cover image Coffeeland: One Man’s Dark Empire and the Making of Our Favorite Drug

Coffeeland: One Man’s Dark Empire and the Making of Our Favorite Drug

Augustine Sedgewick. Penguin Press, $30 (448p) ISBN 978-1-59420-615-3

In this thought-provoking and gracefully written debut, Sedgewick, an American studies professor at City University of New York, chronicles the 20th-century transformation of El Salvador into “one of the most intensive monocultures in modern history” and the concurrent rise in Americans’ thirst for coffee. According to Sedgewick, El Salvador’s shift from communal subsistence farming to staple crop production was led by James Hill, an Englishman whose plantation empire was staffed by indigenous men (“mozos”) who picked the beans and women (“limpiadoras”) who cleaned them. Though Hill and his heirs reaped immense riches from coffee production, their employees suffered; an American observer claimed in 1931 that El Salvador’s inequality compared to that of pre-Revolutionary France. Meanwhile, thanks to Hill’s distribution plans and the invention of vacuum-sealed tin cans that preserved the beans’ freshness, the U.S. became the world’s biggest coffee market. By the second half of the 20th century, the “coffee break” had become such an important part of the working day that the Supreme Court enshrined it as an employee’s right, and coffee made up 90% of El Salvador's exports. The breadth of Sedgewick’s analysis of coffee’s place in the world economy astonishes, as does his ability to bring historical figures to life. Coffee connoisseurs will relish this eye-opening history. Agent: Wendy Strothman, the Strothman Agency. (Apr.)