A world in your coffee cup
My friend Elizabeth and I have breakfast together every Friday morning. For the past month or so, we’ve managed to eat at a different cafe each week – our only criteria being that they’re in central Cape Town and open early. This week we went to The Power and the Glory, a restaurant and club now irredeemably associated with the city’s burgeoning population of hipsters. But it serves an excellent breakfast. (More evidence that hipsters can serve breakfast well.) And it is – inadvertently – immensely entertaining. As I sat at a window, waiting for Elizabeth to arrive, a hipster customer arrived to buy a take-away coffee.
The scene was almost a parody of hipster-ness: hipster customer was wearing a high-waisted print skirt, brogues, and an elaborate tattoo; hipster waitress behind the serving counter was in a red vintage frock with a tousled pixie hairdo. Both were very pale, and very skinny. (I think we need a term to describe the extreme thinness of hipsters.) Hipster customer removed her hipster shades and asked for a cappuccino.
An awkward silence fell.
Hipster cafes don’t sell cappuccinos. They sell flat whites. Asking for a flat white is as much an indicator of hipster membership as a subscription to The Gentlewoman.
This left hipster waitress in a difficult position. Should she forgo her hipster principles for a moment, ignore the faux pas and order her customer a flat white? Or should she correct her? Was the hipster customer an influential hipster, and not worth insulting? Or was this the time to establish which of the pair was the real hipster?
The barrista, a beefy non-hipster who’d been watching this with some amusement, stepped in. ‘I think you mean a flat white,’ he said.
‘I do!’ said hipster customer.
And all was resolved.
Even if this hilarious moment of hipster awkwardness was so much of its time and place – it was at once typically Capetonian and typical of a particular sub-culture – the fact that it happened over a coffee, gives it almost a timeless quality.
Coffee is unusual in that it has managed to remain fashionable since its arrival in Europe at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Flat whites are only the most recent manifestation of cool coffee. They seem to have originated in Auckland in the late 80s, and differ from cappuccinos or lattes – the more familiar, Italianate forms of hot coffee-and-milk – in that the milk is heated until it’s thick and warm, rather than only frothy.
Flat whites arrived in London four or five years ago, with the opening of a series of small coffee shops in the cooler parts of east and central London by Kiwi expats. Chains like Costa and Starbucks have since added flat whites to their menus, but – as hipsters know – a flat white is defined as much as the cafe and person who makes it, as it is by its ratio of coffee to milk.
And that is the issue. Coffee is coffee, but we’ve come to associate particular meanings with the ways in which we prepare it: between someone who buys their coffee from Origin or Truth in Cape Town and another who only drinks instant, chicory-flavoured Ricoffy with UHT milk. (Which is, incidentally, my idea of culinary hell.) Both are forms of coffee, but they are socially and culturally miles apart. Studying shifting patterns in coffee fashion is fascinating in itself, but they become more interesting when we think of them within the complex networks of trade and finance which allow us to buy coffee at restaurants and in supermarkets.
The coffee craze in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries contributed to a boom in the coffee trade. Coffee had been available since early 1600s, having been imported to Europe from Turkey via Venice. Mixed with milk and sugar, it became popular with the new European middle classes. It was associated with exotic sophistication – and also became a marker of intellectual adventurousness. It’s difficult to underestimate the extent to which drinking coffee and the culture and politics of the Enlightenment were entangled, as Anne EC McCants writes:
The expression ‘to break bread together’ now has an archaic feel to it. A proximate contemporary substitute, albeit devoid of the powerful religious significance of bread, is to ‘go out for a cup of coffee’, which is at least as much about conversation as it is about nourishment per se. Historians associate this total reorientation of the culture of food and drink with the substitution of coffeehouses for taverns; the wider dissemination of public news; trading on the stock exchange; new table etiquette and table wares; new arrangements of domestic and public space; the ability to sustain new industrial work schedules despite their tedium….
One of the best depictions of the appeal of the new, middle-class coffee culture is JS Bach’s Coffee Cantata (1732-1735), in which a ‘disobedient’ and ‘obstinate’ young woman’s addiction to coffee so annoys her father that he threatens not to allow her to marry, unless she gives up coffee. In the end she agrees, but – without her father knowing – resolves to include her clause in her marriage contract which stipulates that she must have a steady supply of coffee.
