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By Stewart Lee Allen
Published by Soho Press on 2018-11-13
TRAVEL, COOKING, SCIENCE
“Absolutely riveting . . . Essential reading for foodies, java-junkies, anthropologists, and anyone else interested in funny, sardonically told adventure stories.”
—Anthony Bourdain, author of Kitchen Confidential
Full of humor and historical insights, The Devil’s Cup is not only ahistory of coffee, but a travelogue of a risk-taking brew-seeker.
In this captivating book, Stewart Lee Allen treks three-quarters of the way around the world on a caffeinated quest to answer these profound questions: Did the advent of coffee give birth to an enlightened western civilization? Is coffee the substance that drives history? From the cliffhanging villages of Southern Yemen, where coffee beans were first cultivated eight hundred years ago, to a cavernous coffeehouse in Calcutta, the drinking spot for two of India’s Nobel Prize winners . . . from Parisian salons and cafés where the French Revolution was born, to the roadside diners and chain restaurants of the good ol’ USA, where something resembling brown water passes for coffee, Allen wittily proves that the world was wired long before the Internet. And those who deny the power of coffee (namely tea drinkers) do so at their own peril.
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? S C U P
? s C u p S T E W A R T L E E A L L E N A History of the World According to Coffee
Copyright ? 1999 by Stewart Lee Allen By agreement with Felicia Eth Literary Representation All rights reserved. Published by Soho Press, Inc. 853 Broadway New York, NY 10003 Allen, Stewart Lee The devil's cup; a history of the world according to coffee/ Stewart Lee Allen ISBN 978-1-64129-010-4 eISBN 978-1-61695-027-9 1. Coffee. I. Title. TX415.A45 1999 99-39137 641.3'373'dc21 Printed in the United States of America 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
To my Mother
? S C U P
Introduction: The First Cup 1 A Season in Hell 5 Ethiopian Prayer 21 Sailing to al-Makkha 35 An Evil Sister 47 Java 61 Monkey Droppings 67 Mother Calcutta 81 The Man in the Red Hat 91 War 107 The Revolution 123 Paris 137 The Sultan's Earache 151 At Sea 161 Africa in Chains 171 Preto Velho 185 Officer Hoppe 195 White-Trash Cocaine 211
As with art 'tis prepared, so you should drink it with art. Abd el Kader (sixteenth century) Nairobi, Kenya 1988 'Ethiopia is the best.' Bill's eyes brightened. 'Finest Grub in Africa, mate. And those Ethiopian girls . . .' 'No girls,' I said. Bill Allfrey, a Cockney plumber I'd met hitchhiking through the Congo, was obsessed with finding me a girl but lacked discretion; his last bit of matchmaking had ended with me fending off a Kenyan hooker twice my size who'd kept shouting, 'I am just ready for love!' 'No girls,' I repeated, shuddering at the memory. 'You don't have to bonk them.' Mr. Allfrey gave me his most charming leer. 'But you'll want to.' 'I doubt it.' 'And the coffee . . .' My ears perked up. 'Best buna in the world, mate.' So it was settled. We were off to Ethiopia for a cup of coffee. Buses were a bit of a rarity in northern Kenya, so we hitched a ride in the back of an open truck loaded with soda pop. It was a desolate trip, twenty hours of sun-blackened rock and pale weeds. The main indication of human habitation was the machine-gun-riddled bus
| S t e w a r t L e e A l l e n wrecks abandoned on the roadside. About seven hours into the trip, we passed a truck whose offer of a ride we had earlier declined. Its axle had shattered on the unpaved road, flipping the vehicle over and killing the driver and half the passengers. Those who had survived, all seven-foot-tall Masai warriors with traditional red robes and elongated earlobes, were standing about, weeping and shaking their spears at the sky. One of them lay crushed to death under a pile of shattered Pepsi bottles. When we arrived at Ethiopia, the border was closed. The sole guard was friendly but adamant'no foreigners allowed into Ethiopia. Bill clarified our position. We didn't want to go into Ethiopia, he explained. We only wanted to visit the village of Moyale, half of which just happened to located in Ethiopia. Surely that was allowed? The guard considered, and after a lengthy discussion, he agreed that seemed fair enough as long as we were back by nightfall. Ethiopians were drinking coffee long before the rest of the world and have a ceremony for sharing the brew. First, green beans are roasted at the table. The hostess then passes the still-smoking beans around so each guest can inhale the aroma. An ode to the moment is offered, and the beans are ground in a stone mortar and brewed. You must take three cups, Abole-Berke-Sostga, for friendship and prosperity. That was how the restaurant owner prepared our coffee that day, and while I've experienced the ceremony many times since, it has never seemed so lovely. She was a typical Ethiopian country woman, supernaturally tall, stunningly elegant, and unnervingly beautiful. And the coffee served in her little hut was charred but excellent. However, she only had enough beans for one cup, and so we agreed to come back and finish the ceremony the next day. But when we tried to re-enter Moyale, the new guards refused to let us across the border.
