I Give Up Book Review: “Uncommon Grounds” by Mark Pendergrast (2010)

“The History of Coffee and How It Transformed the World”

Any coffee lover would likely be interested in picking up Uncommon Grounds by Mar Pendergrast, if for no other reason than to prove to all the other people in the coffee shop that he is indeed a true coffee lover. I’ve been reading the book on my Kindle, so sadly, no showing off to any of the other posers.

On the whole, I found much of the information about the history of coffee and coffee farming truly interesting, yet also too trivial in the grand scheme of things. And once Pendergrast got bogged down in the business aspect of coffee’s history at the turn of the 20th century, it felt more like reading the Wall Street Journal than an interesting book of history. I finally realized that I needn’t stick with the book any longer. Take this little gem, for example (basically the last paragraph in the book I read): “Buried in the U.S. National Archives outside Washington, D.C., is a thick file of correspondence kept by the Department of Justice covering valorization. It provides a fascinating chronology from the end of 1910 to the spring of 1913 showing how and why U.S. Attorney General George Wickersham gradually built a legal case against Hermann Sielcken and his valorized coffee.” (p.115) Not piquing my interest anymore.

Early on in the book, however, Pendergrast did share a number of interesting nuggets about coffee and its history, nuggets I’ll lay out here for your own benefit. Enjoy.

  • “Four basic components that blend to create the perfect cup: aroma, body, acidity, and flavor. The aroma is familiar and obvious enough—that fragrance that often promises more than the taste delivers. Body refers to the feel or ‘weight’ of the coffee in the mouth, how it rolls around the tongue and fills the throat on the way down. Acidity refers to a sparkle, a brightness, a tang that adds zest to the cup. Finally, flavor is the evanescent, subtle taste that explodes in the mouth, then lingers as a gustatory memory.” (Loc. 333-7)
  • “Pope Clement VIII, who died in 1605, supposedly tasted the Muslim drink at the behest of his priests, who wanted him to ban it. “Why, this Satan’s drink is so delicious,” he reputedly exclaimed, “that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it. We shall fool Satan by baptizing it and making it a truly Christian beverage.” (Loc 521-3)
  • “On average—depending on the tree variety and growing conditions—one tree will yield five pounds of fruit, translating eventually to one pound of dried beans.” (Loc. 826-8)
  • “Plants containing mind-altering alkaloids such as caffeine and cocaine almost all grow in the tropics. Indeed, one of the reasons the tropical rain forest provides so many unique drugs is that the competition for existence is so fierce, there being no winter to provide a respite from the battle for survival. The plants developed the drugs as protective mechanisms. The caffeine content of coffee probably evolved as a natural pesticide to discourage predators.” (Loc. 1103-6)
  • “Water for coffee should be fresh and near boiling, but coffee and water should never be boiled together, and brewed coffee should never be reheated.” (Loc. 1160-1)

©2015 E.T.

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