The first coffee house opened in Britain in 1650, and within a decade there were around 3,000 of them in London. These were places where men could meet to talk in relative freedom. In 1675, Charles II tried to close them in fear that coffee house patrons were plotting to overthrow him. (Given his father’s sticky end, a paranoia about the middle classes was always inevitable.) Monarchical and official suspicion of coffee houses never really ended, though. These were places where the free exchange of information allowed for the dissemination of the Enlightenment ideas that transformed the eighteenth-century world.
But trade was also changing this world. When the Dutch managed to get hold of coffee plants from Arab traders in 1690, they established plantations in Java, where they already cultivated a range of spices. The French began to grow coffee in the West Indies at the beginning of the eighteenth century, and over the course of the next hundred years or so, coffee was planted in West Africa and parts of Latin America.
The plantation system – in many ways the origins of modern capitalism – was dependent on slave labour. Europe’s taste for coffee was satisfied by slavery. But even after the abolition of slavery in the early and middle of the nineteenth century, European demand for coffee shaped the economies of countries very far away.
The domestication of coffee consumption in the nineteenth century – when women began to drink coffee, and more of it was served at home – caused demand to spike. Improvements in transport meant that coffee could be shipped over longer distances far quicker and in greater quantities than ever before. During the 1820s and 1830s, coffee cultivation became a way of linking the economies of newly-independent nations in Latin America, to global trade. Coffee production in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and El Salvador increased exponentially, and governments introduced measures to facilitate the industry: new transport infrastructure, tax breaks for landowners, low or no export duties, and legislation to lower the cost of labour.
Plentiful land and cheap labour were secured by progressively disenfranchising Indian populations, whose right to own property and to work where they pleased was eroded by pro-plantation legislation. Uprisings against governments and landowners were stamped out – usually with the help of the military. The argument for increased coffee production just seemed so compelling. By the end of the nineteenth century, ninety per cent of the world’s coffee came from South America.
Brazil was the largest single Latin American supplier of coffee, and from 1906 onwards was the controller of the international coffee trade. The Brazilian government bought up beans, stockpiled them, and then released them into the market, thereby regulating the coffee price. European and North American countries encouraged African countries to begin cultivating coffee on a grander scale too.
African producers tended to grow Robusta coffee varieties, which are generally hardier, but less tasty, than the Arabica coffee produced in Latin America. This meant that when demand for instant coffee grew in the 1950s, coffee production in postcolonial African states, whose governments subsidised coffee farmers and facilitated the free movement of labour, flourished. The entry of African coffee growers into the world market meant that the price began to plummet – and the Kennedy administration in the US realised that this was an ideal opportunity for some Cold War quiet diplomacy.
The 1962 International Coffee Agreement was meant to stabilise Latin American economies and to immunise them against potential Soviet-backed revolutions by introducing production quotas for every major coffee producing nation. Even if the ICA did include African producers, it favoured the US and Brazil, effectively giving them veto rights on any policy decisions.
The collapse of the Agreement in the late eighties – partly as a result of the increased production of non-signatories, like Vietnam – caused a major decline in the price of coffee. For consumers and cafe owners, this was distinctly good thing: good coffee was cheaper than ever before. Coffee shops in the US, in particular, fuelled a demand for good, ‘real’, coffee.
But for Rwanda, the collapse of the international coffee price and the end of regulation had disastrous implications. In 1986 and 1987, Rwanda’s annual coffee sales more than halved. The government was bankrupted and increasingly dependent aid from international institutions including the World Bank, which demanded the privatisation of state enterprises, cuts in government spending, and trade liberalisation. (Hmmm – sound familiar?) The government could no longer fund social services and schools and hospitals closed. This exacerbated existing political tensions, and created a large unemployed population, many of whom became volunteers for the paramilitary groups which carried out the genocide in 1994.
It’s supremely ironic that Rwanda has turned – again – to coffee to pull itself out of the disaster of the nineties. This time, though, coffee is being produced in ways which are meant to be more sustainable – both ecologically and economically. There, though, problems with this. Isaac A. Kamola writes:
However, widely lauded ‘fair-trade’ coffee is not without its own contradictions. First, fair-trade coffee is an equally volatile market, with much of the additional price paid to growers dependent upon goodwill consumption. Such consumption patterns are highly vulnerable to economic fluctuations, changes in cultural and ethical patterns, education campaigns, and individual commitment. Furthermore, fair-trade coffee also faces an oversupply problem, with more fair-trade coffee being produced than there are consumers of it.
