UNCOMMON GROUNDS by Mark Pendergrast


The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World
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An exhaustive, admirably ambitious examination of coffee’s global impact, from its roots in 15th-century Ethiopia to its critical role in shaping the nations of Central and Latin America. Pendergrast (For God, Country, and Coca-Cola, 1993) explains almost everything we’d ever want to know about coffee. The story begins in the mountains of Ethiopia, where goat herders first discovered the pleasures of the coffee bean. Arab traders helped spread coffee to Europe, where it became a 17th-century sensation. Soon the imperial powers of Europe established coffee plantations from Java (a Dutch colony) to Brazil (a Portuguese colony) to Haiti (a French colony), enslaving the indigenous populations. Even after freeing themselves from centuries of imperial control, the coffee-growing nations remained under “coffee oligarchies” that exploited local peasants. Today, most coffee workers “live in abject poverty without plumbing, electricity, [or] medical care.” Afraid of leftist rebellion in Latin America and eager for low-cost coffee, the US has actively supported these oligarchies. Pendergrast does a fine job exploring the disturbing economic inequalities behind every cup of coffee. He also analyzes how the boom-and-bust cycles of the coffee harvest have destabilized nations like Brazil, Colombia, and Costa Rica. After WWI, coffee emerged as a major American industry—advertising helped turn Maxwell House, Folgers, and Hills Brothers into household names. With intense competition, coffee quality was often sacrificed for low price. By the 1960s, coffee quality was so low that a “gourmet” coffee movement emerged, led by purists such as Alfred Peet. While the “gourmet” coffee movement reacted against bland, mass-produced coffee, it’s now identified with a corporate giant called Starbucks, whose aggressive tactics Pendergrast skillfully describes. Should be read by anyone curious about what goes into their daily cup of Java—too often, good coffee isn’t good for the people who produce it. (60 b&w photos) (Author tour)

Pub Date: June 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-465-03631-7
Page count: 550pp
Publisher: Basic
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15th, 1999


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