The Devil’s Cup

The Devil’s Cup

by Stewart Lee Allen

The phrase “Stewart Lee Allen is so brave” must have run through my mind a hundred times as I read his historical travelogue entitled The Devil’s Cup: A History of the World According to Coffee. In the past, I hadn’t really thought much about the courage that being a food writer might sometimes entail. I have, of course, read Anthony Bourdain’s “throw myself in the face of the most perverse food experiences” book, but what Allen does is different. It seems that he just happens upon danger — after all, he’s merely following along in the wake left by coffee’s travel around the globe — but he happens upon it often and when he does, he thoroughly exploits its dramatic potential.

I suppose it is no surprise that life-threatening situations abound throughout the text. As Allen says, “…[writing the book] would take me three quarters of the way around the world…by train, dhow, rickshaw, cargo freighter, and finally, a donkey.” What he doesn’t tell us, at least not immediately, is that along the way he would meet a variety of con artists, would cut up his credit card when he just might have great need of it, and would get so bored on a sea voyage between Italy and Brazil that he wistfully wished for an attack by pirates (after the frenetic pace of Allen’s travels through Africa, six weeks on a boat must have seemed like torment).

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is coffee-related theory of history that Allen presents, in which he suggests that the enlightenment of civilizations occurs when the members of that civilization become coffee drinkers. He attributes this, at least in part, to the decrease in alcohol consumption that has historically accompanied the rise of coffee drinking. For example, as Puritanism grew in England, coffee was embraced as a “god-given alternative to beer.”

To put the alcohol consumption of Middle-Age Europeans into perspective, Allen notes that, “The average Northern European, including women and children, drank three liters of beer a day. That’s almost two six-packs…try having a liter of strong ale with breakfast tomorrow (that’s three bottles) and see how your day goes.” He goes on to say, “Within two hundred years of Europe’s first cup [of coffee], famine and plague were historical footnotes. Governments became more democratic, slavery vanished, and the standards of living and literacy went through the roof.” This theory, which is fleshed out throughout the dizzying chapters, gives the reader much to think about.

I have to admit that I reached the end of the book without developing a clear understanding of the chain of events that comprise coffee’s global history. The whirlwind of Allen’s writing was so strong that I was caught up in it, and my ability to analyze and remember facts and details seemed to be lost. However, this mild confusion merely increases the book’s quality of excitement, as it serves to make the reader feel as if she herself has consumed too great a quantity of coffee.

Review by Suzanne Podhaizer

Suzanne is a freelance food writer from Burlington, Vermont.  Her favorite activities include cooking with local meat, cheese, and produce, and snapping up all of the exciting culinary texts from local used-book stores before anybody else can get their hands on them.