Author of Uncommon Grounds:
The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World
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In this captivating book, Stewart Lee Allen treks three-quarters of the way around the world on a caffeinated quest to answer these profound questions: Did the advent of coffee give birth to an enlightened western civilization? Is coffee, indeed, the substance that drives history? From the cliffhanging villages of Southern Yemen, where coffee beans were first cultivated eight hundred years ago, to a cavernous coffeehouse in Calcutta, the drinking spot for two of India’s three Nobel Prize winners . . . from Parisian salons and cafés where the French Revolution was born, to the roadside diners and chain restaurants of the good ol’ U.S.A., where something resembling brown water passes for coffee, Allen wittily proves that the world was wired long before the Internet. And those who deny the power of coffee (namely tea-drinkers) do so at their own peril.
Introduction: The First Cup
As with art ’tis prepared, so you should drink it with art. Abd el Kader (sixteenth century) Nairobi, Kenya 1988
“ethiopia is the best.’’ bill’s eyes brightened. “finest grub in Africa, mate. And those Ethiopian girls
“No girls,’’ I said. Bill, a Cockney plumber/Buddhist monk, was obsessed with finding me a girl but lacked discretion; his last bit of matchmaking had ended with me fending off a Kenyan hooker, twice my size, who’d kept shouting, “I am just ready for love!
“No girls,’’ I repeated, shuddering at the memory. “Don’t even think about it.
“You don’t have to bonk them.’’ He gave me his most charming leer. “But you’ll want to.
“I sincerely doubt it.
“And the buna, ahhh! Best buna in the world.
“Buna? What’s that?
“Coffee,’’ he said. “Ethiopia’s where it came from.
So it was settled. We were off to Ethiopia for lunch. Buses are rare here in northern Kenya, so we hitched a ride in the back of a rickety “Tata truck loaded with soda pop. It was a desolate trip, twenty hours of sun-blackened rock and pale weeds. The main indication of human habitation was the machine-gun- riddled buses abandoned on the roadside. We were not particularly worried about bandits (there were two armed guards on our vehicle), but about seven hours into the trip we passed a truck whose offer of a ride we had earlier declined. Its axle had been snapped in two by the unpaved road, flipping the vehicle over and killing the driver and half the passengers. Those who had survived, all seven-foot-tall Masai warriors, with traditional red robes and elongated earlobes, were standing about weeping, and shaking their spears at the sky. One of the Masai lay crushed to death under a pile of shattered Pepsi bottles.
When we arrived at Ethiopia, the border was closed. The sole guard was friendly but adamant—no foreigners allowed into Ethiopia. Bill clarified our position. We didn’t want to go into Ethiopia, he explained. We only wanted to visit the village of Moyale, half of which just happened to be in Ethiopia. Surely, Bill reasoned, that was allowed?
The guard considered. It was true, he said, foreigners were allowed to visit Moyale for the day. Then he wagged his head: but not on Sunday. Ethiopia, he reminded us, is a Christian nation.
Bill tried another approach. Was there an Ethiopian Tourist Guesthouse in Moyale? he asked. Of course, said the soldier. Did we wish to visit it?
“Owwww,’’ said Bill, giving the Ethiopian language’s breathy affirmative.
“No problem,’’ said the guard. “Go straight ahead and just left.
The government hotels are always overpriced, so we located a local restaurant—a shack, to be exact, with dirt floors and a dry grass roof. The food was excellent: doro wat (spicy chicken stew with rancid butter), injera (fermented crepes), and tej (honey mead). Then came coffee.
Ethiopians were drinking coffee while Europeans were still taking beer for breakfast, and over the centuries a ceremony has developed around sharing the brew. First, green beans are roasted at the table. The hostess then passes the still-smoking beans around so each guest may fully enjoy the aroma. A quasi-blessing or ode to friendship is offered, and the beans are ground in a stone mortar, then brewed.
That was how the restaurant owner prepared our coffee that day and, while I’ve had it performed many times since, never has it seemed so lovely. She was a typical Ethiopian country woman, tall, elegant, and stunningly beautiful, wearing orange and violet wraps that glowed in the darkened hut. And the coffee, served in handleless demitasses with a fresh sprig of ginger-like herb, was excellent.
