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Posts tagged ‘coffee’

Not for all the tea

When I was finishing my PhD, my friend Jane gave me a t-shirt emblazoned with the slogan ‘tea is not a food group.’ She used to shout that into my room—we lived a few doors down from each other in the same student residence—as she passed me on the way to the lift. She had good reason for doing so. When I’m absorbed in writing, I can forget that the world exists: that it’s necessary to brush your hair, dress properly, cook, and not have conversations with yourself out loud. And that it’s unwise to subsist on tea.

Over the past couple of months, I’ve been in the final throes of completing a book manuscript and I’ve tried—probably not always successfully—to maintain at least a semblance of normal, civilised behaviour, but tea has remained a constant. It’s a kind of writing comfort blanket; a small routine in the middle of anxious typing. In some ways, then, it was a misfortune to be in the United States for much of this period. I could drink as much excellent coffee as I could cope with, but tea? Good strong, hot black tea? Until I discovered a branch of TeaHaus in Ann Arbor, not so much.

I know that I’m not the first to complain about the difficulty of finding a decent cup of black tea in the US, and, to some extent, this belief that Americans don’t understand hot tea is something of a misnomer. Teavana, Argo, and Teahaus all attest to an enthusiasm—an apparently growing enthusiasm—for well-made tea. I’ve never encountered so many different kinds of tea in supermarkets. (And, truly, Celestial Seasonings is the best name for a brand of tea.) But it is true, I think, that it’s hard to find really good black tea in the average café. While this is probably linked to the fact that most tea drunk in the US is iced tea, it’s also because tea in these establishments is made with hot—not boiling—water. This is crucial. Tea leaves need to steep in freshly boiled water.

Tea.

Tea.

This aversion to boiling water can be traced back to a 1994 civil case: Liebeck vs McDonald’s Restaurants. Two years previously, Stella Liebeck, an elderly Albuquerque resident, had spilled a cup of boiling hot coffee over her lap. She sued McDonald’s, and was awarded initially $2.7 million in punitive damages. While for some, the case has become emblematic of the madness of a litigious legal system, the truth is considerably more complex. Not only had Liebeck suffered third degree burns—resulting in extensive reconstructive work and long stays in hospital—but she and her family only sued McDonald’s as a last resort. When their reasonable request that McDonald’s cover her medical bills was turned down, they decided to go to court. Moreover, in the end, Liebeck received considerably less than $2.7 million: the judge reduced that sum to $480,000, and she was awarded, eventually, between $400,000 and $600,000 in an out of court settlement with McDonald’s.

This was not, then, a frivolous lawsuit. But it was interpreted as such, and became one of the examples cited in efforts to reform tort law—the legislation which allows people to sue others in the case of injury to themselves or their property—in the US. As some lawyers argue, the tort reform lobby led by Republicans isn’t really to reduce the numbers of lawsuits submitted by greedy people, but, rather, an attempt to protect business from having to pay for its mistakes.

For tea drinkers, though, this misperception (fanned by tort reform campaigners) has resulted in tepid, unpleasant cups of tea. Concerned about similar lawsuits, restaurants now serve hot—rather than boiling—water. But perhaps there is a kind of poetic—or historical—logic to having to search high and low for decent tea in the US. The chests of tea tipped into Boston’s harbour in 1773 was both in defiance of the Tea Act and a rejection of Britain’s right to tax the thirteen colonies. When patriots switched to coffee—indeed some refused even to eat the fish caught in or near the harbour on the grounds that they could have consumed some of the tea—it was in defiance of British rule. In the land of the free, shouldn’t tea be hard to come by? This association of coffee and freedom wasn’t new, even then. Coffee houses in eighteenth-century Britain and Europe were places where middle-class men could gather to talk and think. The work of the Enlightenment was done, to some extent, over cups of coffee. But coffee was produced on slave plantations and coffee houses—and the freedoms discussed in them—were largely for white men. Coffee represented, then, freedom of the few.

Like so many people recently, I’ve been thinking about the historical contexts which produced the principles on which liberal democracies are founded. Freedom of expression and of thought, freedom to gather, freedom of religious belief are fundamental to the functioning of liberal democracies. Regardless of the fact that these principles were originated during a period in which they applied mainly to white men—and regardless of the fact that they have not prevented injustices from being committed (sometimes in their name) in liberal democracies—these remain the best, albeit imperfect, protection of the greatest number of freedoms for the greatest number of people.

