Book Report: Coffeeland

Rating: 3 out of 5.

I managed to get through this very dense book by taking breaks for light-hearted magazine reading every couple of days. Coffeeland: One Man’s Dark Empire and the Making of Our Favorite Drug, by Augustine Sedgewick (1920-21). It’s the second of the books I decided to read after they were referred to in This Is Your Mind on Plants. I’m not saying it wasn’t a good book, because it was, but there were so many details that sometimes I got a bit snoozy while reading it.

The book is not a history of coffee, but rather is a history of how the cultivation of coffee shaped the country of El Salvador, as engineered by one coffee planter and his descendants, starting in the late 1800s. James Hill came over from England at a time of much change, and he instigated just that when he emigrated to El Salvador. His descendants, now fully embedded in the upper classes of the country, continue to work toward change.

There’s a LOT more to this book than just a history of one coffee planter and his plantations. There are long digressions on the history of growing coffee, processing coffee, and marketing it. I had no idea how much it had changed, and what other changes to society went along with it (coffee breaks and supermarkets, to name a few).

You also learn a lot about the history of Central America from a much more neutral point of view than you’d get in a US history book. By the time you’ve read about the conditions the Hill family’s worker-people (as he called them) lived and worked in, you can easily see the appeal of Communism when it showed up. And Sedgewick does a great job of laying out the perspectives of the plantation owners, the government (such as it was), and the indigenous people who worked the land.

I guess what I learned the most about, and what was hardest on me to follow, was all sorts of scientific theories of humans and work. You learn how calories originally were measured, how the idea that in order to eat you need to work came about (that’s right, it was not always a given), and how people like James Hill motivated workers by giving them food, but not too much food, so they’d have to keep coming back to earn more food.

There was also a very interesting history of economics, what it originally was and what it came out to be. Yeah, there’s a lot of educational material crammed into 350 pages of Coffeeland. I’m not sure if this was stuff I was dying to learn about or what I had hoped the book would be about, but I think I’m probably a better and more thoughtful world citizen after learning all these things.

A final thing I enjoyed about Coffeeland is that it was told from the perspective of another part of the world, not the US. I enjoyed learning what the priorities were and are in El Salvador, the modern history of that country, and most of all, how events around the world (the Great Depression, World Wars, etc.) affect our commodities and societal norms.

While not everyone who reads this blog will be the right audience for the book, fans of history, science, philosophy and how they all interact, will enjoy it a lot and come out much wiser.

Book Report: A History of the World in 6 Glasses

Rating: 4 out of 5.

You know a book is good when you start repeating things you learn in it to everyone you talk to. This one, A History of the World in 6 Glasses, by Tom Standage (2006), is one of those books, all right. I never would have even heard of it, but it was referred to in This Is Your Mind on Plants, and it sounded so interesting that I ordered it, along with a book on coffee, as soon as I finished Michael Pollan’s book.

They had to work hard to make that cover do what it needed to do.

The fun premise of the 6 Glasses book is to look at how the preferred beverages of humans throughout history (beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and Coca-Cola) affected their health, civilization, and progress. It’s so full of tidbits that I’d never thought of before that it did a GREAT job of relaxing me over the weekend and getting my mind off the rest of my life. Here are a few things I learned (don’t worry there’s LOTS more):

  • Beer was one of the main reasons people stopped being nomadic and started settling down: they needed to store it.
  • Beer, wine, coffee, and tea were important because they had properties that made water safer to drink. Boiling water to make beer, tea and coffee killed germs, and antibacterial properties of wine did the same.
  • The Greeks and Romans thought it barbaric to drink wine straight. It had to be watered down.
  • The first corporate logo to be developed was for Twinings Tea.
  • One reason there were so many sugar cane plantations needed in the New World (and thus the need for so many slaves) was all the English people insisting on sugaring their tea.
  • Oh, so much more, especially about history and how these beverages affected it.
  • Coffee is legal and encouraged because it makes workers more effective and alert.

I really enjoyed reading about all sorts of noble people and their beverage obsessions, but also how even the regular folks had their beverages. People were paid in beer for much of recorded history (THAT helped start writing systems!). There have always been systems to show social standing by what kind of wine or tea you serve and how you serve it.

Standage gives just enough information about each drink to keep you wanting more, without bogging you down in chemistry or complexities, so it’s fun as well as educational. That’s my kind of book!

By the way, I’m not the only one who ordered books after reading This Is Your Mind on Plants. Kathleen ordered two different books that Pollan referred to. He makes you just want to keep reading and reading!

In Coffee I Trust

This morning, I sat down to start my day, and took a sip of the cup of coffee I’d just made. It was plain ole House Blend. I made it in my plebeian Keurig coffee maker, a thing I swore I’d never own one of, until I realized how much coffee I wasted making entire pots that didn’t get finished and how much paper I went through on filters. (I do often empty them out for compost, when I remember.)

Today’s coffee is in one of my favorite mugs, given to me back when the older son considered me his mom.

Anyway, it was plain coffee, with some whole milk and one teaspoon of Anita’s fancy brownish sugar. It was so delicious that I knew I’d make it through the day just fine. That’s the power of good coffee, or in this case, okay coffee.

I have been more of a coffee snob in the past, and truly admire people like my coworkers who buy only beans they know where they came from and grind them carefully in amazingly beautiful grinders, then carefully drip them through leather-wrapped holders for the perfect cup. But, I just want some coffee in the mornings, sometimes flavored (mmm, coconut).

I’m not running out any time soon here in Austin (or in Cameron).

It’s weird how rituals like the drinking of a bitter beverage every morning become traditions in certain cultures, and how they differ from place to place. Sure, caffeine gets many people going (I am okay with or without it). I think we crave the comfort of having something to do every morning that makes you slow down (ha ha and smell the coffee) and have at least a couple of mindful moments before going and doing and thinking and talking. It’s a centering ritual, even though most people who drink morning coffee would never call it that.

