Like so many daily comestibles we completely take for granted—salt, sugar, and (far fewer of us) tobacco—coffee has a long and often brutal history. And like many of these substances, it tends to be addictive. But coffee has also inspired a longstanding social tradition that shows no signs of ever going out of fashion. It’s a drug that makes us thinky and chatty and sociable (I for one don’t speak a human language until I’ve had my first cup). It’s these contradictions of coffee history—its complicity in slave economies and the Enlightenment public square—that Mark Pendergrast takes on in his new book Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World. Pendergrast puts it this way:
One of the ironies about coffee is it makes people think. It sort of creates egalitarian places — coffeehouses where people can come together — and so the French Revolution and the American Revolution were planned in coffeehouses. On the other hand, that same coffee that was fueling the French Revolution was also being produced by African slaves who had been taken to Santo Domingo, which we now know as Haiti.
In the interview above with NPR’s “Morning Edition,” Pendergrast explains his interest in coffee history as a way to look at the “relationship between the have-nots and the haves.” His investigation is another foray into the hundreds of years of European colonial history that gave us both massive global inequality and Starbucks on every corner. Listen to the short interview, read Pendergrast’s book, and the next time you get thinky over coffee, you may just think a lot about how coffee shaped the world.
H/T Kim L.
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him @jdmagness