To suggest that they are somehow a western invention inapplicable to other parts of the world would be an enormous insult to Egypt’s cartoonists who continue to criticise successive oppressive governments despite risking potential imprisonment or worse; to Saudi Arabian blogger Raif Badawi, who received the first fifty of a thousand lashes last Friday, for writing in support of free expression; to the Kenyan MPs who last year so strongly opposed a new security bill which will dramatically curb journalists’ ability to report freely. Also, it would be a profound insult to the vast majority of Muslim people in France and elsewhere—members of a diverse and varied faith—who managed to cope with the fact that Charlie Hebdo and other publications ran cartoons which insulted or poked fun at Islam.

Whether you think that the cartoons in Charlie Hebdo were amusing or clever or blasphemous or racist, is besides the point. Free speech and free expression were no more responsible for the killings in France last week than they were for the murder of more than two thousand people in Nigeria by Boko Haram. This isn’t to argue that we shouldn’t discuss—loudly, freely, rudely—how right or wrong it was to publish these cartoons in a society which many feel has strongly Islamaphobic and racist elements—in the same way we should debate potentially misogynistic, anti-Semitic, racist, homophobic, or transphobic writing, art, or speech too. But to begin to suggest that there are times when we shouldn’t criticise and satirise, is to suggest that there should be limits to what we may think and imagine.

Creative Commons License Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

A Pumpkin Spice too Far

I spent most of October and November in the United States and Canada, coinciding with Canadian Thanksgiving, Hallowe’en, and, probably most importantly, pumpkin spice season. This blend of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves—the flavourings associated with pumpkin pie—has become comically ubiquitous in the US. Alongside pumpkin spice muffins, macaroons, and cupcakes, I saw pumpkin spice air freshener, rooibos tea, and beer. I tried pumpkin spice chips (inadvisable) and Icelandic yogurt (odd).

Too far, I think.

Too far, I think.

The pumpkin spice phenomenon originated in 2003, when Starbucks—then on the cusp of almost-global domination—debuted a new flavour for autumn. As reported last year to mark the drink’s ten-year anniversary, the company was hesitant to introduce the pumpkin spice latte. It already sold several flavoured coffees, but was not entirely sure that another seasonal drink would take off. They needn’t have worried. Forbes reports that in 2013 Starbucks had sold more than 200 million pumpkin spice lattes:

If you just do the math, that means Starbucks has sold an average 20 million beverages a year whose flavoring once belonged primarily in a seasonal pie…

At the basic price of about $4 for a 12-ounce tall size, PSL means at least $80 million in revenue … for Starbucks, which serves it beginning in September. … The company says the PSL is by far the most popular seasonal beverage in its lineup.

In fact, the pumpkin spice latte was held responsible for a bounce in the chain’s revenues this year. Outrages and fears over pumpkin spice shortages, and the annual dash for the first pumpkin spice latte of the season, are canny marketing strategies which have helped to position the drink—the #PSL on Twitter—alongside Starbucks’s red cups as a marker of the beginning of autumn and the holiday season. Unsurprisingly, other chains and supermarkets have begun to produce their own versions of the PSL.

Small, independent coffee shops—the alternatives to corporate caffeine—have also developed ways of cashing in on the pumpkin spice craze. I had a pumpkin pie flavoured latte at New Moon—an excellent café in Burlington, Vermont—and a lumberjack latte at Babo in Ann Arbor, Michigan. They were sweet and spicy: less coffee than coffee flavoured drinks.

I don’t think that the wild enthusiasm for pumpkin spice—as a flavouring—is particularly surprising. After all, in the US, Europe, and some other parts of the world, this combination of spices has long been a feature of winter or festive cooking and baking. A more interesting question is why Americans drink so much flavoured coffee. In the interests of research, I also tried vanilla, and brown sugar and sea salt flavoured coffees, and resolved never to waver from the true path of Americanos, flat whites, and the odd cappuccino. For all the fact that new technologies and techniques—drip, siphon, cold brew—have gained wild popularity for making coffee which tastes, apparently, more acutely and complicatedly of coffee, the popularity of flavoured coffees continues unabated.

It's decorative gourd season at the Ann Arbor farmers' market.

It’s decorative gourd season at the Ann Arbor farmers’ market.