? s C u p | 3 That was the beginning of my fascination with coffee. Not so much the drink'which I consume religiously, of course'but its meaning: its attendant ceremonies, religious and secular, and how it shapes our mind. I do not consider coffee merely a 'beverage? (a wretchedly anodyne term). It is a mind-altering substance, perhaps the world's most widely domesticated, and is really a recreational entheogen whose popularity has changed human society. Now, there is certainly no shortage of books claiming some quotidian commodity changed the world. But these titles are a bit misleading to my mind, because what 'changed the world? was in fact a desire for the object, not the object itself. Humanity's insatiable greed, in other words. Coffee, which is the second most traded commodity in history, is another matter. It directly affects the human mind and nervous system. Mildly, to be sure, but when a substance like that is introduced into the social body as rapidly and in such huge quantities, the potential ramifications are immense. This was obvious to European scholars when it showed up in the 17th century. 'For this sparkling outburst of creative thought,' wrote famed historian Jules Michelet of the French Revolution and the rise of human liberty, 'there is no doubt that the honor should be ascribed in part to the great event which created new customs and even changed the human temperament'the advent of coffee.' How French to attribute the Age of Enlightenment to an espresso. But Michelet was not alone. His contemporaries in England attributed the decline of monarchial rule and the rise of democracy to the influence of coffee. Coffeehouses were considered to be such hotbeds of revolutionary thought that rulers from Turkey to England outlawed them, sometimes on pain of death. This focus on Europe, by the way, does not derive from a Eurocentric world view (well, perhaps a little), but from the fact that
| S t e w a r t L e e A l l e n its inhabitants were then addicted to coffee's polar opposite, the depressant alcohol. The average European was consuming at least two six-packs of beer a day, starting at breakfast and continuing through lunch and after that until they passed out. This quickly changed once the Continent's first caf? opened around 1650; within 50 years, there were over 2,000 in London alone. Within a century, most Europeans, particularly its elite, had replaced beer at breakfast with coffee. Europeans, alongside Americans, now consume some 10 billion pounds a year. Never has a society so quickly and entirely switched from a dietary regime based around an intoxicating depressant to one embracing a stimulant. So the impact of coffee's arrival (along with tea and other forms of caffeine) was particularly noticeable there, for better or worse. I knew nothing of this when I read Michelet's intriguing comments, and I certainly had no idea that they would lead me on a quest around the world via train, dhow, tuk-tuk, freighter or, finally, donkey. I only knew it was time for me to head back to Ethiopia and get that second cup. Stewart Lee Allen, 2018
Abole, Berke, Sostga'one, two, three cups, and we are friends forever. Con artist in Addis Ababa Harrar, Ethiopia 'You like ram-bo'? My questioner was a wiry Arab-African squatting in the shade of a white clay wall. Sharp eyes, wispy mustache, white turban. Not your typical Sylvester Stallone fan. 'Rambo'? I repeated uncertainly. He nodded. 'Ram-bo.' He adjusted his filthy wraparound so the hem didn't drag in the dirt. 'Ram-bo,' he repeated with infinite disinterest. 'Farangi.' 'Are you really a Rambo fan'? I was surprised'Charles Bronson had been more popular in Calcutta. I flexed my biceps to clarify. 'You like'? The man looked at me in disgust. 'Ram-bo,' he insisted. 'Ramboo, Ram-boooo. You go? You like'? 'No go,' I said, walking off. 'No like.' I'd just arrived in Harrar, a remote village in the Ethiopian highlands, after a grueling twenty-four hour train journey from the capital, Addis Ababa. I already preferred Harrar. Its winding alleys were free of both cars and thieves, a big improvement over
