UNCOMMON GROUNDS: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World

UNCOMMON GROUNDS: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World

Justine A. Kwiatkowski

By Mark Pendergrast. Basic. 522 pp.$30

Read Time:
1m 45sec

Murad IV banned it for fear that it made subjects disloyal, while King Charles II complained that British coffeehouses were breeding "false, malicious, and scandalous reports." Two books—an encyclopedic volume by Pendergrast and a playful romp by Allen—suggest that Murad and Charles were right about coffee’s potency. With only a little facetiousness, the authors assert that coffee brought about the French Revolution, the poverty of Latin America, and most everything in between. They muster a surprisingly compelling case for their overcaffeinated thesis.

Pendergrast, author of For God, Country and Coca-Cola (1994), recounts the story from the berry to the last drop. Folklore has it that an Ethiopian goatherd named Kaldi discovered coffee sometime before the sixth century a.d., when his animals "danced" after nibbling the red berries. By the 16th century, the bean had conquered Turkey, where "a lack of sufficient coffee provided grounds for a woman to seek divorce." In the succeeding two centuries, coffee replaced beer as the drink of choice in Europe. Wired Frenchmen started getting revolutionary ideas; contented beer drinkers, Pendergrast suggests, would never have stormed the Bastille.

The author is especially detailed in mapping coffee’s role in the United States. Competition among coffee roasters, he shows, spurred innovations in advertising, shipping, and technology, from brand-name recognition to vacuum-packed bags, which then found applications in other industries. Developments in coffee also paralleled societal shifts. Coffeehouses spread during the 1920s,

Written in the style of a travel journal, The Devil’s Cup tells as much about the author’s adventures as about coffee. Most of his time is spent in the Old World, where he sometimes manipulates or overstates for the sake of entertainment: "The entirety of 20th-century philosophy is simply the result of penny-pinching Parisians [in cafés] falling prey to a dementia born of boredom, caffeine, and pomposity." Amusing at first, the self-conscious cleverness ultimately wears thin. Uncommon Grounds provides a more full-flavored account of how the coffee bean has changed the world.

—Justine A. Kwiatkowski


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