America remains the largest coffee market in the world, with a third of consumers drinking ‘gourmet’ (or specially prepared) brews every day. To some extent, the ubiquity of coffee today is linked to a major fall in the price of the commodity twenty years ago. In 1962, John F. Kennedy shepherded the International Coffee Agreement into existence. Including mainly Latin American countries—the producers of superior Arabica coffee beans—the ICA controlled the price of coffee globally and was also intended to stabilise these countries’ economies, immunising them against potential Soviet influence. The ICA favoured the US and Brazil, giving both countries veto rights on policy decisions.

The collapse of the ICA, along with the Berlin Wall, in 1989 was produced both by shifting Cold War politics as well as by the emergence of new coffee producing countries—like Vietnam—which were not signatories to the Agreement. The fall in the price of coffee meant a coffee boom, particularly in the US where enthusiasm for Arabica had grown steadily over the course of the 1980s. It is no coincidence that you may have tried your first cappuccino—in the US and elsewhere—in the early 1990s. The growth of Starbucks—founded as a small independent in Seattle in 1981—traced the demise of the ICA and the fall in the international coffee price.

It is now easier than ever to buy extraordinarily good coffee for relatively little money. I wonder if this could account for the amazing variety of coffee based drinks available in the US. As a cheap beverage—as an affordable luxury, as Sidney Mintz describes the consumption of sugar in the nineteenth century—has coffee become unmoored from its position as a bitter drink to be had in small quantities at defined moments in the day, to a sweet, comforting snack to be consumed at any time?

Further Reading

Isaac A. Kamola, ‘Coffee and Genocide,’ Transition, no. 99 (2008), pp. 54-72.

Sidney W. Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York: Penguin, 1985).

Stefano Ponte, ‘Behind the Coffee Crisis,’ Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 36, no. 46/47 (Nov. 24-30, 2001), pp. 4410-4417.

Creative Commons License Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Food Links, 08.05.2013

More Britons than ever before are dependent on food banks.

The $1 McDonald’s meal has failed to lift sales.

Bananas and oil in Ecuador.

How safe is American meat?

Tesco pulls out of the US.

A history of United Farm Workers.

A fat-fuelled power station.

Cheddar cheese is to be used as security for a pension fund.

David Chan, who has eaten at 6,297 Chinese restaurants.

Rogue sugar shacks in Quebec had best be on their guard.

The Ghanaian food revolution.

Cook it Raw.

Cooked is only half-cooked, at best.’

Where to have afternoon tea in Cape Town.

Has the cupcake boom gone bust?

The 1961 Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook.

Lessons from a month of being vegan.

The new wave of London street food.

The day coffee stopped working.

A scratch-and-sniff food magazine.

Romain Jimenez, toasted cheese seller.

Tea and flies with Kermit the Frog.

Pantone for chocolate lovers.

A 15,000 year-old pot for making fish soup.

How do you pronounce ‘scone‘?

A beer drinker’s guide to Bratislava.

Almond pudding.

Rediscovering Russian food and produce.

A cafe built out of recycled cardboard.

Literary beers.

The man who invented the thermos flask.

Book cakes.

Elaborate latte art.

A brief history of sausage rolls.

Hipster Meals.

New York Times‘s correspondents describe their favourite watering holes.

The cake that looks like a Mondrian painting.

Eighteenth-century sugar cakes.

Avocado buttercream.

How to make a sweet souffle.

Skeleton sushi.

Twenty strange things to eat.

A Russian TV chef has apologised for comparing chopping herbs to the slaughter of Ukrainian villagers. As you do.

Just nipping out…

Kindly readers! I leave you for the briefest of sabbaticals over the next fortnight. It is the end of term and I am so tired that I added orange juice to my coffee this morning and took a good thirty seconds to work out why it tasted so odd.

So I am going to the seaside to regain both my sleep pattern and my sanity. I shall return with posts on the cult of authenticity, modernism, and what baked goods have to do with Afrikaner nationalism.

Here is a dancing pony:

This video comes courtesy of my friend Ester.

And here are some links to keep you going while I’m away:

What 2,000 calories look like.

A new culprit in China’s tainted milk saga.

What horsemeat and fish tell us about Europe.

Conflict over food at Guantanamo.

Horsemeat in…chicken nuggets.

In the US, the meat industry consumes four-fifths of antibiotics.

The truth about ‘organic‘.

The dangerous Lenape potato.

Kraft macaroni cheese is really very bad for you.

The language of food politics.