In Mexico, for instance, the current instability in the global food prices – caused partly by food speculation – is placing incredible pressure on small farmers who cultivate coffee: the fluctuating coffee price has shrunk their incomes at a time when maize has never been so expensive. And even prosperity brings problems. Kenyan coffee is of particularly good quality, and the increase in the coffee price has benefitted local farmers. It has also brought an increase in crime, as gangs steal coffee berries and smuggle them out of the country.
Demand abroad fuels coffee production in Africa, Latin America, and elsewhere. No other commodity demonstrates the connectedness of global patterns of consumption and production than coffee. As Kamola makes the point, we need to make this system fairer, but the fair-trade model still ensures that African farmers are dependent on demand abroad:
This does not mean that fair trade should be discouraged. It should be underscored, however, that reforms in First World consumption patterns are not alone sufficient to ensure the protection of people from the violent whims of neoliberal markets.
As much as coffee is associated with sophistication in the West – as much as it helped to facilitate the Enlightenment – it has also been the cause of incredible deprivation and suffering elsewhere. Invented in New Zealand, popularised in the UK, and made from Rwandan beans certified by the Fairtrade Foundation based in London, a flat white in Cape Town tells a global story.
Sources cited here:
Anne E.C. McCants, ‘Poor consumers as global consumers: the diffusion of tea and coffee drinking in the eighteenth century,’ Economic History Review, vol. 61, no. 1 (2008), pp. 172-200.
Isaac A. Kamola, ‘Coffee and Genocide,’ Transition, no. 99 (2008), pp. 54-72.
Dale Pendell, ‘Goatherds, Smugglers, and Revolutionaries: A History of Coffee,’ Whole Earth, (June 2002), pp.7-9.
Craig S. Revels, ‘Coffee in Nicaragua: Introduction and Expansion in the Nineteenth Century,’ Conference of Latin Americanist Geographers, vol. 26 (2000), pp. 17-28.
Joyce Appleby, The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism (New York: WW Norton,  2011).
Merid W. Aregay, ‘The Early History of Ethiopia’s Coffee Trade and the Rise of Shawa,’ The Journal of African History, vol. 29, no. 1, Special Issue in Honour of Roland Oliver (1988), pp. 19-25.
Roy Love, ‘Coffee Crunch,’ Review of African Political Economy, vol. 26, no. 82, North Africa in Africa (Dec.,1999), pp. 503-508.
Sidney W. Mintz, Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996).
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.
Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Tastes of Paradise: A Social History of Spices, Stimulants, and Intoxicants, trans. David Jacobson (New York: Random House, 1992).
James Walvin, Fruits of Empire: Exotic Produce and British Taste, 1660-1800 (Basingstoke and London: Macmillan, 1997).
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Hot Cross Bun Fight
Just before Easter this year, a group of Christians in South Africa objected to the labelling of hot cross buns at Woolworths, a premium supermarket, as halal. Possibly chastened by the furore which erupted over its stocking of Christian magazines a couple of years ago, Woolies apologised. But, wonderfully, the response of the South African public was hilarity: what on earth, asked people on social media and radio chat shows, was wrong with making hot cross buns available to Muslims?
As many pointed out, it would be interesting to see if these Christians also avoided McDonald’s, KFC, Nando’s or any of the other fast food chains which serve halal food. In a country as socially and culturally diverse as South Africa, it makes sense for restaurants and shops to sell halal and kosher products. Most chicken sold in South Africa is halal, for instance.
In fact, the South African Easter meal of choice is pickled fish – a dish developed by slaves brought to the Cape from southeast Asia, India, and elsewhere during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Many of these slaves would have been Muslim, a religion tolerated by the Dutch and, later, British authorities on the grounds that they believed it to be ‘civilised’ and unlikely to encourage slaves to revolt or disobey their masters and mistresses.
So South African Christians eat a dish at Easter which was created by Muslim slaves more than two centuries ago. And even those who are not Christian eat it: we had my Mum’s version of pickled fish on Good Friday – based on a recipe my Great-Grandmother cooked – with pilaf instead of the usual bread-and-butter, and it was delicious.
I was interested by the hot cross bun debate because – I think – it’s the first major discussion South Africans have had about the labelling of halal food. Last year there was some controversy about a meat supplier which allegedly sold haram meat as halal, but the debates then were about the regulation of the meat industry, and not about the public’s willingness – or otherwise – to eat halal food.
