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09 MAY, 2013

Uncommon Grounds: How Coffee Changed the World

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“In the form of a hot infusion of its ground, roasted seeds, coffee is consumed for its bittersweet bouquet, its mind-racing jump start, and social bonding.”

Coffee — from its artful preparation to its secret history — holds enormous cultural mesmerism as the world’s favorite psychoactive drug. It may have taken a Founding Father to teach Americans how to make it, it wasn’t until Mark Pendergrast’s 1999 book Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World (public library) that coffee’s rich legacy and anthropology came into full bloom.

In a recently released updated edition, Pendergrast paints a beautiful backdrop to the story at a Guatemalan coffee planation 4,500 feet above sea level:

I pop the skin of a ripe coffee cherry open in my mouth and savor the sweet mucilage. It takes a bit of tongue work to get down to the tough-skinned parchment protecting each bean. Like peanuts, coffee beans usually grow in facing pairs. Spitting out the parchment, I finally get the two beans, which are covered by a diaphanous silver skin. In some cases where the soil lacks sufficient boron, I might have found only one bean, called a peaberry, considered by some to possess a slightly more concentrated taste. I spit out the seeds, too hard to chew.

I hear other harvesters — whole families of them — chatting and singing in Spanish. This is a happy time, when the year’s hard work of pruning, fertilizing, weeding, tending, and repairing roads and water channels comes down to ripe coffee. I sing a song with a few Spanish phrases: mi amor, mi corazón.

Coffee Arabica: leaves, flowers, and fruit

Painted from nature by M.E. Eaton, 1922 (public domain)

And yet beneath this romanticized vision of communal exuberance lies the harsh reality of thankless work on an incredibly labor-intensive crop — this vignette, in fact, is emblematic of coffee’s baked-in paradoxes:

Tiny women carry amazingly large bags, twice their eighty-pound weight. Some of the women carry babies in slings around front. A good adult picker can harvest over two hundred pounds of cherries and earn $8 a day, more than twice the Guatemalan minimum daily wage.

In Guatemala, the contrast between poverty and wealth is stark. Land distribution is lopsided, and those who perform the most difficult labor do not reap the profits. Yet there is no quick fix to the inequities built into the economic system, nor any viable alternatives to coffee as a crop on these mountainsides. The workers are in many ways more content and fulfilled than their counterparts in the United States. They have a strong sense of tradition and family life.

As the workers bring in the harvest, I ponder the irony that, once processed, these beans will travel thousands of miles to give pleasure to people who enjoy a lifestyle beyond the imagination of these Guatemalan laborers. Yet it would be unfair to label one group “villains” and another “victims” in this drama. I realize that nothing about this story is going to be simple.

THE CAFÉ DE PARIS IN 1843

From an engraving by Bosredon (public domain)

The story is, indeed, rather complicated — and the scale of complications is enormous. One of the world’s most valuable commodities, coffee provides sustenance for nearly 125 million people who labor in its various related industries. There is, however, a bitter disconnect between the beautiful settings in which that labor takes place and the economic injustice surrounding it:

The vast majority of those who perform these repetitive tasks work in beautiful places, yet these laborers earn an average of $3 a day. Many live in poverty without plumbing, electricity, medical care, or nutritious foods. The coffee they prepare lands on breakfast tables, in offices and upscale coffee bars of the United States, Europe, Japan, and other developed countries, where cosmopolitan consumers often pay a day’s Third World wages for a cappuccino.

'Ah, How Sweet Coffee Tastes—Lovelier Than a Thousand Kisses, Sweeter Far than Muscatel Wine!'

Opening bars of Betty's aria in Bach's Coffee Cantata, 1732 (public domain)

Pendergrast offers a brief history of coffee’s enduring cultural allure, inextricably entangled with controversial politics:

From its original African home, coffee propagation has spread in a girdle around the globe, taking over whole plains and mountainsides between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. In the form of a hot infusion of its ground, roasted seeds, coffee is consumed for its bittersweet bouquet, its mind-racing jump start, and social bonding. At various times it has been prescribed as an aphrodisiac, enema, nerve tonic, and life extender.

