Coffee (2020): Dinah Lenney

★★

Bloomsbury Object Lessons

The first Bloomsbury Object Lessons book I read was High Heel (I’ll post on it soon), and I can’t help feeling that it spoiled me. I’ve since been working my way through other titles in the series and, so far, nothing quite lives up to the poetic blend of history, mythology and social history which High Heel accomplished, and which set my expectations (unreasonably high?) for the rest of the books. Take Coffee, for example. If the aim of this series is to present everyday objects in a new light, informing readers about their place in economic, social or art history, or enlightening us about how they’re made, you’d have thought that coffee was an easy thing to do well. I’m not much of a coffee drinker myself, but my boyfriend is, and I was hoping to find lots of interesting pieces of coffee trivia with which to impress him. Instead, I found myself ploughing through a bizarre stream of consciousness about the author’s life and how she drinks, buys and feels about her own coffee. The few pieces of context that I did pick up were squirrelled away in footnotes, and it’s rather disappointing when the two things you take away from a book about coffee are: a) a recommendation of another book that seems to do what this one should have done; and b) an amusing Jewish joke.

Perhaps I’ve come to this series expecting the wrong thing? Perhaps it isn’t supposed to illuminate the histories, mythologies and contexts of everyday objects? Perhaps it’s just an excuse for the author to write a long essay on a loosely-connected series of themes of their choice? I found Snake (to be published in the autumn; post to come) equally unsatisfying, but I’m beginning to suspect that I may have got the wrong end of the stick. I suppose I was expecting these books to be more like the Very Short Introductions series, but for things rather than historical periods or philosophies.

One review I’ve read of this book noted that the author seems to be overly caffeinated most of the time. I couldn’t have put it better myself. Sentences unspool at length, broken by sudden asides; trains of thought are derailed by unrelated stories. Reading this book feels like going for a coffee (obviously) with someone who’s so excitable that you end up feeling faintly out of breath in sympathy with them, and whose interest in coffee doesn’t extend much beyond the navel-gazing artisanal coffee culture of California. It feels in retrospect as if I’ve spent most of the book in Lenney’s kitchen, listening to her chat expansively about her mother, her family, the machine she uses to make her coffee, the old grinder she used to have, ageing, whether coffee should be drunk with milk or not, whether it’s really possible to taste different flavours as the coffee-nerds claim, and so forth. I learned that there are coffee farms in California, by which growers hope to ‘subvert colonialism’ – though wouldn’t it be even more subversive to make sure that growers in Africa and South America are paid a fair wage to boost their local economies? Lenney takes us to a coffee-tasting, and also tells us that in California you can get coffee beans delivered to your house weekly. I learned that, when you ask someone about the best cup of coffee they’ve ever had, they talk not about the coffee itself but about the setting. (This is true: my boyfriend says the best coffee he ever had was in Rome as a teenager, when the very act of drinking coffee felt incredibly grown-up and luxurious.)

But have these various things enriched my understanding of coffee as an object? Not at all. It might have done more for me if I lived in the USA, but Lenney’s account is full of references and brands which don’t chime with non-Americans. She uses footnotes to hint at topics of interest, but fails to expand on them. Take the various waves of coffee drinking, for instance. Are we on the third or fourth wave now? The initial drinking of coffee per se doesn’t seem to have been a ‘wave’ at all: the first wave is associated with the increased ease and affordability of by instant coffee, thanks to technology for freeze-drying grounds and vacuum-sealed cans. The second wave has happened largely in my lifetime, with the explosion of coffee shops like Costa Coffee (first shop opened in 1978), Pret a Manger (founded 1983) and Starbucks (first UK store in 1998). The third wave is the artisanal trend for different blends and flavours of coffee, and different methods of actually making the drink. We seem to be on this wave at the moment, although in the UK the third wave doesn’t quite go to Californian extremes (unless you’re in Hackney, I suppose). However, since we’re here, I’ll give a well-deserved shout-out to our favourite local coffee-shop, Chapter Coffee in West Kensington. They offer various blends and processing options, roast their coffee on site, sell bags (whole or ground), and do all this without being annoyingly hipster about it. Good job, chaps.

I waited in vain for the history of coffee: not just its origins, which are swiftly dealt with here in the form of rival Ethiopian and Yemeni myths, but the way it became popular across the world. There was nothing here about how its growing popularity in 17th-century Europe was accompanied by continued suspicion of its Muslim origins, to the point that in 1600 Pope Clement VIII had to explicitly approve it as a ‘Christian drink’. Nor did we hear about Europe’s first coffee house, in Venice in 1645 (perhaps accounting for the Italian affinity for coffee ever since). England wasn’t far behind, actually, with a coffee house opening in Oxford in 1652, starting a long tradition of highly-caffeinated scholars. And what about the way that coffee came into Austria on the coat-tails of the Ottoman invasions after 1683, conquering Vienna far more effectively than Turkish forces had ever done? What about the great Viennese grand cafes, with their elaborate social rituals and etiquette, so universally famous that they’ve been listed as Intangible Cultural Heritage? What about the London coffee-houses, which were hotbeds for news, gossip and political agitation? What about the very name of ‘coffee’, which derives via a long sequence of linguistic Chinese whispers from the Arabic ‘qahwah‘, meaning ‘appetite suppressant’? On that note, what about the numerous health risks or benefits that have been connected with coffee over the years? There’s the faintest of nods to that in Lenney’s book, but she doesn’t go much beyond its role (or not) as a diuretic.

This feels like a wonderful opportunity that has been missed in favour of a rambling account of Lenney’s personal feelings about coffee, which never really gets going. In one of her footnotes (remember, this is where the facts are usually to be found), she mentions a book by Mark Pendergrast called Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How it Transformed our World. Unfortunately, it looks like this is the book that I was expecting the Object Lessons book to be. It’s a bit of a disappointment, to be honest. Maybe I should revise my expectations for the other books in the series…

And that Jewish joke? Here you go:

A guy asks a priest, when does life begin? And the priest says: At conception, my son. Then the guy asks a minister, Father, when does life begin? And the minister says: At the moment of birth. To round things out, to be fair, for good measure, the guy approaches a rabbi: Rabbi, when does life begin? he asks. And the rabbi answers: Life begins, my son, when the children leave home and the dog is dead.

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I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review

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