This ‘storm in a baking pan,’ as Father Chris Townsend of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference put it, was fairly unusual, in international terms, in the way that it was greeted with such widespread condemnation. In France, the first country in Western Europe to ban women from wearing the burqa and niquab in public, the labelling of halal food is now an electoral issue. Concerned by the depressing popularity of far-right loon Marine le Pen, Nicolas Sarkozy announced in January that if re-elected, he would enact legislation to ensure that all halal foods are clearly labelled. (You can donate to Francois Hollande’s campaign here.)
Sarkozy justified these new measures – which angered Jewish leaders as well – by implying that the ritual slaughter of animals for halal and, by implication, kosher meat is inhumane. But French Muslims argue that Sarkozy and the French right’s attack on ritual slaughter has less to do with the treatment of animals than it does to broader debates about multiculturalism and social integration in France. As one French blogger commented:
This isn’t the only recent debate about the labelling of halal meat and ritual slaughter. Australia and Canada have seen similar discussions, and the Daily Mail seems to specialise in a kind of hysterical journalism which links the widespread availability of halal meat to the end of Britain and the imminent arrival of Armageddon. Religious slaughter is banned in New Zealand, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Norway, and Sweden. An attempt to enact a similar ban in the Netherland last year was blocked at the last minute.
What makes these debates interesting is that they are hardly new. David Smith writes that in 1995,
In his excellent Franz Kafka, the Jewish Patient (1995), Sander Gilman explores shifting attitudes towards shehitah, the slaughter of animals in accordance with Judaic law and custom. In the 1880s and 1890s, various campaigns to outlaw shehitah emerged in Europe. In Germany, only Saxony eventually banned shehitah in 1897. While many supporters of the campaign were anti-vivisectionists or were concerned about the treatment of animals in abattoirs, there is no coincidence that this interest in the butchering of kosher meat developed at the same time as a wave of anti-Semitism swept Europe.
In 1883, delegates at a meeting of the Congress for the Protection of Animals in Vienna argued that the protection of ritual slaughter was an indication of Jewish influence over European politics. But others pointed out that the attempt effectively to ban kosher meat was driven by anti-Semitism. In 1885, the Lord Mayor of London compared the campaign to the allegations around Jewish ritual murder during the medieval period. The liberal Berlin Daily News declared in 1893 that those opposed to ritual slaughter were ‘pure anti-Semites’. Unsurprisingly, the Nazis outlawed ritual slaughter – also in the name of preventing cruelty to animals – during the 1930s.
There is, then, an obvious link between anxiety about religious difference, and even racism, and concerns about ritual slaughter. That said, expressing concern about the ways in which animals are slaughtered should not necessarily immediately be construed as religious or cultural intolerance. Countries need to find a balance between facilitating the religious practices of all their citizens, and the humane treatment of animals.
The South African hot cross bun fight (ahem, sorry) was not, though, about ritual slaughter. The Christians who complained about the labelling of hot cross buns in Woolworths were angry about the association of a Christian symbol – the cross on the bun – with a sticker connected to Islam. Next year, Woolies will sell hot cross buns (without the halal sticker) and spiced buns (with a halal sticker). The buns will be identical, with the exception of a flour-and-water-paste cross on the former.
I don’t know enough about the history of attitudes towards religious slaughter in South Africa to position this incident within a broader, historical context, but there are several examples of religious communities coexisting fairly harmoniously during periods of this country’s past. Most of the butchers in nineteenth-century Cape Town were Muslim, for example. This meant that the majority of Victorian Capetonians ate halal meat, regardless of their religious beliefs.
This incident demonstrates not only the extent to which food is integral to the maintenance of religious identities – which is particularly ironic given the fact that so many of the traditions and rituals we associate with Easter have pagan origins – but that people’s anxieties about religious freedom and identity are frequently played out through debates around food.
Sources cited here:
Sander Gilman, Franz Kafka, the Jewish Patient (New York and London: Routledge, 1995).
Pablo Lerner and Alfredo Mordechai Rabello, ‘The Prohibition of Ritual Slaughtering (Kosher Shechita and Halal) and Freedom of Religion of Minorities,’ Journal of Law and Religion, vol. 22, no. 1 (2006/2007), pp. 1-62.
David Smith, ‘“Cruelty of the Worst Kind”: Religious Slaughter, Xenophobia, and the German Greens,’ Central European History, vol. 40, no. 1 (Mar., 2007), pp. 89-115.
Ellen Wiles, ‘Headscarves, Human Rights, and Harmonious Multicultural Society: Implications of the French Ban for Interpretations of Equality,’ Law & Society Review, vol. 41, no. 3 (Sep., 2007), pp. 699-735.
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.