Culture Percolated Over Coffee

(p. A15) Shachar M. Pinsker, a Hebrew scholar at the University of Michigan, believes that cafés in six cities created modern Jewish culture. It’s the kind of claim that sounds as if it might be a game-changer, and there are enough grounds and gossip in “A Rich Brew” to keep this customer engrossed from cup to cup, . . .
Mr. Pinsker gets percolating at Signor Fanconi’s establishment in Odessa, an Italian café where women were unwelcome and Jews periodically excluded. The young Sholem Aleichem, arriving penniless from Kiev in 1891, found a marble table in the corner and started writing short stories that become the bedrock of Yiddish literature. What else went on in a Black Sea café? They “talk politics day and night . . . read newspapers from all over the world . . . and speculate on currencies and stocks,” writes Mr. Pinsker, drawing on letters of the cafe’s habitués. Isaac Babel found Fanconi’s “packed like a synagogue on Yom Kippur.” It got shut down by Lenin’s commissars.

For the full review, see:
Norman Lebrecht. “BOOKSHELF; A Remarkable Cultural Infusion; Sholem Aleichem found a table and wrote stories while all around him customers drank coffee, read newspapers and talked politics.” The Wall Street Journal (Friday, June 29, 2018): A15.
(Note: ellipsis at end of paragraph, added; ellipses internal to paragraph, in original.)
(Note: the online version of the review was last updated June 28, 2018, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘A Rich Brew’ Review: A Remarkable Cultural Infusion; Sholem Aleichem found a table and wrote stories while all around him customers drank coffee, read newspapers and talked politics.”)

The book mentioned above, is:
Pinsker, Shachar M. A Rich Brew: How Cafés Created Modern Jewish Culture. New York: NYU Press, 2018.

“The Powers of a Man’s Mind Are Directly Proportioned to the Quantity of Coffee He Drinks”

(p. C9) . . . certain aspects of 18th-century Parisian life diluted the importance of sight. This was, after all, a time before widespread street lighting, and, as such, activities in markets (notably Les Halles) were guided as much by sound and touch as by eyes that struggled in the near dark conditions. Natural light governed the lives of working people, principally because candles were expensive. Night workers–such as baker boys known as “bats,” who worked in cheerless basements–learned to rely on their other senses, most notably touch.
. . .
“For Enlightenment consumers, a delicious food or beverage had more than just the power of giving a person pleasure,” writes Ms. Purnell; taste, it was held, could influence personality, emotions and intelligence. Take coffee, “the triumphant beverage of the Age of Enlightenm ent.” Considered a “sober liquor,” it stimulated creativity without courting the prospect of drunkenness. Sir James Mackintosh, the Scottish philosopher, believed that “the powers of a man’s mind are directly proportioned to the quantity of coffee he drinks.” Voltaire agreed and supposedly quaffed 40 cups of it every day. Taste was also gendered: Coffee was deemed too strong for women; drinking chocolate was thought more suitable.

For the full review, see:
MARK SMITH. “The Stench of Progress.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., MARCH 11, 2017): C9.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date MARCH 10, 2017.)

The book under review, is:
Purnell, Carolyn. The Sensational Past: How the Enlightenment Changed the Way We Use Our Senses. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2017.

World Health Organization Praises Coffee, Reversing 1991 Warning

(p. A9) An influential panel of experts convened by the World Health Organization concluded on Wednesday [JUNE 15, 2016] that regularly drinking coffee could protect against at least two types of cancer, a decision that followed decades of research pointing to the beverage’s many health benefits. The panel also said there was a lack of evidence that it might cause other types of cancer.
The announcement marked a rare reversal for the panel, which had previously described coffee as “possibly carcinogenic” in 1991 and linked it to bladder cancer. But since then a large body of research has portrayed coffee as a surprising elixir, finding lower rates of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, neurological disorders and several cancers in those who drink it regularly.

For the full story, see:
ANAHAD O’CONNOR. “Coffee May Protect Against Cancer, W.H.O. Concludes, in Reversal of a 1991 Study.” The New York Times (Thurs., JUNE 16, 2016): A9.
(Note: bracketed date added.)
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date JUNE 15, 2016, and has the title “Coffee May Protect Against Cancer, W.H.O. Concludes.”)

“Better Coffee Rockefeller’s Money Can’t Buy”


“Page Morton Black, a cabaret singer, and William Black, the founder of the Chock Full o’Nuts company, in the early 1960s.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A17) For Gothamites of a certain vintage, it was . . . a part of life . . . — a jaunty little waltz, its lyrics connoting warmth, fiscal security and celestial reward:

Chock Full o’Nuts is that heavenly coffee,

Heavenly coffee, heavenly coffee.
Chock Full o’Nuts is that heavenly coffee,
Better coffee a millionaire’s money can’t buy.