[…]

Beginning as a medicinal drink for the elite, coffee became the favored modern stimulant of the blue-collar worker during his break, the gossip starter in middle-class kitchens, the romantic binder for wooing couples, and the sole, bitter companion of the lost soul. Coffeehouses have provided places to plan revolutions, write poetry, do business, and meet friends. The drink became such an intrinsic part of Western culture that it has seeped into an incredible number of popular songs: “You’re the cream in my coffee”; “Let’s have another cup of coffee, let’s have another piece of pie”; “I love coffee, I love tea, I love the java jive and it loves me”; “Black coffee, love’s a hand-me-down brew.”

The modern coffee industry was spawned in late nineteenth-century America during the furiously capitalistic Gilded Age. At the end of the Civil War, Jabez Burns invented the first efficient industrial coffee roaster. The railroad, telegraph, and steamship revolutionized distribution and communication, while newspapers, magazines, and lithography allowed massive advertising campaigns. Moguls tried to corner the coffee market, while Brazilians frantically planted thousands of acres of coffee trees, only to see the price decline catastrophically. A pattern of worldwide boom and bust commenced.

By the early twentieth century, coffee had become a major consumer product, advertised widely throughout the country.

Coffee-house keepers' tokens of the 17th century (public domain)

Drawn for 'All About Coffee' by William H. Ukers, 1922, from the originals in the British Museum, and in the Beaufoy collection at the Guildhall Museum

And yet coffee is as sensitive a crop as its cultural legacy is robust:

Coffee’s quality is first determined by essentials such as type of plant, soil conditions, and growing altitude. It can be ruined at any step along the line. A coffee bean greedily absorbs odors and flavors. Too much moisture produces mold. A too-light roast produces undeveloped, bitter coffee, while over-roasted coffee resembles charcoal. After roasting, the bean stales quickly unless used within a week or so. Boiling or sitting on a hot plate quickly reduces the finest brew to a stale cup of black bile.

Early foreign and American coffee-making devices, 1922 (public domain)

1—English adaptation of French boiler. 2—English coffee biggin. 3—Improved Rumford percolator. 4—Jones's exterior-tube percolator. 5—Parker's steam-fountain coffee maker. 6—Platow's filterer. 7—Brain's Vacuum, or pneumatic filter. 8—Beart's percolator. 9—American coffee biggin. 10—cloth-bag drip pot. 11—Vienna coffee pot. 12—Le Brun's cafetière. 13—Reversible Potsdam cafetière. 14, 15—Gen. Hutchinson's percolator and urn. 16—Etruscan biggin

Pendergrast then points to the quality assessment tools modern coffee experts have developed:

Coffee experts talk about four basic components that blend to create the perfect cup: aroma, body, acidity, and flavor. The aroma is familiar and obvious enough — that fragrance that often promises more than the taste delivers. Body refers to the feel or “weight” of the coffee in the mouth, how it rolls around the tongue and fills the throat on the way down. Acidity refers to a sparkle, a brightness, a tang that adds zest to the cup. Finally, flavor is the evanescent, subtle taste that explodes in the mouth, then lingers as a gustatory memory.

'Some package coffees that advertising has made famous'

From 'All About Coffee,' 1922 (public domain)

Uncommon Grounds goes on to explore such fascinating and often contentious aspects of the coffee ecosystem as the development of mass production, the oppression and displacement of indigenous peoples, the rise of the supermarket, women’s emancipation, and the tactics of branding. Complement it with A Secret History of Coffee, Coca & Cola.

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09 MAY, 2013

Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose: The Science of What Motivates Us, Animated

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“When the profit motive gets unmoored from the purpose motive, bad things happen.”

The question of how to avoid meaningless labor and instead find fulfilling work brimming with a sense of purpose is an enduring but, for many, elusive cultural ideal. Daniel Pink tackles the conundrum in this wonderful animation by the RSA — who have previously sketch-noted such fascinating pieces of cultural psychology as the truth about dishonesty, the power of introverts, where good ideas come from, what’s wrong with the left-brain/right-brain dichotomy, the broken industrial model of education, and how choice limits social change — based on his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (public library).

Pink shares the counterintuitive results of two studies that reveal the inner workings of what influences our behavior — and the half-truth of why money can’t buy us satisfaction:

The best use of money as a motivator is to pay people enough to take the issue of money off the table: Pay people enough so that they’re not thinking about money and they’re thinking about the work. Once you do that, it turns out there are three factors that the science shows lead to better performance, not to mention personal satisfaction: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

In Drive, Pink goes on to illustrate why the traditional carrots-and-sticks paradigm of extrinsic reward and punishment doesn’t work, pointing instead to his trifecta of intrinsic motivators: Autonomy, or the desire to be self-directed; Mastery, or the itch to keep improving at something that’s important to us; and Purpose, the sense that what we do produces something transcendent or serves something meaningful beyond than ourselves.