Digging up the buried beer at Hotel Timbuktu.

This is ridiculous: more than $1,500 for coq au vin.

The world is drink cheap, nasty coffee.

On Elizabeth David.

The new fashion for kale.

Forgotten Foods of New York City.

Five of the best bakeries in London.

Modernising Brazilian cuisine.

Korean fried chicken.

Coffee art.

Cake decorating made easy.

Why are French people drinking less wine?

A history of the measuring spoon.

A tea bag invented for use on airplanes.

Mexico City‘s wholesale market.

An all-cheese toasted cheese.

The moose cleanse.

Fuchsia Dunlop on papery dried shrimp.

South African whisky – surprisingly good.

See you soon xx

Food Links, 13.03.2013

The commodity with the sharpest price increase this year? Tea.

Two articles on the ethics around eating quinoa.

Man-made meat.

How Americans buy food.

Rum replaces champagne in Britain’s basket of goods used to calculate inflation.

Honey laundering in China.

America’s agriculture is less productive than Bangladesh’s.

Pret a Manger’s very bad employment policies.

Why we should worry about Tesco‘s ‘indie’ coffee chain.

The trouble with fructose.

Are all calories equal?

The argument for introducing bison to the British countryside.

Why the Paleo diet is daft.

Chicago‘s lion meat scandal.

Fiction for people interested in food.

A review of EC Spary’s amazing looking Eating the Enlightenment.

A day in the life of a hamburger.

Jeffrey Steingarten bakes perfect coconut cake.

My African Food Map.

Seventy-year-old lard.

A table of prohibited substances.

Seven diets in seven days.

Israeli doughnuts.

Part of Chez Panisse burns down; Noma poisons some of its customers.

A chart for making cinnamon buns.

Eleven facts about Guinness.

Edible bonsai.

The tyranny of dining out.

Milky coffee.

London’s first cat cafe is set to open. (Thanks, Isabelle!)

Why you should add vodka to your tomato sauce.

How to make your own buttermilk.

Oral Sadism and the Vegetarian Personality.

These are all courtesy of my Mum:

Are organic tomatoes more nutritious?

Bird-friendly farming.

Introducing Fairtrade products to African markets.

A Victory Garden featuring superheroes.

Food Links, 27.02.2013

India’s rice yields are up – why? And some reservations about the report.

Andrew Rugasira‘s Good African coffee company in Uganda, and the politics of aid.

Who owns the organic industry?

Goat, donkey, and water buffalo meat have been found in South African meat products.

Jay Rayner on the thuggish power of British supermarkets.

Most people who think they’re gluten intolerant, aren’t.

Is the ready meal part of Britain’s culinary heritage?

The Food Standards Authority has not authority.

A horsemeat burger comes second in a blind taste test.

Create – a restaurant praised for being an example of David Cameron’s ‘big society’ – closes down.

The gluten-free fad.

The Lunch Lady of Ho Chi Minh City.

Below the covers of recipe books.

The San Francisco Chronicle‘s war on bad coffee.

Grandmothers from around the world share their favourite recipes.

Beans from the sixteenth century have been found in the Vatican.

The world’s earliest written recipe?

Jim Crace digests Paul Hollywood’s Bread.

The opening of a branch of Krispy Kreme causes havoc in Edinburgh.

Some coffee contains more caffeine than energy drinks.

Eating in Istanbul.

This is the end times: the Jimmy Choo cup holder.

The surprising usefulness of emu oil.

Dumplings from around the world.

Chocolate and wine…in one bottle. Urgh.

Food additives are not all bad.

Why you shouldn’t store ammunition in an oven.

Ice cream-shaped pom poms.

Breakfast recipes from the Smitten Kitchen.

The Levinsky Market in Tel Aviv.

Why do Americans eat pancakes for breakfast?

Ben and Jerry’s has a graveyard for discontinued flavours.

A 1938 advertisement for Ovaltine.

Hitler’s food taster give an interview.

Shortbread teabags.

Food Links, 13.02.2013

For more on the horsemeat scandal: understanding the risk of eating horse; John Harris on what the scandal tells us about poverty in the UK.

The impact of heat waves on harvests.

Honest junk food advertising.

On the antioxidant myth.

Big Food is undermining public health policy.

Food prices are set to rise in Egypt.

Why food companies should pay their taxes in developing nations.

The potential benefits and dangers of the global rage for quinoa.

