Coffee, the Driving
Force in History

Stewart Lee Allen
(Soho Press)
They think it started in Ethiopia where they took this ugly little bean and brewed it up to what we call coffee. That's where Stewart Lee Allen starts his journey.

And it is a "Roots" for the lowly bean: where it came from, why we love it, and, incidentally, a search to find the best cup of coffee in the world. His journey takes him from Ethiopia to Brazil, including stop-overs in Yemen, India, Turkey, France, and finally, across the United States. Along the way, he samples every conceivable type of coffee: brewed, steamed, boiled, eaten raw, pressed, and --- god knows --- one that comes after passing beans through the digestive system of a cat. In the interim, he travels the way all curious and alive gringoes should travel: by foot, boat, bus, airplane, cart, donkey, taxi, and truck.

In someone else's hands, this would be just another a flapjaw story --- a book concocted by an agent to sell off to a conglomerate publisher to cater to the Feeble Travel Tale addict, nodding off in his armchair. Instead, this has to be the cat's pajamas of all travel sagas. Allen is the type of guy you and I have always wanted to travel with. He's resourceful, daring, silly, funny, patient, and true.

It is a rich picaresque adventure. He is forever and a day being hit up for money, being offered drugs, being asked to smuggle, being almost stuck in jail, being becalmed on alien seas, being left to wander alone down vague roads to vague destinations. And all the while his writing is filled to overflowing with the joy of travelling, the amusement of life, the joy of his particular grail. And he's a helluva writer, one who actually did his homework before sitting down to write The Devil's Cup. Listen to this thumbnail description of Muslims, and the Muslim religion --- a brief understated aside that speaks volumes:

    The generally accepted theory is that coffee came into use among the Arabs a few centuries after the birth of Islam. Most Westerners today associate Islam with terrorists, bearded fanatics, and a distressing lack of toilet paper. This, of course, is both silly and true. Islam is a beautiful religion. Of course it's not perfect --- any religion that insists half the species walk about with a bag over their head clearly has some issues to deal with --- but in its heyday it was the crowning glory of the human race. While the Christians in Europe were sunk in the Dark Ages, Muslims were studying Aristotle, inventing algebra, and generally creating one of the most elegant civilizations in history.

Or this, when an Indian in Calcutta comes up with an idea for the two of them to get rich:

    If I were willing to take some of his forged antique paintings to Paris "as presents" and then hand them over in time for the upcoming show, they would pay me three thousand dollars...I loved the concept of art smuggling and forgery, so pretty and tricky. I also quite liked the Rajasthani school of miniatures: jewel-like paintings incorporating gold leaf and fantastical animals. The catch was, I didn't believe a word Yangi said.

Here we have a sly sophisticate, a Philip Marlowe on odyssey, willing to indulge in a bit of cross-border hanky-panky for the sheer joy of it. But that's not all. While we are learning about coffee-growing countries and the roots of the world-wide coffee trade, we are getting some righteous history lessons. For example: Allen's theory is that the English are tea drinkers because so few of their colonial territories could be used for growing beans. Rather than trade with the Portuguese or French, they found it far more profitable to force the Chinese open their ports to illegal drugs, and feed (and increase) the opium addictions of the Orientals, in exchange for tea.

There is a subtle gentle wryness in this ostensible historical travel book. For instance, who is Allen travelling with? As an aside, on page 82: "Mysore proved to be a pleasantly cool city with wide, shady streets and not too much traffic. We loved it. (I say 'we' because I was travelling with my lover, Nina, who is too modest to appear on these pages.)" The masterful understatement, with a hint of sadness, too.

For the story ends on the freeways of the United States, and a man who has put up with so much for so long (terrorists, unbearable heat, trains that stop and won't go, busses ditto, trucks ditto) is crossing the U.S. with --- if you will believe it --- his talisman, a vial of pure caffeine, and, naturally, he is stopped by the Tennessee Highway Patrol ("His name was Officer Hoppe, and I am sure the resemblance to Ken Starr was a coincidence.") He and his girlfriend are searched, questioned, their documents scrutinized, their car turned upside down in a search for drugs. This is a man who has floated like a cork across the troubles of the world (Ethiopia! Yemen! Calcutta!) humiliated by the American anti-drug crusade. The cops know he is lying (a stash of caffeine? That's a knee-slapper.) They force him to dump it out at the side of the road.

On The Road was a series of picaresque journeys across the United States, finally ending up in a paradise village in Mexico, with Kerouac and friends being handed, as a gift, the ultimate desideratum, a huge fat rolled joint.

The Devil's Cup is a similar joyous journey --- with this difference: at the end, on the road to Los Angeles, realizing that they are passing through a police-state (so much more grim than any "backwards" country), the Brave New World of such a destructive nature that, at the climax, stranded on the Los Angeles freeway, Allen turns and sees his sweet love "gone, too late; tears of laughter rolling down her face, lips curled back in a grin like an angry dog."

--- Lolita Lark

Go Home     Subscribe to RALPH     Go Up