Also of note is Pink’s TED talk on the subject:

In his follow-up to Drive, Pink dissects the secret of selling your ideas with his signature blend of counterintuitive science and practical psychology. Pair with his insights on how we construct our identity in a material world.

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08 MAY, 2013

Raymond Chandler on Writing

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“The test of a writer is whether you want to read him again years after he should by the rules be dated.”

Last week, while researching this omnibus of what famous authors wrote about their beloved pets in their letters and journals, I came upon the irresistible 1981 anthology Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler (public library). Among Chandler’s many musings, exchanged with his agents, publishers, and literary friends are a number of timeless insights on writing, culled here as a fine addition to this master-list of famous writers’ advice on writing.

In a 1937 letter to the editor of The Fortnightly Intruder, Chandler echoes Virginia Woolf’s case for the evolution of language:

That you should have pride in your purer American heritage of language seems to me a slight thing. Latin became corrupt, but French is a sharper language than Latin ever was. The best writing in English today is done by Americans, but not in any purist tradition. They have roughed the language around as Shakespeare did and done it the violence of melodrama and the press box. They have knocked over tombs and sneered at the dead. Which is as it should be. There are too many dead men and there is too much talk about them.

In a 1948 letter to Hamish Hamilton, Chandler’s English publisher, he revisits the subject:

If I hadn’t grown up on Latin and Greek, I doubt if I would know so well how to draw the very subtle line between what I call a vernacular style and what I should call an illiterate or faux naif style. There’s a hell of a lot of difference, to my mind.

In a vital meditation on defining one’s own success, Chandler admonishes against pursuing prestige rather than authenticity, which for him is a serious creative block:

I can’t seem to get started on doing anything. Always very tough for me to get started. The more things people say about you the more you feel as if you were writing in an examination room, that it didn’t belong to you any more, that you had to protect critical reputations and not let them down. Writers even as cynical as I have to fight the impulse to live up to someone else’s idea of what they are.

In a 1951 letter to his agent, Carl Brandt, Chandler once again shares his creative block but, like Rilke, welcomes the state of creative doubt and uncertainty, which Keats famously called “negative capability”:

I am having a hard time with the book. Have enough paper written to make it complete, but must do all over again. I just didn’t know where I was going and when I got there I saw that I had come to the wrong place. that’s the hell of being the kind of writer who cannot plan anything, but has to make it up as he goes along and then try to make sense out of it. If you gave me the best plot in the world all worked out I could not write it. It would be dead for me.

In March of 1957, at the age of 69 and critically acclaimed, Chandler revisits this state of creative restlessness and uncertainty as a pillar of his identity as a writer:

I am the same man I was when I was a struggling nobody. I feel the same. I know more, it is true, break all the rules and get away with it, but that doesn’t make me important. I may have written the most beautiful American vernacular that has ever been written (some people think I have), but if it is so, I am still a writer trying to find his way through a maze. Should I be anything else? I can’t see it.

In the closing lines of a letter dated May 5, 1939, Chandler offers a meta-observation full of that typical writerly self-awareness bordering on self-consciousness:

And here I am at 2:30 A.M. writing about technique, in spite of a strong conviction that the moment a man begins to talk about technique, that’s proof he is fresh out of ideas.

On October 17, 1939, he comments on the ever-elusive alignment of lucrative and fulfilling work, the disconnect between authentic work and popular taste:

I have never made any money on writing. I work too slowly, throw away too much, and what I write that sells is not at all the sort of thing I really want to write.

In a delightfully curmudgeonly 1944 letter to Charles Morton, editor of The Atlantic Monthly, Chandler casually grumbles that “the civilized intelligence is pretty rare out west” where “very few people … are not half-baked in one way or another,” then delivers his exquisite critique of literary pompousness:

I never really had a great urge to write fiction, which is becoming more and more of a pseudo-art. … But you guys have an obligation … to avoid pompously bad writing and the kind of dullness that comes from letting flatulent asses pontificate about things they know no more about than the next man, if as much. There is a (to me) shocking example of this in the November Harper’s, called “Salute to the Litterateurs.” Consider:

“For writers are people of peculiar sensitivity to the winds of doctrine which blow with especial violence in a time of rapid change — some more so than others, but none, except the outright hacks, completely immune.”

