March 7, 2010

David Letterman said it: Without caffeine I wouldn’t have any personality at all. Along about 5:05 on Friday afternoon one of my work colleagues pointed out that our faculty meeting was cutting into Spring Break. The main thing that means for me is a bit more time to drink coffee and read after I get up in the morning. The opportunity to sit and sip a good cup of coffee (cream, no sugar) ranks right up there with blues music and homemade chili. Right now I’m making it from some beans I bought at Caribou Coffee in the Minneapolis airport. More exotic trips to places like Puerto Rico, Costa Rica and Brazil have always involved bringing home a little of the local coffee. Less exotic trips to places like Grand Rapids always require a stop at Martha’s Vineyard where I can get some Deadman’s Reach, brewed by Ravens Brew out on the West Coast.

Diane, on the other hand, is into tea. She is so much into tea that a few weeks back when I was laid up after foot surgery was the first time in thirty years of marriage that she ever made a pot of coffee. But she is no better than me in terms of her exotic tastes.  For her, it’s Yorkshire Tea or nothing. This would be nothing but a trip to the local market if we lived in the United Kingdom, but right now she is making tea that we bought on the internet and had shipped to us from God knows where. We’ve occasionally been able to buy Yorkshire Tea at T J Maxx, but she is looking for a more reliable source.

Our predilection for sourcing coffee and tea from afar returns me to a theme I raised in connection with Delicious Tamales a few blogs back. On the one hand, we don’t grow coffee or tea in Michigan, so this is never going to be compatible with a strict locavore diet. On the other hand, we have a perfectly good roaster here in Lansing in Paramount Coffee. In fact, when we lived back in West Lafayette, Indiana one of the local shops stocked Paramount Coffee as an exotic food. I don’t go on long trips just to buy coffee. Paramount roasts a nice Fair Trade coffee that I buy when I’m strictly local. But I’m out and about quite a bit in my job, so picking up a pound of coffee from elsewhere is fun for me. One could look at coffee and tea as brief “moral holidays” or “Marco Polos” (the limited exceptions that are allowed in locavore diets). But they aren’t exceptions in the same sense as Delicious Tamales. Not only are we drinking coffee or tea every day, coffee and tea have become such important parts of our routine that they are part of what makes life living.

Both tea and coffee have been enjoyed by people from all social classes in their areas of origin for centuries, and began to be consumed as luxuries among rich and powerful Europeans in the 1600s. Tea caught on first. By the mid-19th century, Sidney Mintz tells us that very sweet tea was serving as an important source of daily energy for workers in the factories of England. The Dutch spread coffee cultivation out of Northern Africa to their colonies around the world. It is now grown in more than 70 countries. Outside of Great Britain and Asia, coffee is now more widely preferred. But none of this begins to capture what coffee means to lots of people. Think about those white coffee cups sitting on the counter in Edward Hopper’s 1942 painting “Nighthawks”. The image speaks volumes about how deeply coffee has affected American culture.

Coffee has also affected the environment. Coffee plantations have been the cause of biodiversity loss and human exploitation. The rise of “Organic” and “Fair Trade” coffee over the last two decades has been designed as a response that allows small farmers to stay in production with sustainable methods. I just finished reading a great book called Nature’s Matrix by Ivette Perfecto, John Vandemeer and Angus Wright that discusses coffee (among other things). They argue that trying to preserve biodiversity by protecting large plots from all agricultural use has actually been counterproductive in the tropics. What matters is the kind of agriculture. Shade grown coffee (and some systems that approximate a shade-grown approach) allows for compatibility between biodiversity and the income needs of very poor people. A “consumption ethic” that is accordingly targeted can help, though Perfecto, Vandemeer and Wright stress the need for political support to resistance movements in the tropics over buying fair trade shade grown coffees.  Many of these farmers would do better by moving away from crops that depend so heavily on consumption in the North, where events like the current economic downturn can cause a dramatic drop in what they get for their coffee or tea. Yet it certainly doesn’t help them for us to boycott coffee and tea. Companies like Raven’s Brew now routinely post information on sustainability on their websites. A look at their page suggests that they are making an effort, but frankly its pretty difficult to tell how seriously the effort they are making actually is.

Brew a pot and dial up Trout Fishing in America on the internet and listen to this song off of their “Big Trouble” album:

All I want is a proper cup of coffee, made in a proper copper coffee pot,

I may be off my dot, but I want a proper coffee in a proper copper pot.

Iron coffee pots and tin coffee pots, they are no use to me!

If I can’t have a proper cup of coffee in a proper copper coffee pot, I’ll have a cup of tea!”

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University