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  • Coffee as a Social Drug
  • Steven Topik (bio)

Coffee and Globalization

Coffee is one of the most widely consumed beverages and most internationally traded commodities in the world in good part because caffeine is the world's most popular drug, a legal drug at that (Weinberg and Bealer 2001, 198; Courtwright 2001, 19). But that has not always been the case. Coffee has followed a circuitous path to legality and to popularity. Coffee's status has owed as much to its social role, viewed as both virtuous and pernicious, as to its pharmacological effects.

The world coffee trade, an artifact of the earlier spice trade, inspired one of the first global markets.1 Since the late 1400s, cultivation spread out from Africa to Arabia, East Asia, Latin America, back to Africa and to East Asia. Today, it is grown on every continent except Antarctica.2 Consumption has also spread across the globe from Africa to the Middle East, Europe, North America, Latin America, and, since the middle of the twentieth century, increasingly to Asia, especially Japan, Korea, and the Philippines. However, this has not flattened the world. As a social drug, going global has caused coffee to take on different faces, playing strikingly different parts in heterogeneous social worlds, ethnic and religious identities, in symbolic rituals, in different food complexes and cuisines, and in diverse environmental niches.3

Coffee could be thought of as the great pretender because of its historical omnipresence. But it has been more than a historical Zelig or a Forrest Gump, the simple-minded protagonists of popular movies whose photos were spliced into the crucial events of their day for cacophonous, humorous effect. They were ridiculous, yes, but coffee was not. It was on the table, yes, but it did more than stand by mutely. It has been a historical actor, in the sense that it fits Michael Pollan's "plant's-eye view of the world." Coffee has used humans to transport itself across the world because of its beautiful flowers, the sweet taste [End Page 81] of its cherries, and most importantly, because of its pharmacological effects (Pollan 2002, xviii).4 Although not a purely autonomous agent, coffee "beans" arose naturally unlike, say, corn, which Arturo Warman notes "was a human invention . . . nature could not propagate it without the participation of men" (Warman 2003, viii). Coffee appeared on its own with little assistance even from insects, since it is self-pollinating. It may well have required goats, however, to unlock the stimulant of the "beans" by chewing them, as Anthony Wild has suggested (2004, 29).

Eventually, humans became intimately involved in Coffea arabica's life. Coffee cultivation, processing, intermediation, marketing, and consumption shaped, as well as reflected, the changes and diversity of the world over the last five centuries. Although a "commodity chain" approach is useful to understanding coffee's role in connecting growers and drinkers, "chain" is too rigid (Topik and Samper 2006). "Chain" smacks of "restraints" and "shackles" when the historical record was much more pliable and protean. Coffee's widespread success derives from its ability to adapt to many geographical, ecological, social settings, and disease regimes and its ability to evolve over time through natural mutations and human assistance. (Coffee gene splicing is only in its infancy.) It has been far more than merely another frivolous "dessert crop," as it is sometimes dismissed. It has helped transform the world economy and societies as it shifted from a rare "luxury and non-necessar[y]" (Landes 1980, 298) to what Brett Neilson and Mohammed Bamyeh term in the introduction to this issue: "common everyday stimulants." During wartime, the U.S. government has even ruled coffee a necessity for the national defense. Coffee became so integral to the U.S. war effort that it became known—and still is known—as "a cup of Joe" named after the symbolic soldier "G.I. Joe."

This symbolic identification demonstrates that coffee has been far more than a simple "commodity." In fact, in the early eighteenth century, "drug" and "commodity" were sometimes considered opposites since "drugs" meant, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, "a commodity which is no longer in demand, and so has lost its value...


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