One of the side affects of high intakes of caffeine can be restlessness, anxiety, and a short attention span. In the opening pages of The Devil?s Cup, author Stewart Allen jumps from Kenya to Ethiopia, Calcutta, and Vietnam, in strident, but ever so slightly eliptical, sentences. For example: ?Instead, I accidentally fell in love (another type of death wish) and headed to Australia to get married, an ill-fated scheme that, by means too complicated to explain, ended with me working at Mother Theresa?s Calcutta hospice for the dying?. By page 9 he?s confessed his own addiction to caffeine (somewhat proudly), and has gone from quoting Hindu mystics through to French social critics, all searching for the connection between what we consume and the things we do. By the end of the chapter, he?s slowing down and heading to Ethiopia, the birthplace of coffee, in search of his next fix.
The grandiose title of the book almost suggests an academic work, but this is far from a dry, objective tome tracing the history and effects of caffeine consumption. Instead
this is history from the Hunter S. Thompson ?gonzo? school of writing: fast-paced, thought provoking, not always academically kosher, and with the author starring in every frame. More to the point, it?s tremendously engaging and readable, if you can keep up with the pace!
The history lesson starts in Ethiopia, ?before the dawn of civilization, the Precaffeinated Era?, where slave traders unwittingly brought coffee beans from the kingdom of Kefa to the higher altitude Harrar. Here the beans evolved into the Arabica strain, which would travel to the Arab world via Yemen, and hundreds of years later to Europe.
The central thesis of the book – that coffee and the physical effects of caffeine have stimulated societies into development, revolution, and empire – is neither as strange or as new as you might be led to think. It?s one of the more annoying aspects of the book that references are dropped in haphazardly, and the historical basis of much of Lee Allen’s argument goes unattributed, aside from a couple of footnotes, or a throw-away reference, so, for example, when dealing with the galvanising effect coffee had on 17th century Europe, we get the following: ?The growth of coffeehouses not only sobered up the clerks but slowly ended the midmorning pint altogether, according to historian James Howell? (pg 130). No indication as to who James Howell was, when he wrote, or from where this reference is taken, which is a shame as Howell is a perfectly credible source to back up Lee Allen?s arguments [Howell was a 17th Century British historian and essayist]. It may seem like nitpicking to criticise the book on these terms, but there are so many assertions and facts thrown out in the course of the book, for which Lee Allen obviously undertook a massive amount of research, that it?s a shame more care wasn?t taken. Perhaps author and publisher felt that bibliographies and references, aside from the odd footnote, would weaken the ?hip? factor to the book…
While coffee, or ?joe? as it?s rather annoyingly referred to repeatedly (again an insistence at being ?hip?), is the main character of the book, and the narrative device used to hold together the various anecdotes, much of the book is more about Lee Allen and the places he visits rather than coffee. This is not however a criticism, as Lee Allen writes with humour and an observant eye, as he travels through Ethiopia, Yemen, India, Turkey and into Europe and America. There?s a subplot of some dodgy deal concocted with Yangi, a Rajasthani art forger, and numerous colourful characters along the way. It?s no coincidence that chef Anthony Bourdain, author of Kitchen Confidential and A Cook?s Tour is quoted on the cover, as Lee Allen?s book has a similar daredevil adventurous quality about it.
There are facts and fictions aplenty to keep coffee fans happy, for example: ?Islamic alchemists believed that mixing coffee and milk caused leprosy (a belief that lies at the root of the disdain many Europeans have for coffee with milk)?(pg27). There?s also the wonderful encounter with German sociologist Dr. Josef Joffe, who proposes the ?Joffe Coffee theory of Expansionism?, which in a nutshell is that cultures with bad coffee are prone to expansionism, imperialism and war, while cultures with great coffee are civil and pacifistic: ?Who makes the best coffee in the world? The Italians? And when was the last time the Italians won a war?? (pg.137). It?s also pointed out that America?s gourmet coffee boom started in the wake of its first military defeat in Vietnam.
The chapter with the biggest impact though is when Lee Allen heads closer to home, travelling into the American heartland looking for the worst cup of coffee in the world. While travelling through deserts, and into the heart of Texas, the author is constantly hooked up to the internet, scouring coffee discussion forums, while buoyed up with alternative forms of his fix, including a phial of pure caffeine. His net chats with various caffeine addicts is surreal and more than a little scary. In one posting he reads the following: ?Water joe [caffeinated water], good stuff, I use it to make espresso and melt a Vivarin in it instead of a sugar cube or lemon peel and it really goes down smooth but a few minutes later my back starts aching and I have to pee really bad is this normal or what I?ve never tried snorting Vivarin because it would probably burn and muck up my nose?where did I put that darn Jolt Cola?(pg.222). It brings nothing more to mind than the difference between the treatment of the coca leaf in indigenous South American culture, and the western extraction of cocaine. It?s a similar path from the Ethiopian highlands where the author starts by drinking coffee in a friendship ceremony, to being pulled over by a highway patrol man on Route 66 who mistakes his phial of caffeine for cocaine.
Full marks then for producing an engaging, fact full, buzzing travel book based on a legal drug that, according to a report by the American National Institute on Drug Abuse, kills up to 5,000 Americans every year (pg.213). Just don?t mistake it for a comprehensive history.