REVIEW — Stewart Lee Allen theorizes in The Devils Cup that coffee launched history out of the slowly moving, drunken Middle Ages (where each man woman and child consumed the equivalent of a six pack a day) to our current, sober and caffeinated instant. Stewart Lee Allen begins with coffees obscure beginnings as an Ethiopian religious drug. The legend goes, an Ethiopian goatherd named Kaldi one day noticed his best goat dancing about and baaing like a maniac, and the goatherd noticed the berries the goat had eaten, ate them himself, discovered coffee, and forever altered history. This goatherds bean gradually stimulated history through the industrial revolution and spread of capitalism through the institutions of coffeehouses. Some of the world oldest and most powerful business, such as the East India Company and Wall Street, began as coffeehouses.
Much has changed in the actual preparation of coffee from its pre-historic role as a religious drug to its present role as a vital nutritional supplement. The Ethiopian perfect cup is prepared in an elaborate coffee ceremony. The hostess roasts green beans at the table, passing around the freshly roasted beans for the gusts to enjoy the aroma, an ode to friendship is offered, the beans are powdered in a stone mortar and then brewed. In the last chapter, Stewart Lee Allen hits the highway, passing through the truck stop riddled South in search of the perfect American cup. He isnt looking for the carefully ground Italian knock-off coffee found in your local strip mall, but true black and palette scalding American Joe. The single most influential coffee recipe in American history involves egg shells and several stages of savagely boiling the beans. He finds this coffee, dumped piping hot out of a round glass carafe drip brewed hours maybe days before, slung down in a porcelain mug and saucer by a dog-tired waitress.
Stewart Lee Allen as the guide along the byways and dead-ends of coffees scattered trajectory out of Africa develops as a disturbing narrator, off handedly recalling in one scene, in a side track to Calcutta, why he loves the city because when he was working for Mother Teresa, hand feeding emaciated men one day, carrying out their corpses the next… most people dont understand why I love Calcutta… cheap, dirty, and full of poorly washed people sitting about babbling nonsense. But despite his penchant for observing poverty and human suffering as delightful examples of local color, Steward Lee Allen does dig up many pieces of odd coffee trivia. For instance Steward Allen Lee writes that Japanese companies purchase the entire crop of Blue Mountain Coffee and another high quality specialized ground called Monkey Coffee collected from the droppings of a palm toddy cat that lives mostly an alcoholic bean but also particularly ripe and succulent coffee and its acidic bowls produce a very high grade ground. While The Devils Cup is neither a travelogue or coffee history, it has changed the way I drink a cup coffee.