THE WORLD OF CAFFEINE by Bennett Alan Weinberg

THE WORLD OF CAFFEINE

The Science and Culture of the World’s Most Popular Drug
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KIRKUS REVIEW

A savory and spirited cultural history of caffeine, with summaries of pertinent scientific and medical research on the properties and effects of the world’s drug of choice.

Weinberg and Bealer (freelance writers with backgrounds, respectively, in the hard and social sciences) fill their amazing book to the brim with a challenging mix of history, science, medicine, anthropology, sociology, and popular culture, then add a dash of humor, a pinch of polemic, and a dollop of healthful skepticism. Caffeine, a “bitter, highly toxic white powder, readily soluble in boiling water,” was first isolated and named in 1819 by a young German physician. But it had been employed as far back as the middle of the 15th century, when the first coffee was brewed in southern Arabia. By the middle of the 16th century, “coffeehouses [had sprung] up in every major city in Islam”; soon, travelers to the Middle East sampled the drink, enjoyed its effects, and took it back to their own countries. The authors then focus on tea, establishing 220 b.c. as “genuinely the earliest reference” to the beverage and speculating that the Chinese may have learned to brew it from people in northern India or southeast Asia. They trace the other principal dietary source of caffeine, chocolate, to the Mesoamerican Olmecs, who flourished from 1500 to 400 b.c. and first used the cacao bean to make a chocolate drink. Chronicling the spread of these substances to Europe, Weinberg and Bealer note that coffee was often touted for its supposed medicinal properties (“comforts the Brain and dries up Crudities in the Stomach,” claimed one 18th-century publication). In the most engaging portion here, a long section dealing with the culture of caffeine, the authors trace its social role. Wisely, they delay until the final chapters slower-going discussions of the chemistry of caffeine and the immense amount of medical research devoted to it.

Well-researched, briskly written, full-bodied, and flavorful. (50 halftones and line drawings)

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 2001
ISBN: 0-415-92722-6
Page count: 384pp
Publisher: Routledge
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15th, 2000




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