Page Morton Black, the cabaret singer whose sprightly rendition of that song in radio and television ads was indelibly engraved on New Yorkers’ brains at midcentury, died on Sunday [July 21, 2013] at her home in the Premium Point enclave of New Rochelle, N.Y. She was 97.
. . .
Mrs. Black, the widow of William Black, the founder of the Chock Full o’Nuts company, curtailed her singing career after their marriage. But her voice lived on in the jingle, which was broadcast for more than 20 years.
. . .
The jingle’s original last line, “Better coffee Rockefeller’s money can’t buy,” was changed in 1957, after John D. Rockefeller Jr. and his family complained.
. . .
Chock Full o’Nuts, now owned by Massimo Zanetti Beverage USA, has revived the jingle, in a new arrangement, for its contemporary ads. The lyrics have been adjusted for inflation, with “billionaire” replacing “millionaire” in the last line.

For the full obituary, see:
MARGALIT FOX. “Page Morton Black, 97; Sang Heavenly Jingle.” The New York Times (Tues., July 23, 2013): B3.
(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added; jingle italicized and indented in print version of obituary, by not online version.)
(Note: the online version of the obituary has the title “Page Morton Black, Who Sang Heavenly Jingle, Dies at 97.”)

In the England of the Late 1600s, Coffeehouses Were “Crucibles of Creativity”


Source of book image:

(p. 8) Like coffee itself, coffeehouses were an import from the Arab world.
. . .
Patrons were not merely permitted but encouraged to strike up conversations with strangers from entirely different walks of life. As the poet Samuel Butler put it, “gentleman, mechanic, lord, and scoundrel mix, and are all of a piece.”
. . .
. . . , coffeehouses were in fact crucibles of creativity, because of the way in which they facilitated the mixing of both people and ideas. Members of the Royal Society, England’s pioneering scientific society, frequently retired to coffeehouses to extend their discussions. Scientists often conducted experiments and gave lectures in coffeehouses, and because admission cost just a penny (the price of a single cup), coffeehouses were sometimes referred to as “penny universities.” It was a coffeehouse argument among several fellow scientists that spurred Isaac Newton to write his “Principia Mathematica,” one of the foundational works of modern science.
Coffeehouses were platforms for innovation in the world of business, too. Merchants used coffeehouses as meeting rooms, which gave rise to new companies and new business models. A London coffeehouse called Jonathan’s, where merchants kept particular tables at which they would transact their business, turned into the London Stock Exchange. Edward Lloyd’s coffeehouse, a popular meeting place for ship captains, shipowners and traders, became the famous insurance market Lloyd’s.
And the economist Adam Smith wrote much of his masterpiece “The Wealth of Nations” in the British Coffee House, a popular meeting place for Scottish intellectuals, among whom he circulated early drafts of his book for discussion.

For the full commentary, see:
TOM STANDAGE. “OPINION; Social Networking in the 1600s.” The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Sun., June 23, 2013): 8.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date June 22, 2013.)

The author of the commentary is also the author of a related book:
Standage, Tom. A History of the World in Six Glasses. New York: Walker & Company, 2005.

The Universality of Values: Every Kid Wants a Cell Phone

(p. 528) When they got to Istanbul, . . . [Jobs] hired a history professor to give his family a tour. At the end they went to a Turkish bath, where the professor’s lecture gave Jobs an insight about the globalization of youth:

I had a real revelation. We were all in robes, and they made some Turkish coffee for us. The professor explained how the coffee was made very different from anywhere else, and I realized, “So fucking what?” Which kids even in Turkey give a shit about Turkish coffee? All day I had looked at young people in Istanbul. They were all drinking what every other kid in the world drinks, and they were wearing clothes that look like they were bought at the Gap, and they are all using cell phones. They were like kids everywhere else. It hit me that, for young people, this whole world is the same now. When we’re making products, there is no such thing as a Turkish phone, or a music player that young people in Turkey would want that’s different from one young people elsewhere would want. We’re just one world now.

Isaacson, Walter. Steve Jobs. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011.
(Note: ellipsis and bracketed “Jobs” added; indented Jobs block quote was indented in the original.)

Entrepreneurs of Coffee, the Battlefield, and Missing Minerals


Source of book image:

[p. 167] The book . . . contains a variety of entertaining stories and colorful facts about entrepreneurship that could potentially be used for teaching. [p. 168] Murray, for instance, explains that the word “entrepreneur” was borrowed from the French language in the late Middle Ages, a time when it was used to describe a battlefield commander (p. 88). Kuran describes how Middle Eastern coffee entrepreneurs originally faced harsh resistance from many clerics who believed that “coffee drinkers reap hell-fire” (pp. 71-72). Hudson traces early merchant activity and entrepreneurship all the way back to Sumerian cities in Mesopotamia in the third millennium BC (pp. 11-17). These cities, made rich by their fertile alluvial soil, still needed to acquire other important minerals, missing in their own ground, from the distant Iranian plateau or Anatolia. Since military conquest proved too expensive and because the Sumerian cities really needed these resources, they pioneered international import-export activities in their temples and palaces.