I regard that sentence as a disgrace to English prose. It says nothing and says it ponderously, in a cliched manner, and without syntax.

[…]

Is there anything said here that could not be said better with a simple after-dinner belch?

In another letter to fellow detective novelist Earle Stanley Gardner, dated January 29, 1946, Chandler dives even deeper into his distaste for such writing and shares in Susan Sontag’s sentiments about literary criticism, voicing a concern about popular taste that David Foster Wallace would come to echo some half a century later:

I probably know as much about the essential qualities of good writing as anybody now discussing it. I do not discuss these things professionally for the simple reason that I do not consider it worthwhile. I am not interested in pleasing the intellectuals by writing literary criticism, because literary criticism as an art has in these days too narrow a scope and too limited a public, just as has poetry. I do not believe it is a writer’s function to talk to a dead generation of leisured people who once had time to relish the niceties of critical thought. …. The reading public is intellectually adolescent at best, and it is obvious that what is called “significant literature” will only be sold to this public by exactly the same methods that are used to sell it toothpaste, cathartics and automobiles.

(One can only imagine how the era of Fifty Shades of Grey might stir Chandler’s indignation.)

He then articulates beautifully the essence of a book:

When a book, any sort of book, reaches a certain intensity of artistic performance, it becomes literature. That intensity may be a matter of style, situation, character, emotional tone, or idea, or half a dozen other things. It may also be a perfection of control over the movement of a story similar to the control a great pitcher has over the ball.

And though his opinion of “the public” might appear dismal, Chandler shares in E.B. White’s belief in the responsibility of the writer to “lift people up, not lower them down.” In a 1951 letter, he writes:

My theory has always been that the public will accept style provided you do not call it style either in words or by, as it were, standing off and admiring it. There seems to me to be a vast difference between writing down to the public (something which always flops in the end) and doing what you want to do in a form which the public has learned to accept.

In a March 1947 letter to the editors of Harper’s, Chandler seconds H. P. Lovecraft’s defiance to the distinction between “amateur” and “professional” writers, something all the more timely today in the age of democratized publishing:

There is not much point in all this pseudo-elaborate differentiation between the professional and the amateur. No such difference exists, or ever did.

[…]

All this talk about “pros” is itself sheer amateurism. There is no such thing as professionalism in writing.

In June of 1949, he shares with Hamilton a reflection on literary gimmickry and the secret of great fiction:

To say little and convey much, to break the mood of the scene with some completely irrelevant wisecrack without entirely losing the mood — these small things for me stand in lieu of accomplishment. My theory of fiction writing … is that the objective method has hardly been scratched, that if you know how to use it you can tell more in a paragraph than the probing writers can tell in a chapter.

In September of 1957, approaching his seventieth birthday, in a letter to Helga Greene, Chandler’s last literary agent and subsequent heir, Chandler lists all his gripes about the superficialities of the literary world and concludes with what’s perhaps his most poignant meditation on writing:

I haven’t seen the New Yorker for months, just got tired of it. … But I think I may have become a bit crotchety from loneliness, worry, illness and physical suffering. My ideas of what constitutes good writing are increasingly rebellious. I may even end up echoing Henry Ford’s verdict on history, and saying to unlistening ears: “Literature is bunk.”

[…]

I may satisfy myself with Richard II or a crime novel and tell all the fancy boys to go to hell, all the subtle-subtle ones that they did us a service by exposing the truth that subtlety is only a technique, and a weak technique at that; all the stream-of-consciousness ladies and gents, mostly the former, that you can split a hair fourteen ways from the deuce, but what you’ve got left isn’t even a hair; all the editorial novelists that they should go back to school and stay there until they can make a story come alive with nothing but dialogue and concrete description: oh, we’ll allow them one chapter of set-piece writing per book, even two, but no more; and finally all the clever-clever darlings with the fluty voices that cleverness, like perhaps strawberries, is a perishable commodity. The things that last — or should — I admit they sometimes miss — come from deeper levels of a writer’s being, and the particular form used to frame them has very little to do with their value. The test of a writer is whether you want to read him again years after he should by the rules be dated.

And here we are today, reading Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler. Pair his wisdom with more insights on the written word from Kurt Vonnegut, Susan Sontag, Henry Miller, Stephen King, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Susan Orlean, Ernest Hemingway, and Zadie Smith.

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