| S t e w a r t L e e A l l e n Addis, where pickpockets followed me like flies and my one night out had ended in an attempted robbery after a 'friendship coffee ceremony.' I also liked Harrar's Arabic flavor, the whitewashed mud buildings, and the colorful gypsy-African clothes worn by the girls. Rambo Man had been the only hus'tler so far, and he seemed reasonable enough. I found a suitable caf? and grabbed a table in the shade. The coffee, brewed on an old hand-pulled espresso machine, was a thick black liquor served in a shot glass. The taste was shocking in the intensity of its 'coffeeness,' a trait I attributed to minor burns incurred in the pan-roasting technique common in Ethiopia. Harrarian coffee beans are among the world's finest, second only to Jamaican and Yemeni, but this . . . I suspected local beans had been mixed with smuggled Zairean Robusta, which would account for the fine head of crema (called wesh here), as well as the fact that after one cup I felt like crawling out of my skin. I ordered a second. Rambo Man had come to stare at me from across the road. Our eyes met. He shrugged his shoulders and raised his hands suggestively. I scowled. Harrar is one of the legendary cities of African antiquity. It was closed to foreigners for centuries because an Islamic saint had prophesied its fall the day a non-Muslim entered the walls. Christians who attempted to enter were beheaded; African mer'chants were merely locked outside and left to the tender mer'cies of local lion packs. Not that inside was much better. Hyenas roamed the streets, noshing on the homeless. Witchcraft and slavery flourished, particularly the notorious selling of black eunuchs to Turkish harems. By the 1800s, the walled city had become so isolated that a separate language had developed. It is still spoken today. This reputation drew Europe's most intrepid adventurers to Harrar. Many tried, many died, until Sir Richard Burton, the
? s C u p | 7 Eng'lishman who 'discovered? the source of the Nile, managed to enter the city in 1855 disguised as an Arab. It fell soon afterward. The most intriguing of Harrar's early Western visitors, how? ever, was the French Symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud. Rimbaud had come to Paris when he was seventeen. After a year of pur'suing his famous 'derangement of the senses? lifestyle, he'd established a reputation as the most depraved man in the city. By nineteen, he'd finished his masterpiece, A Season in Hell. Having reached his twentieth year, he renounced all poetry and disap'peared off the face of the earth. Rimbaud . . . 'Rambo!' I shouted, jumping out of my chair. That's what the fellow had been going on about'Rimbaud, pronounced 'Rambo.' He'd wanted to take me to Rimbaud's mansion. The poet had not 'disappeared off the face of the earth? when he'd abandoned poetry in 1870. He'd merely come to his senses and become a coffee merchant in Harrar. Rambo Man, however, had vanished. Rimbaud's reason for coming to Ethiopia was more compli'cated than a desire to enter the coffee trade. He was actually ful'filling a passage from A Season in Hell, in which he predicted going to a land 'of lost climates? from which he would return 'with limbs of iron, bronzed skin, and fierce eyes.' He wanted action, danger, and money. He got at least the first two in Harrar. The emir had been deposed only twenty years earlier, and ten'sions were still high. The French coffee merchants needed some'one crazy enough to risk his life for a bean (albeit one going for one hundred dollars a pound). Rimbaud was their man. The importance of the Harrar Longberry, however, goes beyond the fragrant cup it produces. Many believe it is here that the lowly Robusta bean evolved into the civilized Arabica, potentially making the Harrar Longberry the missing link of the genus
