Fourth Estate, 2004

Antony Wild’s Coffee: A Dark History

One of the coolest bits of Antony Wild’s work is waiting for readers in the appendix: The Find at Kush.

And what is it? Well, this is non-fiction, right? So it’s hardly a spoiler to say that they found two carbonized coffee beans in an archaeological dig at Kush in the United Arab Emirates.

And these two tiny beans? They have the potential to rewrite the history of coffee.

But there they were. And how did they get there?

Well, first, consider the oddity of it. If there had been any organic matter left in them, they wouldn’t even have been there.

But these two beans had fallen into a fire; they’d been charred to a cinder, and that carbonized matter was separated by a “new palaeobotanical flotation machine” (doesn’t that sound like fiction?!) and they were identified as Coffea Arabica.

And what does that mean? Well, it’s the first concrete evidence of the existence of coffee in the early 1100’s, which is 350 years before the evidence that suggests ritual use of it amongst Sufis.

It also reveals that the coffee was roasted (yum, right?).

And this type of bean came from Yeman, so the discovery shows that the industry there was in existence much earlier than previously suspected.

And it means that the usage and trade was common enough to allow for the freakish inclusion of these two beans in this dig,

In short? Humans have been hooked on coffee to a degree and extent that’s much more dramatic than was once thought.

And that’s why I picked up Antony Wild’s book. Because I am one of those hooked on the bevvie brewed from these beans.

Random House, 2006

Don’t be fooled by the subtitle; this is not a grim and disheartening tale.

The author has made the decision not to annotate his text (although there is an index and a list of suggestions for further reading) and it reads quite comfortably.

What is not comfortable, however, is the reality that this industry is rooted in slavery. Not only historically, but in our own times.

As such, this work is likely to have a similar effect as reading Carol Off’s Bitter Chocolate has; you cannot read it and feel the same way about what you consume.

Like the chocolate question, however, this is not a situation that cannot be remedied; every time you buy a cup of it brewed, every time you buy beans to brew at home, you can put your dollars to work.

There are alternatives. Just Say No to Slavery? Sounds flippant, but what’s even more shocking is how often we, as consumers, say yes to it. And, also, how often greenwashing makes us think we’re saying no to the right hand while the left hand is snapping the manacle closed.

Speaking of manacles, there is a really effective image in the photographs, of an iron box fashioned from the ball that was once attached to the ankle chains of a slave, with the image of a man on bent-knee, fettered by chains, with “HUMANITY” running beneath.

That’s the one thing that would have added substantially to this work: more imagery. And, I have to say, I do appreciate the readability, but I like knowing that I can flip to the endnotes to see the source for particular statistics.

But it’s a compelling work all the same. And, yes, I read it with a cup of coffee at hand. (The Atwood Blend.)

And even though I was recently foiled in my attempts to ship a portion of these beans across the border, I have since learned that it was because I was shipping a partial bag; whole and sealed bags can be ordered and shipped to the U.S. direct from the roasters without a hassle at the border. Follow the link above if you’re loving that idea!

Running Press, 2005

Rory Freedman’s and Kim Barnouin’s Skinny Bitch

Admittedly, I went into reading this expecting to be irked.

I heard an interview with the writers who, — although clearly influenced by some of the same concerns and issues that I have with the weight-loss industry, and aware of the particular pressures that women in this society face in relationship to body image — managed to offend me countless times in the course of 30-someodd minutes.

But I’m a firm believer in reading the book if you’re planning to dis it. So off I read.

And I’m a convert.

I’m not a skinny bitch. But they actually don’t advocate that either.

Mind you, you have to get to the second-last chapter to hear them say that.

It’s a marketing strategy, they say, the whole Skinny Bitch thing.

(Sure, I could complain about that, but that’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fishiness that these women didn’t create, and I can’t marvel at the “Unleash Your Fingers” ad in one breath and then bitch about advertising in the next.)

The actual advice they give along those lines is inarguable: being mean makes you ugly, no matter how pretty (or skinny) you might be on the outside.

(And these two women have both worked in the modelling industry, so I’m guessing they’ve seen their share of pretty faces and ugly behaviour.)

So, even as a convert, there a couple of things that niggle me about the tone, but at the end of it all, I’m prepared to admit that I might be confusing style with substance, as I was with the whole Skinny Bitch thing.

What they are actually advocating is pretty straightforward. “Use your head, lose your ass.”

And they are talking about making lifelong changes, not trying to wriggle into a wedding gown or a holiday dress. That works for me.

In making their suggestions, they have annotated the crap out of their book (more notes than there are pages in the book), and it’s clearly written, well-organized, and direct.

It might be too direct for some readers. For instance, addiction is discussed in several instances, the way in which our bodies physiologically adjust to reward us for eating certain foods. Addiction to sugar and coffee, for instance.

They explain succinctly why coffee messes with your system and the surprising ways in which your digestive and elimination systems are affected when you drink too much of it. That’s direct, in a good way.

But where it might get too direct for some readers? “P.S. It also makes your breath smell like ass.”

Well, I don’t think I’d say it like that in a million years myself. But, when I think about it, it’s true.

Roasted by Balzac’s, TO

I love coffee; I’m going to continue drinking it (even despite the fact that I can see the rational arguments for not drinking it, or not drinking so much of it, anyway). But I have to admit it: that postscript is true.

So maybe it is too direct. But maybe I just don’t like hearing it.

When I take a step back (and particularly when I read the final chapter in which they confess that they aren’t perfect and they, too, eat/drink things that they know they shouldn’t), I can see it.

And even if I’m not going to give up coffee right now, Skinny Bitch has got me thinking about some habits that I can change.

And, maybe if I can change those, I can think about the coffee thing. (It’s only a single, relatively simple, component in the overall arc of the changes they advocate making.)

I have to admit, the photographs of the way that caffeine affects a spider’s ability to weave a web (in Antony Wild’s book) do haunt me a little.

For now I’m going to dismiss that, and tell myself that I have only two legs to worry about, so the coffee isn’t such a big deal.

But I”m not going to dismiss Skinny Bitch; beyond the marketing campaign, it’s a book that made me think.

What’s in your mug in the mornings? Are you happy with the way it makes you smell? With the way you spin your webs after drinking it?

PS Both of these count towards the 2011 Foodie Reading Challenge.