans) are washed through delicate mountain streams, destroying entire ecosystems.

The human cost, in countries where coffee farmers are paid beans for their beans, or oppressed by dictators such as Idi Amin, who kept all of Uganda’s coffee-export profits for himself, is monumental. Latin America’s turbulent history is intrinsically linked to coffee, and coffee’s availability, in much of the world, has hinged on the stability of the politics and climate of this region.

Knowing all this, can we feel justified in reaching for that next cuppa? Perhaps not, but Americans are too addicted to caffeine to let go, despite the history, despite the racist and sexist ad campaigns that pushed coffee sales for much of the 20th century, despite the high price of a venti latte.

This isn’t a book to curl up with around your favorite mug and a steady stream of mocha java. This is a book to be read in line at the espresso bar, preferably before you place your order.

If this book has a failing, it’s that Pendergrast’s careful detailing of the business of and between early American coffee companies (mergers, acquisitions, takeovers and more, leading up to the Big Three of Maxwell House, Folgers and Nestlé, and the rise of specialty coffee companies including you-know-who) is somewhat more extensive than is probably necessary for readers who aren’t also business analysts. Attempting to get through such chapters might be further incentive for pouring (yet) another cup of joe.

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