Friday, June 12, 2009

Forgotten Books: Uncommon Grounds by Mark Pendergrast

(This is my latest installment to Patti Abbott’s Friday Forgotten Books. Head on over to her blog for the complete list.)

I love coffee. No, not the brown, tasteless sludge you find in offices worldwide or the dreck you buy in supermarkets. I’m talking real coffee. I love looking at the beans and seeing the color of the roasted bean, knowing what kind of brew it will make. I love going to coffee stores and discussing coffee, especially the country where the beans were grown and knowing the characteristics of different regional beans and roasts. I love the smell of freshly-ground beans, an intoxicating aroma the is at once earthy and industrial. I love the dark, frothy elixir you get when you make coffee using a French press. I love looking at the surface of my coffee in my mug, catching the light, and seeing the slick oil floating on the surface. I love slurping hot, black coffee (yes, slurping) and bringing in some air to accentuate the flavor of the coffee on my tongue.

I just love coffee. Mark Pendergrast does too and he wrote a book about it: Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World. The book opens in a place I’d love to visit: a coffee plantation in Guatemala. The intricate care Pendergrast takes when he describes the plantation literally puts you there, right next to him. From there, he takes you on a tour of time and history as he lays out the origins of coffee in Ethiopia (dancing goats anyone?) up to the modern faux coffeehouse experience of Starbucks and its imitators.

In a history we kind of know tangentially, it’s interesting to note when certain persons or things (Jim Folger, Maxwell House, Sanka) step on the coffee’s stage. Perhaps the keenest pleasure is learning the origins of certain phrases we’ve heard and used all our lives (depending on how old you are). Take Maxwell House’s “Good to the last drop” slogan. According to legend, Teddy Roosevelt is said to have uttered the famous phrase that became synonymous with the brand. Who can argue with TR?

It’s not all about selling. Pendergrast also writes about the social undercurrent of coffee and the revolutionary tendency prevalent in European coffeehouses across the centuries. He relates in detail the economics of coffee growing and production, the poor conditions of the growers and the opulent riches of the sellers. Even during these slower passages where you just get numbers, it’s not boring. It’s fascinating to learn all the details of what is basically a worldwide drug.

Pendergrast closes the book by describing how to brew perfect coffee. Other than roasting my own coffee beans, he and I pretty much make our coffee the same way. Uncommon Grounds is a wonderful book for any coffee connoisseur. If you’re not yet a connoisseur, you will be by the end of this book. I recommend the book highly.

And this from a tea guy.


Charles Gramlich said...

Well, tastes differ, my friend. I've probably not had more than 25 cups of coffee in my life. I prefer it that way.

Scott D. Parker said...

Charles - If you ever want to taste really fine coffee, allow me to make a cup for you. You might just change your mind.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I have never been able to drink coffee. But my husband and son more than make up for me.

Scott D. Parker said...


It's possible you've never been served a really good cup. I used to take coffee with cream and sugar. Then, I learned to prefer coffee in its true sense: black and strong. Now, granted, I'd take tea of all shapes and sizes over coffee but a good cuppa joe can be sublime.

Barbara Martin said...

The best coffee I have ever had is the kind served up at the Birds & Beans shop on Lake Shore Blvd. W. in Toronto. They buy their coffee beans from organic coffee bean farms in Central America. I like to go in there on a weekend afternoon when there is live jazz to listen to and sip hot black coffee, enjoying the best of both worlds.

Scott D. Parker said...

Barbara - Now THAT sounds like a great place to visit. Good coffee, good jazz, (outside?): who could ask for more?

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Roland Holtzen said...

Coffee wouldn't be known as black gold for nothing! Regardless if its uncommon even for the everyday coffee drinker to know the backdrop behind the beans, this book may shed light on the major players in the economics of coffee. It's sometimes amazing to know how coffee ended up in our cup. Farmers, international trade and connoisseurs come to mind.

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