Friday, August 18, 2006

The art of coffee history… or the coffee of art history

Working in my study the other morning, with a mug of hot coffee, I could hear the morning news show chatter from the tv in the den. One of the morning shows’ medical experts was talking about some new study linking heart attacks and coffee drinking.

Coincidentally, on top of the book pile next to me, which I had been cataloging the night before was the following volume: The Saga of Coffee: The Biography of an Economic Product, by Heinrich Eduard Jacob, First English publication 1935 (translation by Eden & Cedar Paul) by George Allen & Unwin Ltd., London. Some coincidences are a bit uncanny, so I took the cue and started digging into the coffee beans.

The German original of this title is Sage und Siegeszug des Kaffees, die Biographie eines weltwirtschaftlichen Stoffes, published by Rowohlt of Berlin in 1934. The American edition was published under the title, Coffee: The Epic of a Commodity.

I found a fascinating history with numerous reproduced antique engravings and sketches that depict coffee culture around the world from the 1700s forward—coffee drinkers, coffee houses, coffee plantations… just about anything coffee. Connoisseurs, aficionados, and fanciers, from drinkers to proprietors, could find something interesting in these pages. How about this: One legend has it that coffee beans were first discovered in goat excrement by herders in Yemen. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen any coffee concoctions or flavors alluding to this fabled origin. No Yemeni Goat Mocha Bean at Starbucks, or any neighborhood coffee house, I don’t think.

From Yemen in medieval times to Brazil in the 20th century, there are some interesting chapters with titles like Islam’s Wine, Napoleon’s Alliance with Chicory, Pleasures of the Ladies of Berlin (not a misprint!), and Reason Becomes Nonsense—Bonfires of Coffee.

But it was the artwork that captured my attention. It gave me an historical overview of coffee’s role in cultures from the Middle East to Europe to South America and places in between. And that is what I wanted to share in this blog entry.

As for the doctor’s report on coffee and heart attacks, I watched a little until I noticed I needed a refill in my mug. I shut off the tv, got another hot round of java, and settled in with the coffee book. Watching too many reports on health studies can give you indigestion.

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