Print Reviews
Coffee: A Dark History
by Anthony Wild
W. W. Norton (2005)
Coffee: A Dark History
7 / 10
Coffee – I adore coffee, my basest desire, my chemical muse. Get me a single-origin Costa Rican brew and a drop of Skim and I will be more productive than a four-armed robot on meth. I adore coffee.

I want to swim naked in a giant vat of it.

There is a book out there for nuts like me – Coffee: A Dark History, by Anthony Wild – to fulfill our need to comprehend the drink in all possible ways. Coffee lies in a long line of food-history genre books (Salt: A World History, Chocolate: A Bittersweet Saga of Dark and Light, etc.), and even attempts expose, a la Fast Food Nation. While not exactly original, or in any way profound, Coffee hits the spot – yes, you guessed it – like a strong 20oz. Breakfast Blend in the AM hours.

The history traces coffee back – way back – to its uses in ancient Ethiopian “blood-brotherhood” ceremonies, and ultimately ends in the multi-billion dollar world coffee trade. In between lies a series of flashpoints and vignettes: the introduction of coffee in Turkey; the American Revolution; Napoleon’s exile; the Industrial boom. While this makes Coffee a less than comprehensive “history,” the author admits as much in his Introduction, and discloses his own scholarly shortcomings. It is all to Wild’s advantage, however; overstatement and simplification make Coffee a more engaging read.

The most pleasing aspect of Coffee is its embrace of trivia. Coffee addicts, upon reading A Dark History, will learn:

-the science of coffee roasting and the biology of its ingestion,
-the difference between Robusta and Aribica, and
-the etymology of the drink and its many nicknames.

Non-drinkers will still be dazzled by the book’s historical trivia. For instance, did you know,

-“until the arrival of coffee, the population of northern Europe had existed in a constant state of mild intoxication, since the quality of water was such that many people drank beers of the time morning, noon, and night?” Or, that
-scientists have discovered, “coffee aroma can be used to improve the unpleasant feeling in some psychiatric illness…because it acts on the areas associated with emotion?”

Anthony Wild himself does not easily dismiss the profound effects of caffeine on the human brain, and his acknowledgement of these effects will win him respect from coffee addicts.

With all of its Great Man name-dropping, overstatement, and trivia, Coffee reads like a tangential lecture from your favorite college adjunct professor. One downside of this is the campus-esque America-bashing pervading the text. (Sample Quote: “Although overt colonialism is making a comeback, the USA, until relatively recently, has adopted a covert approach to the achievement of economic hegemony.”) Even if this criticism is correct (and it is), Wild presents it in an openly biased, arrogant manner.

Despite the subtitle, this history is neither gloomy nor opaque. Rather, this study sheds light on an interesting topic despite its dubious nutritional value.
Posted by: CJ

Print Reviews (July 25th, 2006)