What does coffee signify?

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I read a fascinating article in the New Yorker on the way to the Big Central barista competitions recently. It was in the Oct. 14, 2013 issue (aka the Money Issue), and it was about a new road that has recently opened in east India. The whole story is, unfortunately, behind a paywall, but you can read an excerpt here.

The gist of the story is that what used to be a slow, little used, and unpaved road up the east coast of India has recently been paved. It’s now a multi-lane high-speed transportation thoroughfare called the East Coast Road. Along with modernity, however, come any number of challenges, and the local people are struggling to adapt. Maybe that’s not fair, they’re certainly adapting, and for some people it’s a whole new wonderful world where they can be connected with the larger world. For others, however, the new road brings unwelcome change. The sleepy towns are now beset by activity, construction, noise, and danger.

Consider this paradox: The highway allows victims of traffic accidents to be taken to hospitals much faster than in the past, but the higher speeds and huge growth of traffic on the highway have also dramatically increased the number of accidents and created more victims.

For me, however, one of the examples of modernity given in the article really sticks out, and that’s coffee.

Traditionally, India has been a tea-drinking society. And the East Coast Road has numerous tea houses (which are typically  shacks) alongside it. Recently, however, the “city” influence has come to one village along the road called Kadapakkam, and the face of that influence is a coffee shop. The article author visited the coffee shop with a local photographer named Ganesh. The shop’s owner is named Gopi.

From the story:

He [Gopi] acknowledged that some people in Kadapakkam remained skeptical about his coffee shop. Older people especially were reluctant to enter. They complained about the prices, and they were confused by the menu, which featured only Western items…

Ganesh ordered an iced coffee; this was something you couldn’t get elsewhere in the village…

Ganesh praised the coffee. The milk was thicker than the milk in the village tea shops; it had a bit of a “royal taste.” The only problem was the price. “Here a coffee costs at least fifty rupees,” Ganesh said. “In the tea shops outside, it cost seven or eight.” …

Ganesh added that the main reason people came to places like this was for the social experience…. Gopi nodded and said that the coffee shop had acquired a certain cachet. People liked to brag that they’d been there; if they had guests from the city, they brought them by to show how sophisticated Kadapakkam had become.

Gopi stepped out, and Ganesh said, “The problem is that this kind of place doesn’t suit the village life style at all.”

The article has a number of anecdotes about other people’s interactions with and attitudes towards the coffee shop. (It also sells pizza, which again is something very new and foreign to the people of Kadapakkam, many of whom have never even tasted cheese before.) There’s no question that the business has become something a lightning rod for both positive and negative reactions toward “civilization.” As a villager named Thulasi says in the article, “As civilization increases, it becomes more and more dangerous to man’s life…. Civilization only kills. I was much happier before we became civilized.”

To think about coffee, specifically coffee as a status symbol, as a cultural signifier, and as a harbinger of modernity, is to look at coffee a little differently. I love the fact that in the 21st Century we have access to these stories, and to amazing coffees, and that we can know the stories behind our coffee, and we can read or witness the transforming effects of modernity on people’s lives. I don’t really have a coherent or deeper thought about what it means for the people of Kadapakkam, however, or other villages along the East Coast Road. I do find it somewhat amusing that the complaints that the old guard have for the “new-fangled” coffee shop are an awful lot like the comments section of any online story about specialty coffee in the US, specifically about the cost, the weird-sounding drinks, and the why-isn’t-what-we’ve-always-done-good-enough-anymore attitude.

I feel the excitement that many people in Kadapakkam have at new opportunities and experiences the highway brings, but I also sympathize at what’s been lost and their sense of being caught up in changes they can’t control. There’s no question that throughout all societies there have always been people wanting to straddle the highways of history and yell “Stop!” But that doesn’t work.

As Ganesh says in the story, “Sometimes people think you can just press Rewind and go back to the way things were. But that’s not how the world works. You can’t rewind life.”

You can see a slideshow that accompanies the story here.

About the Author

Ken

Kenneth R. Olson is co-founder and publisher of Barista Magazine the worldwide trade magazine for the professional coffee community. He has written extensively about specialty coffee, traveled near and far for stories, activities, and fun, and been invited to present on topics important to coffee culture. He is also an avid fan of the Portland Trail Blazers and the Washington Huskies. Go Blazers! Go Dawgs!