For the full review, see:
Bikard, Michael, and Scott Stern. “The Invention of Enterprise: Entrepreneurship from Ancient Mesopotamia to Modern Times.” Journal of Economic Literature 49, no. 1 (March 2011): 164-68.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the page numbers in square parentheses refer to the review; the page numbers in curved parentheses refer to the book under review.)

Book being reviewed:
Landes, David S., Joel Mokyr, and William J. Baumol, eds. Invention of Enterprise: Entrepreneurship from Ancient Mesopotamia to Modern Times. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010.

Coffee Facilitated the Age of Enlightenment

(p. 54) Coffee is a stimulant that has been clinically proven to improve cognitive function—particularly for memory-related tasks—during the first cup or two. Increase the amount of “smart” drugs flowing through individual brains, and the collective intelligence of the culture will become smarter, if enough people get hooked. Create enough caffeine-abusers in your society and you’ll be statistically more likely to launch an Age of Reason. That may itself sound like the self-justifying fantasy of a longtime coffee-drinker, but to connect coffee plausibly to the Age of Enlightenment you have to consider the context of recreational drug abuse in seventeenth-century Europe. Coffee-drinkers are not necessarily smarter, in the long run, than those who abstain from caffeine. (Even if they are smarter for that first cup.) But when coffee originally arrived as a mass phenomenon in the mid-1600s,it was not seducing a culture of perfect sobriety. It was replacing alcohol as the daytime drug of choice. The historian Tom Standage writes in his ingenious A History of the World in Six Glasses:

The impact of the introduction of coffee into Europe during the seventeenth century was particularly noticeable since the most common beverages of the time, even at breakfast, were weak “small beer” and wine. . . . Those who drank coffee instead of alcohol began the day alert and stimulated, rather than relaxed and mildly inebriated, and the quality and quantity of work improved. . . . Western Europe began to emerge from an alcoholic haze that had lasted for centuries.

Johnson, Steven. The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America. New York: Riverhead Books, 2008.
(Note: ellipses in original.)

Steven Johnson’s The Invention of Air


Source of book image:

Steven Johnson’s The Ghost Map, about the determined entrepreneurial detective work that uncovered the cause of cholera, is one of my all-time favorite books, so I am now in the mode of reading everything else that Steven Johnson has written, or will write.
The most recent book, The Invention of Air, is not as spectacular as The Ghost Map, but is well-written on a thought-provoking topic. It focuses on Joseph Priestley’s role in the American Revolution. Priestley is best known as an early chemist, but Johnson paints him as a poly-math whose science was of a piece with his philosophy, politics and his religion.
Johnson’s broader point is that for many of the founding fathers, science was not a compartment of their lives, but part of the whole cloth (hey, it’s my blog, so I can mix as many metaphors as I want to).
And the neat bottom line is that Priestley’s method of science (and polity) is the same broadly empirical/experimental/entrepreneurial method that usually leads to truth and progress.
Along the way, Johnson makes many amusing and thought-provoking observations, such as the paragraphs devoted to his coffee-house theory of the enlightenment. (You see, coffee makes for clearer thinking than beer.)

The book:
Johnson, Steven. The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America. New York: Riverhead Books, 2008.

Starbucks Hypocritically Censors Its Customers

(p. A12) Laissez-faire. It’s a policy that made Starbucks vastly successful. But don’t try to put that phrase on a customized Starbucks Card.
The cards are supposed be personalized to reflect customers’ tastes and uniqueness. They are available in a range of colors, often given as gifts and used by regular customers who prefer to prepay for their java.
But when my friend Roger Ream, president of the Fund for American Studies, received a Starbucks gift card for Christmas, he found there was a limit to how personalized a card could be. His card required him to customize it on the company’s Web site. So he went to the site and requested that the phrase “Laissez Faire” be printed on his card. A few days later he was informed that the company couldn’t issue such a card because the wording violated company policy.
. . .
Maybe Starbucks considers the phrase inappropriate because it’s “overtly political commentary”? Certainly my friend regards it as a firm statement of political philosophy.
And so, at my suggestion, my friend went back to the Web site and asked that his card be issued with the phrase “People Not Profits.” Bingo! Starbucks had no problem with that phrase, and the card arrived in a few days.
I wondered just what the company’s standards were. If “laissez-faire” is unacceptably political, how could the socialist slogan “people not profits” be acceptable?
. . .
Starbucks has prospered mightily in a free economy. For the most recent fiscal year, the company earned $672.6 million on revenue of $9.4 billion, a very healthy profit. And these days, in the wake of a California Superior Court judge’s order that the company repay $100 million in back tips that were shared by shift supervisors, Starbucks honchos just might like a little less government intervention in their affairs and a little more laissez-faire.

For the full commentary, see:
DAVID BOAZ. “Starbucks and ‘Laissez Faire’.” The Wall Street Journal
(Mon., April 7, 2008): A12.

(Note: ellipses added.)