| S t e w a r t L e e A l l e n Coffea. To understand the importance of this you must first know that there are two basic species of coffee beans: the luscious Arabica from East Africa, which prefers higher eleva'tions, and the reviled Robusta from Zaire, which grows just about anywhere. That being understood, we must now go back to that myste? rious time before the dawn of civilization, the Precaffeinated Era. Back then, fifteen hundred to three thousand years ago, the world's first coffee lovers, the nomadic Oromos, lived in the kingdom of Kefa.1 The Oromos didn't actually drink coffee; they ate it, crushed, mixed with fat, and shaped into golf-ball-size treats. They were especially fond of munching on these coffee-balls before going into battle against the people of Bonga, who generally beat the pants off the Oromos. The Bongas also happened to be firstrate slave traders, and sent about seven thousand slaves each year to the Arabic markets in Harrar. A fair number of these unfortunates were Oromos coffee chewers who had been captured in battle. It was these people who acci'dentally first brought the bean to Harrar. Ethiopian rangers say the old slave trails are still shaded by the coffee trees that have grown from their discarded meals. But the important thing is the difference between the regions? plants. Beans from relatively low-lying Kefa grow in huge coffee jungles and are generally more akin to the squat, harsh Robustas that probably came out of the jungles of Zaire thousands of years 1 Kefa, some say, is the root for the word coffee. More contend that coffee derives from the Arabic qahwa, from the root q-h-w-y, 'to 'make something repugnant.' Qahwa originally referred to wine, which made food repugnant, and was applied to coffee because it made sleep repugnant. It's inter'esting to note that Ethiopia is the only country in the world that does not use a word similar to cof'fee for the brew; there, it's called buna, which means bean. The Kefans also gave us the world's first baristas, a caste called the Tofaco, who not only brewed the king's coffee but also poured it down his throat.
? s C u p | 9 before. Harrar's beans, by contrast, are long-bodied and possess delicious personalities like the Arabicas. In adapting to Harrar's higher altitude, something wonderful seems to have happened to them. No one knows what, but we should all be grateful that it was the evolved Arabica beans of Harrar that were later brought to Yemen, and then to the world at large. So Rimbaud's risking his life for the bean (in fact, it killed him) is perhaps not so unreasonable. It's worth noting, howev'er, that the poet/merchant did not seem to hold Harrar's coffee in high regard. 'Horrible? is how he describes it in one letter; 'awful stuff? and 'disgusting.' Oh well. Perhaps all those years of absinthe had dulled his taste buds. The fact that the locals were fond of selling him beans laced with goat shit probably didn't help matters. After a few more cups, I checked into a hotel and set out in search of Rimbaud's home. Harrar is a small place of about twenty thousand inhabitants; a maze of alleys lined with lop'sided mosques, mud huts. It is noticeably lacking in street names. Rimbaud's house is probably the easiest thing to find in the city, since any foreigner who approaches is mobbed by wannabe tour guides. I had no intention of paying anybody for guiding me to a house, and eventually, by taking the most obscure route imaginable, I managed to reach what I knew was Rimbaud's neighborhood undetected, only to find myself in a dead-end alley. There was nobody in sight, so I yelled a cautious hello. 'Here,' came a familiar voice. I crawled through a jagged crack in one of the walls, and there, squatting on a pile of rubble, was Rambo Man. 'Aha!' he shouted. 'You have come at last.' He was sitting in front of one of the oddest houses I'd ever seen. At least it seemed so in the context of Harrar's one-story mud huts. It was three stories high with twin peaked gables, all