It is horrible to contemplate but there was, in fact, life before
chocolate. And coffee. And tea.
Thankfully, The World of Caffeine by Bennet Alan Weinberg and Bonnie K.
Bealer doesnt linger in the dark age before caffeine became the worlds most
popular legal drug. Their entertaining study traces the exotic origins of
caffeine products and their entrance into European (and later American) daily
life using an interdisciplinary technique that weaves together history, myth,
art, anthropology, religion and trade. The World of Caffeine reveals the
fascination of people around the world when they first discovered the foods and
drinks that we take for granted today.
Case in point, coffee. The authors tap immediately into the bitter
drinks colorful origins with the first line of Chapter One: With every cup of
coffee you drink, you partake of one of the great mysteries of cultural
history. (3) The tantalizing fact is that in ancient times the coffee bush
grew throughout Africa and Arabia, yet there is no evidence that anyone
African, Arabian, Greek or Roman had converted the coffee bean into a drink
before the fifteenth century.
So how was the power of the coffee tree discovered? The most popular
myth takes us back to Ethiopia at an unknown time, and to a goatherd named
Kaldi. The observant man saw that his goats seemed friskier after nibbling on
the red berries of a certain blossoming bush. When he tried the berries
himself, he used the burst of energy to take the beans to an Islamic holy man
who disdainfully tossed them into a fire. The rich fragrance that followed must
have changed the holy mans mind; he recovered the roasted beans and brewed
them with hot water. So was coffee born. As entertaining as the story is,
Weinberg and Bealer found no corroboration for it in early Arabic sources, and
instead lay this myth at the foot of Roman professor Antoine Faustus Nairon,
who wrote an early treatise on coffee in 1671. Despite this and other origin
myths, coffee probably was, the authors write, discovered first in Ethiopia.
The authors admit that no one really knows the reason for the long delay
between coffees discovery in Ethiopia and its spread in the Islamic world and
to Europeans. But once coffee broke out of Sufi religious circles and into
secular life, it brought with it a controversy that resurfaced many times, in
many cultures, for centuries: Is caffeine merely another drug, a potentially
dangerous stimulant that should be treated like alcohol or hashish? Throughout
the book, the World of Caffeine describes the reactions of societies to
caffeine products, but it focuses specifically on the actual health effects
beneficial and negative in its last chapters.
In describing the impact of caffeine on our lives, The World of Caffeine
makes stops around the world: from Sufi monasteries to Cromwells England, from
Buddhist circles in Japan (where it was said that The taste of chan [Zen] and
the taste of cha [tea] are the same.) to the Mexican lowlands before the
arrival of the Maya. Interesting trivia such as the first year that the
chocolate bar was produced -- 1847 in Bristol are sprinkled throughout the
book. Reproductions of engravings, paintings and period advertisements add to
the vividness of the stories.
In all, the World of Caffeine is an impressive achievement and a good
read for all caffeine addicts, whether the drug of choice is chocolate, coffee
© 2003 Anika Scott-Klecker
Anika Scott-Kleckler is a U.S. journalist
and author living in Germany. A former Chicago Tribune staff writer, she now freelances
travel and lifestyle articles for publications and web sites in the U.S. and
Europe. She is also working on a nonfiction book about a famous music
manuscript that disappeared during World War II.