Thanks to friends and family, I have a fun collection of mugs. They have no political agenda.

Coffee, I love you. Thanks for being my morning buddy, wherever I go and whatever I’m doing.

Confessions of an Over-confessor

Dudes. The UU Lent word for this first day of a new month is confession. There’s one thing I do enough of already in this blog is confess to my past mistakes, errors, and goof-ups. I don’t share everything, but I hope people can learn from my mistakes and it will be helpful. Confession is good for the blog. Or something like that.

Today I’m going to go the more light-hearted route and do a variation of a meme I’ve been seeing going around on Facebook, where people confess to things they just don’t like, but everybody else seems to love. I think we could all use a break right now, right?

That’s the Master Naturalists’ big Folgers. The other two are what Lee and I drink in the office. I need Folgers bods.

Gourmet coffee. I have tried to be a coffee snob, many, many times. I have owned some darned fancy coffee. But, I really like Folgers. The Black Silk kind is just great. But, any medium roast is fine with me. And I like milk or half and half in it. I fail as an elite in this respect.

Continue reading “Confessions of an Over-confessor”

In Which I Try Poop Coffee*

*We were only calling it poop coffee or butt coffee as we laughed our way through our beverages…

The thing is, I always tell people I’m willing to try any food, at least once. So, when my colleague Chriztine decided she was interested in trying the coffee pictured at right, I (and two other coworkers) just had to say, “Yes.”

What does that mean, “zero contact with the animals?” Well, this is that coffee that’s passed through the digestive tract of the civet cat, which you may have heard of (many people think it goes through monkeys, but no). The sustainable part is important, because the poor little animals were being mistreated to get them to poop out enough beans to meet demand. We didn’t want anything to do with that!

So, according to the story on the bag, this is the nice version of the kipi luwak coffee.
Gimme some coffee. And don’t call me a weasel!

As a naturalist, I feel compelled to let you know that the civet is actually not a cat, and is more closely related to our friends, the mongoose family. I found this out in an article from Singapore, which informed me that “the special taste of these coffee is due to the fermentation process when the civets digest the beans.” MMMMM. Also I learned that this kind of coffee is called “weasel coffee” in Vietnam.

So, did I drink it?

First we spent a long time grinding the beans, during which time coworker Jen frequently reminded us that the roasting process will have killed off any germs or wee beasties living on the coffee. Whew.

You can tell they’re looking forward to this.

And then we poured hot water in and watched it drip. Was it chocolatey like Dipu thought? Were the beans old, like Jen thought? Were we all laughing too loud, like I thought?

Ready to give it a try. Note beautiful staging of coffee-making equipment.

Next, we all had to pose with our cups ready. And then we drank it. Guess what? It tasted very much like a cup of coffee. We didn’t detect any excessive smoothness or other fermentation results.

Yep. That’s coffee, all right.

But, since it was the most expensive cup of coffee any of us had ever imbibed, you can bet we all finished it. (Thanks, Chriztine.) We tried to get more people to drink it, but most flat-out refused, even when I politely stuck the cup under their noses and demanded, “Wanna smell my poop coffee?” So hilarious.

Rob painfully tastes the coffee. The new guy behind him got a good chuckle out of us. He was getting “pod coffee,” as we call the product from that machine (some like it; some don’t).

Rob here tried a tiny bit and said he did NOT like it. That will save him the investment of buying more if he did like it!

The best part of the day was making all the jokes and laughing away some of the work stress. I will say that I’m glad the only coffee I brought home was some medium-roast blends to drink in the mornings at the Bobcat Lair. No more poop coffee.

By the way, we have civets in Texas (ring-tail cats). Wonder what happens when they eat mequite beans?

Weird Beverages! A Change of Pace

I promised I’d write about something less controversial today. And I will. Before I start, I want to share that I took my post about getting to know people unlike myself and wrote a version for real estate investors. It needs to be said there, too, so we can all meet our goals.

Okay. Tea.

My workplace in Austin is a hotbed of foodies and coffee/tea fanatics. That’s given me the chance to try many different beverages through the years. Last week it was both tea and coffee. Tea first.

Chriztine was in town, and while here she checked out one of our many Asian markets. There she found an unfamiliar ball-shaped tea that she didn’t know what it was. So of course, she bought some.

Hey, if you know what this says, let me know. Isn’t the dried lime cool?

It turned out to be tiny dried limes stuffed with black tea. It was a kind she liked. But there were no brewing instructions. The first time, she put the whole ball in hot water, thinking maybe it would bloom or something.

Continue reading “Weird Beverages! A Change of Pace”

Moving Slow

Everyone has those times when even the simplest task becomes a burden. For me, it’s been getting my car inspected to renew my license plates.

First, the dealership forgot to do it when I got its yearly checkup.

Then, when I finally remembered to do it in Cameron, the place that was open didn’t do it, and the place that would do it was closed.

Yesterday I left work early to take care of it in Austin. Turns out Siri thinks a lot more places do inspections than actually do. I went to four places, patiently waiting to be spoken to, only to find out many car repair places don’t have an inspector.

By the time I got to the Lamb’s near my house, I could not wait 1.5 hours.

Today I went back. 1.5 hours again. Fine. I’ll buy myself a nice mug and a snack at the new Starbucks. I’ll live.

Have a smooth day

I do hope your mundane tasks go more smoothly than mine!

PS:

Ha! I was wrong! I clicked “send” on this blog and immediately got the call that the car was done, in only 45 minutes. That was just enough time for a pleasant cup of coffee and blogging. Yay for the Lamb’s on Far West!