‘A Short History of Caffeine’ by Daniel Gee Husson

Caffeine and I go way back. In England as a kid, I remember drinking tea for the first time and feeling like an “adult.” In my first go-round of undergrad in Chicago, I had to make the decision between milk for my Cheerios or coffee for my brain. Coffee won. Hot chocolate will forever remind me of camping trips with my high school buddies.

So it was like sitting down with an old friend when I read Melanie King’s Tea, Coffee & Chocolate, How we fell in love with caffeine.

Using a mix of facts and figures, poetry, recipes, and even origin myths, King weaves a compelling narrative (One legend about the discovery of coffee involves “frisky goats” in Yemen.).

Some facts can be astounding. For example, England imported about a million pounds of tea in 1721 (population of England at the time: about five million people).

What I found the most interesting was the litany of historical figures that King brings forward to advocate for or against tea, coffee, or chocolate. People as varied as Dr. Samuel Johnson, a “hardened and shameless tea drinker,” and Donatien Alphonse Francoise (aka, the Marquis de Sade), “France’s most notorious chocolate lover,” both make appearances in the book.

One tea aficionado, Sir Kenelm Digby, was so specific about his tea preparation that he would steep his tea “no longer than while you can say the Misere Psalm very leisurely.”  According to King, this meant two to three minutes, based on the psalm’s length in Latin.

John Locke comes to the defense of coffee after an anonymous article, The Woman’s Petition Against Coffee Representing to Publick Consideration the Grand Inconveniencies Accruing to their Sex from the Excessive Use of that Drying, Enfeebling Liquor (quite a mouthful, but you get the idea), was published. Locke rejected the idea that coffee was emasculating and instead blamed it on “base adulterate wine and surcharges of muddy ale.”

Samuel Pepys, in his famous diary, wrote that he used chocolate to ease his hangovers. Most likely, King writes, he mixed chocolate with wine when he went to the tavern, for a sweet hair of the dog.

Sprinkled throughout the book, images of advertisements and writings about tea, coffee, and chocolate appear. One such piece is a proclamation by King Charles II banning coffee houses. Apparently, he was concerned about all the political talk that took place in them. (There was such an outcry that the proclamation was rescinded eleven days later.)

King’s writing shines throughout as she takes the reader on a journey from the Americas and the Middle East to Europe, finally landing in England. The genius of her work is how she seems to subconsciously tie the history of these three caffeinated commodities to the present. In the advertisements and missives of the past, I saw echoes of today’s discourse on drug legalization, genetically modified foods, and even vaccines.

Most of all, the book reminded me of how much I like savoring a cup or two, sitting down to write, to read, to think. Knowing the history of caffeine makes it that much more enjoyable.

Daniel Gee Husson is a former newspaper editor and actor. His work has been featured in 12th Street. A recent graduate of the Riggio Honors Program: Writing and Democracy at the New School, he writes fiction, which was once described as “so Gen-X,” and produces documentaries. If you hear somebody laughing, it’s probably him. He lives in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, with his wife.

featured image via *Caterina Neri on Flickr.

15-Year-Old Reviews 16-Year-Old Chef Flynn McGarry

Photo: Cameron Yates, via Grub Street
Photo: Cameron Yates, via Grub Street

“This seems like a nice place for a pop-up, Dad, but it might need a little more light,” says my daughter Jane as we survey the vaulted (and yes, dimly lit) space down on Hudson Street where the wunderkind teenage cook Flynn McGarry has, for the last several weeks, been making his much-anticipated New York debut. McGarry, as you may have heard, is just 16 years old and already has spent time in some of the world’s great kitchens (Maaemo in Norway, Denmark’s GeraniumAlinea in Chicago, Eleven Madison Park here in New York). The success of his pop-up L.A. supper club, called Eureka, landed him on the cover of The New York Times Magazine last year, and now he’s brought his talents, and the Eureka pop-up, to New York. With the help of a business partner who handles the wine program, McGarry preps, cooks, and serves his own 14-course tasting menu, twice a night, for three nights a week. The cost of dinner is $160 per person (plus another $80 if you order the wine pairing), and the 12-seat bar is booked solid for the next month.

Our father-daughter review team managed to wrangle two spots at a recent 9:30 p.m. seating, which Jane’s mother pointed out was perilously close to both of our bedtimes. But so what? As members of the same, precocious, food-obsessed generation, Jane and McGarry seemed like a match made in reality-TV heaven. Jane’s only a year younger than the teenage chef (he’s already passed his high-school equivalency exam), and as the eldest child of a professional eater, she has recently begun to turn her discerning eye to the world of restaurants. On a recent visit to Paris she announced that her favorite restaurant was Daniel Rose’s trendy bistro Spring (“These asparagus are spot-on, Dad”), and lately she’s accompanied her bilious father on his daily rounds, dutifully consuming bagel breakfasts (“Big is not always better when it comes to bagels”), and several marathon tasting-menu feasts (“This food is very impressive,” she whispered at one point, “but where’s the ‘wow’ factor?”).

Read the rest on Grub Street.

Book Review: The GMO Deception


The GMO Deception: A Review

by Maeve McInnis

Do we want to live in a world where all of our food has been at one point genetically altered, where synthetic chemicals are sprayed on our food, and the corporations have complete control over all aspects of our food? Or, would we like to buy vegetables from our local farmer with the knowledge that the genetic makeup of the food is pure, that it has no synthetic chemicals in it, and where we have the freedom to choose GMO or non-GMO food products?