In the full-fledged ceremony, which can last up to an hour, you must take three cups: Abole-Berke-Sostga, one-two-three, for friendship. Unfortunately, our hostess had only enough beans for one cup each. Come back tomorrow, she said, there will be more. Evening curfew was approaching, so we hurried back to the Kenyan side of the border. The next day, however, the guards refused to let us back into Ethiopia. We stood arguing at the border for hours, but nothing, neither reasoning nor bribes, convinced them to let us back in for that promised second cup.
During the next ten years Ethiopia fell to pieces. Millions died in famines, civil war broke out, and eventually the country split in two. My life was hardly better run. I lived on four continents and in eleven cities, sometimes moving five times in a single year. The only thing that made it bearable was the knowledge that at the age of thirty-five I would drop everything and return to the road—“go for a walk,’’ as I was fond of saying, never to return. Consider it a passive-aggressive death wish. If I were a wannabe Buddhist, I could have claimed it was a desire for “Loss of Self.’’ Whatever. Instead, I accidentally fell in love (another type of death wish) and headed to Australia to get married, an ill-fated scheme that, by means too complicated to explain, ended with me working at Mother Theresa’s Calcutta hospice for the dying.
Calcutta is the world’s greatest city, and I’ll tell you why: unendurable suffering, arrogance, benevolence, intelligence, and greed thrive side-by-side, face-to-face, twenty-four hours a day, with no apology. On one bus ride I watched a woman fall dead of starvation, while across the street children in immaculate white school uniforms shrieked with pleasure over a game of croquet; two blocks earlier I’d seen a woman immersed up to her neck in a muddy pond, intently praying to the sun.
It’s also a bibliophile’s delight, and it was here, while prowling the city’s innumerable bookstalls, that I discovered a curious manuscript. The print was almost illegible, and the prose the quaintly archaic, singsong English of the subcontinent. I have no idea what it was called, since the cover had long ago rotted off. I suppose it was typical stuff, just another half-crazed Hindi rant about how dietary imbalances in the West were creating a race of hyperactive sociopaths hell-bent on destroying Mother Earth. Most of the tract kvetched about meat eaters (Hindus are vegetarians) and cow killers (Holy Beast, that). But the section that caught my eye was the one lamenting the evils of “that dark and evil bean from Africa.’’ I paraphrase:
Is it any wonder, I ask the reader, that it is told how the black-skinned savages of that continent eat the coffee bean before sacrificing living victims to their gods? One need only compare the violent coffee-drinking societies of the West to the peace-loving tea drinkers of the Orient to realize the pernicious and malignant effect that bitter brew has upon the human soul.
You-are-what-you-eat fruitcakes are as common in India as in California. But what struck me was the contrast to an eighteenth-century French book I’d happened upon in Hanoi, Vietnam. The book, Mon Journal, was written by social critic and historian Jules Michelet, and in it he essentially attributes the birth of an enlightened Western civilization to Europe’s transformation into a coffee-drinking society: “For this sparkling outburst of creative thought there is no doubt that the honor should be ascribed in part to the great event which created new customs and even changed the human temperament—the advent of coffee.
How French, I’d thought at the time, to attribute the birth of Western civilization to an espresso. But Michelet’s notion is curiously similar to modern research indicating that certain foods have affected history in previously unsuspected ways. Specialists in the field, called ethnobotany, have recently theorized that eating certain mushrooms can alter brain function. Others have reported that the sacred jaguars depicted by the Mayans are actually frogs that the priests consumed en masse for their hallucinogenic properties. Recent research has indicated that the sacred violet of the pharaohs was considered holy because of its intoxicating powers. These foods are all drugs, of course. But so is coffee—as an addict, I should know. Perhaps Michelet had been on to something. When had Europeans started drinking coffee, and what had it replaced? I was clueless. I certainly had no idea that finding the answer would take me three quarters of the way around the world, roughly twenty thousand miles, by train, dhow, rickshaw, cargo freighter, and, finally, a donkey. Even now, penning this page, I don’t know what to make of what I’ve written. At times, it seems like the ramblings of a hypercaffeinated hophead; at others, a completely credible study. All I knew in Calcutta was that the logical place to start looking for confirmation of Michelet’s proposition was in the land where coffee had first been discovered over two thousand years ago, the country I’d been waiting to revisit for a decade.
It was time to head to Ethiopia and get that second cup.
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