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Uncommon Grounds: How Coffee Changed the World

“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.

Open Culture

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

“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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David Foster Wallace’s Timeless Graduation Speech on the Meaning of Life, Adapted in a Short Film

“The real value of a real education … has almost nothing to do with knowledge and everything to do with simple awareness.”

On May 21, 2005, David Foster Wallace got up before the graduating class of Kenyon college and delivered one of history’s most memorable commencement addresses. It wasn’t until Wallace’s death in 2008 that the speech took on a life of its own under the title This Is Water, and was even adapted into a short book. Now, the fine folks of The Glossary have remixed an abridged version of Wallace’s original audio with a sequence of aptly chosen images to give one pause:

UPDATE: The David Foster Wallace Literary Trust exemplifies everything that’s wrong with copyright law. What a shame, this travesty of cultural legacy.

The most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude. But the fact is that, in the day-to-day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life-or-death importance.

Hear the full speech in its sublime entirety, along with transcript and highlights, here, then wash it down with Wallace on ambition and why writers write.

Thanks, Matt

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