Serious Reads: Coffee: Philosophy for Everyone, edited by Fritz Allhoff

Serious Reads

Reviews of food-themed memoirs, beach reads, and histories.

Today, many of us get our daily caffeine boost at the local Starbucks, corner store, or other commercial coffeemaker. We need to wake ourselves up, so we duck in, pay quickly, and head on with our days. Or maybe we decide to linger instead, plugging in our laptops for the long haul of writing blog posts or perusing Facebook profiles. But drinking coffee is an increasingly solitary act—and one that we tend not to dwell upon once our bodies are happily abuzz. Coffee: Philosophy for Everyone: Grounds for Debate, edited by Fritz Allhoff, seeks to address the process of coffee consumption through a philosophical lens. If that approach doesn't make much sense to you, well, this book doesn't do much to accommodate.

The book is a compilation of essays by scholars and experts, primarily in philosophy and anthropology. The first three segments of the book focus on philosophical aspects of coffee drinking. Chapter titles include "The Unexamined Cup is Not Worth Drinking"; "Cafe Noir: Anxiety, Existence, and the Coffeehouse"; and "Starbucks and the Third Wave." The pieces delve into why we drink coffee beyond our need for a caffeine boost. What is the historical context for coffee consumption? What does it mean to consume the beverage with a less than clear picture of how it was produced? How much better, really, is Starbucks coffee than your average bean?

Some of the more interesting essays looked at the coffeehouse's role in developing the American public sphere. Historically, coffeehouses were important places for groups to gather and discuss issues of the day. Today we've arguably seen this experience diminish—but Howard Schulz, CEO of Starbucks, disagrees. He calls his franchise the "Third Place"—that is, a place separate from home and work in which we create new communities and connections. Arguably some communities have maintained local coffeeshops that continue to be the neighborhood hub for meetings, concerts, and socials. But these writers assert that the primary goal of the coffeehouse—to increase civic engagement—is behind us.

The end of the book delves briefly into issues of coffee ethics. Authors address bean production methods, fair trade certification, and the moral implications of the distance between us and our bean growers. These last few chapters were nice, but I couldn't help but wish the rest of the book had weighed heavier on the realities of coffee production and consumption. The philosophical inquiry into coffee drinking doesn't feel quite relevant when our ability to dwell upon such an issue is fueled by the underpaid labor of global south populations. But perhaps I'll ponder my second cup tomorrow with a closer eye.

About the Author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves learning about, talking about, reading about, and consuming food. Her work has also been featured in Rhode Island Monthly Magazine.