Coffee: The Epic of a Commodity

H. E. Jacob, Author, Lynn Alley, Introduction by Burford Books $18.95 (320p) ISBN 978-1-58080-070-9
Jacob was a German poet, novelist and journalist who was based for some time in Vienna, still and ever the home of the coffeehouse. Coffee, for Jacob, was the ""anti-Bacchus...the great resurrector, that gave me courage and vigor."" In 1935, he and his friend, the publisher Ernst Rowohlt, contravened the Nazi ban on Jacob's work to publish his ""documentary novel"" of coffee. The author does a masterful job of tracing the popularity of coffee from Yemen through Europe and the Americas, recording its reputation not only within the commercial sphere but within the medical and religious ones as well. However, this is much more important as a glimpse of attitudes toward coffee in the '30s than as a general history: there is a heavier emphasis on Brazil than now seems appropriate, obviously no mention of developments of the past 65 years and some of Jacob's observations seem astonishingly naive--e.g., his argument that planters' numerous illegitimate children ""prevented the extremity of mutual hatred between master and slave."" The vintage--and the translation--also leads to awkward reading, with many exclamations and cliches, such as ""their lot was not a happy one,"" ""King Louis waxed angry"" and the like. For readers who are consumed with curiosity about the origins, the ups and downs and the difficulties that coffee has faced over the centuries, this book is, however, quite satisfying. 75 b&w illustrations. (Dec.)
Reviewed on: 11/30/1998
Release date: 12/01/1998
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