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The Devil's Cup (Stewart Lee Allen, 2000)

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ISBN 1-8419-5143-9

Further Reading

By the Same Author

  • In the Devil's Garden

Similar Writing

  • Allen's writing most calls to my mind that of Peter Biddlecombe , although Biddlecombe's books comprise short chapters, each of which is a complete essay within itself, as opposed to the "feature length" Devil's Cup.

This book is no doubt properly considered alongside the raft of others - a recent phenomenon - about the history of various groceries and other commonplace artefacts: salt, various spices, maps, clocks and whatever. To the best of my knowledge, nobody has yet attempted the secret history of toilet brushes, although I'm sure itís only a matter of time.

But, as you may have noticed, I prefer to consider this a travel book of sorts, anyway.

In my view, a good travel book, the best of them, anyhow, will usually spill enough of the authorís guts to develop a feeling for them; an essential prerequisite to sharing their experiences. Allen spills just enough; the rapport is there and we can begin to walk alongside him as he explores the history of coffee, from Ethiopia, Yemen, Vienna, Paris, Brazil and, finally, on a bizarre road-trip along Route 66, in search of the archetypal - i.e. very bad - cup of American coffee.

But the book is ostensibly a history, and history there is. Here a paragraph to give you some idea of what youíre in for:

"The generally accepted theory is that coffee came into use among the Arabs a few centuries after the birth of Islam. Most Westerners today associate Islam with terrorists, bearded fanat­ics, and a distressing lack of toilet paper. This, of course, is both silly and true. Islam is a beautiful religion. Of course itís not perfectóany religion that insists half the species walk about with a bag over their head clearly has some issues to deal withóbut in its heyday it was the crowning glory of the human race. While the Christians in Europe were sunk in the Dark Ages, Muslims were studying Aristotle, inventing algebra, and gener­ally creating one of the most elegant civilizations in history.

"But who cares? The main thing is they were all teetotalers. Denied the pleasures of the grape, itís hardly surprising that this new society took to coffee with a passion, particularly the mys­tic Sufis, who began using it in their religious ceremonies."
ó p. 58

As you can see, the writing is upbeat and amusing. Hereís my favourite bit:

"In the days of Procope, waiters doubled as in house encyclopedias who, having personally heard Voltaire's latest pronouncement, could be counted on to authoritatively settle any dispute. It's still a prestigious position, in a way. ... At the very least you get to wear tight pants and sneer at tourists, two pastimes no Frenchman can long resist."
ó p. 148

Unintentionally amusing, I think, is the authorís confusion of port and starboard on p. 169, while had me fooled for half a page, wondering if my west African geography was really in so bad a shape, until I figured out why my mental compass was out by 180 degrees. No matter: the book is by turns outrageous, fun, sad, and informative. And so....

Recommendation: Highly recommended.

Look and Feel: My edition is the usual matt-finish paperback. There are no photographs, endnotes or index.

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