The intention of The GMO Deception: What You Need to Know about the Food, Corporations, and Government Agencies Putting Our Families and Our Environment at Risk, a volume comprised of articles originally published in GeneWatch edited by Sheldon Krimsky and Jeremy Gruber, is to start a larger public dialogue on what they refer to as the deception of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). For anyone who has limited knowledge of the GMO situation in our society the Merriam Webster dictionary defines GMOs as manipulated, or altered organisms to contain specific desired traits not naturally occurring in that organism. The GMO Deception spans topics such as the health and safety of GMOs, labeling, ethics and their environmental impacts, along with other social aspects of the GMO debate. The article ‘Busting the Big GMO Myth’s’ by John Fagan, Michael Antoniou and Claire Robinson did exactly as the title states. “…GMOs could be allergenic. Similarly the toxicity of certain GMOs and the reduced nutritional value of other GMOs have been scientifically demonstrated…More and more evidence is accumulating, showing that GMOs can be harmful to health and the environment.” The article titled ‘Changing Seeds or Seeds of Change?’ By Natalie DeGraaf discusses how “[f]armers in rural India have noted instances of animals dying from grazing on GM crops and new reports are investigating the relationship between increased allergy prevalence and GM foods as well as transference of antibiotic resistance to consumers.” With these alarming reviews of the health concerns of GMO’s from the scientific community, one wonders if this is the sort of technology the global society should rely on to feed its population.

Around the world, from the Government Office for Science in the U.K. to the National Research Council in the United States to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N., there is consensus: In order to address the roots of hunger today and build a food system that will feed humanity into the future, we must invest in “sustainable intensification”—not expensive GMO technology that threatens biodiversity, has never proven its superiority, even in yields, and locks us into dependence on fossil fuels, fossil water, and agrochemicals. (Grist, 2011)

The popularly held belief that GMOs will help feed a growing population, while highly contested in this book, also begs the question at what cost to our individual’s health and the health of the environment. Again Natalie DeGraaf addresses these health concerns by citing a “severe lack of unbiased research being conducted external to the reports issued by GM company laboratories.”  ‘Busting the Big GMO Myths’ by John Fagan, Michael Antoniou, and Claire Robinson quotes Oliver De Schutter, the UN special rapporteur on the right to food, “yields went up 214 percent in forty four projects in twenty countries in sub-Saharan Africa using agro-ecological farming techniques…far more improvement than any GM crop has ever done.”

The editors Sheldon Krimsky and Jeremy Gruber, choose articles that exhibit how large agro companies such as Monsanto hide behind the intellectual property rights laws to keep impartial studies regarding their GMO products behind locked doors. The over-arching theme that unifies each of these pieces: how can a conscious consumer blindly take a company’s word on the safety of a product when the company’s goal is to sell you the product in question?

The GMO Deception’s argument is clear: unless the public takes a stronger stance on this issue, we may have no choice in the matter. It presents well-rounded, researched articles on the issues surrounding GMOs and why society must question their use in food products. “We have literally hundreds of commentaries that bear witness to the deceptions associated with the promoters of GMOs.” It offers arguments and insights into the realm of GMOs that are hard to attain due to corporations’ strangle hold on their intellectual property rights.

While full of insightful material on the subject matter, this book was not a page turner. It consists of short, individual articles by varying authors that, while interesting, did not lure me in enough to make the rest of the world stop in its tracks. It was more of the type of book that one would read a few chapters of and then put it away to thoroughly digest the material before reading on. Each author had such different writing styles that it was difficult to get into a steady rhythm. The articles are fairly academic in content. Therefore if the intention was to spark a wider discussion among the general public the information may fail to reach that audience. I also would have like to have more explanation of why these particular articles were chosen for each separate section of the book. Some of them were written back in the 1980s and, while important in the discussion, it would have helped to outline why they thought each of the articles were worth having in the book because often there was significant overlap in the general information.

Having grown up in a strictly organic and vegetarian household, my stance on GMOs is pretty clear cut. I want them to have absolutely no part in any aspect of my food. For most of my life this has been based on an intuitive hunch that no part of my food should ever set foot in a lab. Now, having read The GMO Deception, I take further comfort in my stance and feel content in backing up my choices with the science discussed in the book. I would recommend this book to anyone with a curiosity about GMOs. Its inaccessibility is worth penetrating for the information therein—just don’t expect to consume the information all at one time.

HeadshotMaeve McInnis is currently pursuing her Masters of Science in Environmental Policy and Sustainability Management with a specialization in Food Policy at the Milano School of International Affairs, Management and Urban Policy at the New School. She is the President of the Sustainable Cities Club and a member of the Student Advisory Committee with the Dean. She is an avid traveler and lover of food, culture and social justice. 

New Cookbook From New York Magazine

From NYMag: “For years, New York food editors Rob Patronite and Robin Raisfeld have been asking chefs to contribute their best recipes for the magazine’s “In Season” column. And now, they’ve compiled the best of the best for a new cookbook. In Season launches this fall and includes 140 of the most thoughtful, delicious, and (yes) seasonal recipes; now, these fresh flavors, inspired by New York’s most renowned chefs, will all be available to home cooks. This is the first cookbook from Patronite and Raisfeld, and here at Grub Street — where we know first-hand just how gastronomically obsessed the duo is — we can’t wait to get our own mitts on it.”

Have a favorite cookbook?  One that you think was a waste of money?  Tell us here on The Inquisitive Eater!  We are looking for interviews as well as book reviews!  Share your thoughts here.  More info under “Submissions”.