Mountain Dew has launched a breakfast drink.

How Big Food controls America’s food system.

The Breakfast Bible is published this week: a review of the book, and more on its author.

The imperial cuisine of the Netherlands.

Why smuggle garlic?

Ideas for cooking with blood oranges.

The rise of the new food magazines.

Inside the robot restaurant.

The best croissants in Paris.

Walter Cronkite on the kitchen of the future.

An interview with Maricel Presilla.

Why the fashion world loves Diet Coke.

Surprise meringues.

Elvis Presley‘s eating habits.

The curry chefs of Brick Lane.

Tyrannical tasting menus.

A quiz for Lent.

How to make scientific salad dressing.

Why the British enthusiasm for American food?

Devise your hipster restaurant name.

Famous foods invented by accident.

Julian Baggini on coffee.

How the Snickers bar has changed over time.

In praise of old cooking inventions.

Barista slang.

A food writer finds his first review.

How to make your own fruit leather.

Food Links, 06.02.2013

The rise of food banks in Britain.

Why is there corn syrup in Coke?

The scanty evidence for the health benefits of energy drinks.

What you need to know about sugar.

Modernism, modernity, and the Automat.

How Fidel Castro learned how to make Irish coffee.

Tim Hayward on dude food.

Who picks your tealeaves?

William Cowherd, the Beefsteak Chapel, and the origins of British vegetarianism.

Is sea salt better than ordinary table salt?

Ten odd examples of health food.

Turning a life around with pie.

The rise of caffeinated foods.

Cheese-making is around 7,000 years old.

How to roll pastry.

The man who collects sweet and chocolate wrappers.

The 1692 Women’s Petition against Coffee.

When does food become ‘foreign‘?

London is to get its own kitten cafe.

Strange fad diets.

Game of Thrones is to get its own craft beer.

Dr Who teabags.

How good should cooking-wine be?

Washington DC‘s landmarks in chocolate.

The guide to hipster food.

A guide to dim sum.

The surprisingly fashionable persimmon.

The word’s best chocolatiers.

Food Links, 16.01.2013

A world map of organic agriculture.

How to make farming more sustainable in India.

The incredible value of Meals on Wheels.

Americans are drinking less milk.

The problem with taking dietary supplements.

Foods with the greatest pesticide residue.

How much should bread cost?

The astonishing amount of food wasted by Americans.

Cooking like a man.

A brief history of ersatz ingredients.

Drink as much coffee as you like.

In pursuit of snackability.

Sausage and haddock. (Thanks, Mum!)

South Africa’s Come Dine with Me as a form of social commentary.

Fuchsia Dunlop’s guide to the food of Taipei.

Novelists who’ve sobered up.

Celebrations at the end of Prohibition in the US.

Why drinking tea was once considered a reckless pursuit for women.

Havana‘s new restaurant scene. (Thanks, Ricardo!)

A review of the French version of Great British Bake Off.

Apples as art.

Öküzgözü. Boğazkere. Xynomavro. Zalagyöngye.

The Pudding Club.

Why grapefruit is appalling. And why it’s amazing.

A newish way of cooking pasta.

How to make your own extracts.

On Lesley Blanch’s Around the World in Eighty Dishes.

Brock Davis’s food art.

Marks and Spencer’s Head of Cake.

Fifteen revolting recipes.

Food Links, 09.01.2013

How Walmart is eating up the food system.

The implications of fracking for America’s food supply.

A guide to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.

Eating won’t give you cancer.

Food maps.

A guide to the hot chocolate of Belgium.

On the wildly popular Mission Chinese Food in New York.

Chocolate and coffee. Yum.

Eating offal in Japan.

The story of nutmeg.

How to eat a mielie in ten seconds.

A guide to eating in Seoul.

The rise of the supper club.

Mark Bittman on dal.

Real, working toy stoves for children.

Eating raw food.

How to cook a 14 inch-wide mushroom.

Edible design.

Mark Bittman on mushrooms.

What to eat in Kuala Lumpur.

How to make burrata.

Food in fiction.

Felicity Cloake on biryani.

How to make your own literary cocktails.

In praise of Meyer lemons.

The most amazing bars around the world.

How to make your own tofu.

These are courtesy of my mum:

Photographs of bread in Kashmir.

The Rahmens.

Reflecting on THAT New York Times review of Guy Fieri’s new restaurant in Times Square.

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