Cornell University Press

Let’s Get Coffee: Thoughts for International Coffee Day

Return to Home

 “Let’s get coffee”—a seemingly innocuous invitation to sociability, budding romance, or professional networking—resonates very differently in a post-COVID era of social distancing. In San Francisco, where I live, Blue Bottle coffee now offers mainly contactless sidewalk pickup, Philz coffee has introduced mobile pick-up, and the iconic Ritual Coffee roasters in the Castro shuttered its doors on Labor Day. In a city that has proclaimed itself the coffee capital of the West (rudely ignoring Seattle), we now stand in line at appropriately designated spots to get our caffeine fix. This year’s International Coffee Day, on September 29, will be markedly different than years past, and so we might do well to consider the changing affective dimensions of coffee.

That coffee has long signified social and intellectual exchange, since the burgeoning of coffeehouses across Europe in the eighteenth century, is by now a well-documented historical phenomenon. Its role in the transformation of the public sphere has been documented by influential philosophers like Jürgen Habermas. Its discovery in 850 AD by an Ethiopian goatherd, who chanced upon a trip of dancing goats after they had sampled the arabica plant is the stuff of origin myths. Its associations with productivity have been historicized by scholars who argue that coffee achieved pharmacologically what the Protestant ethic sought to achieve spiritually. Its narcotic effects as the world’s most-used drug have been explored by authors like Michael Pollan, who renounced coffee altogether while writing his eponymous book on caffeine.

This year’s International Coffee Day, on September 29, will be markedly different than years past, and so we might do well to consider the changing affective dimensions of coffee.

To “get coffee,” then, is to participate in a longstanding ritual that is in equal measures ancient, convivial, productive, and addictive in ways that are socially acceptable. Rarely do we hear of colleagues confessing to prescription drug addictions as casually as they volunteer information on their caffeine habits over a laptop at Starbucks. To get coffee is also to participate in easy cosmopolitanism that curry or sushi have come close to approximating. Despite its associations with banal productivity, it somehow manages to retain exotic, even sensuous, connotations. Advertisements speak of it as a hassle-free trip around the world. Logos conjure up forests in Jamaica and mountain ranges in Yemen. Adjectives like dark, strong, spicy are du jour. It’s not for nothing that George Clooney is more well-known in parts of the world as the rich, dark, smooth Nespresso man for a 2013 coffee commercial that earned him enough revenue to maintain a private satellite over Sudan.

Nearly a decade before the Nespresso man, there was the “very exotic” Moccona man, the subject of a successful Australian commercial. Set in a supermarket, it showed a blonde approaching a tall, black man, seductively asking him to help her reach for a jar of Moccona. “I’m into something slightly more exotic… like where you’re from,” she explains. The joke’s on her since he ends up being from Shropshire, but the superimposed caption, assures us that Moccona is “For Lovers Of Exotic Coffee.”

To “get coffee,” then, is to participate in a longstanding ritual that is in equal measures ancient, convivial, productive, and addictive in ways that are socially acceptable.

This racialization of coffee has historical precedence. While writing Tasting Difference, I came upon a seventeenth-century coffee broadside, which depicted it as a dark Othello figure, contaminating the pure, Desdemona-like water. When I mentioned this to my students, many started collecting menu cards and pictures of Othello coffee, chocolate, and teas in which the Shakespeare’s Moor still persists as an edible trope. In early diatribes against coffee, the drink was variously described in as a “Mahometan gruel,” a “Turkish enchantress,” and a “Satanic Tipple.”

Pejorative associations with coffee are still regularly invoked in phrases like “latte liberals,” used as a shorthand for supposedly cosmopolitan elites, commenting on the plight of the world from the comfort of a coffee shop. An article from the BBC parses the phrase to mean “a proverbial subset of affluent, coastal-dwelling, Prius-driving intellectuals.” The same article reminds us of Obama’s “latte-salute” that drew much controversy in 2014 when he held a coffee cup while meeting US Marines. Howard Dean possibly got the worst of it, when an attack ad demanded he takes his “tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading, body-piercing, Hollywood-loving left-wing freak show” back to his home state of Vermont!

As with the early modern diatribes, the modern ones have done little to discourage coffee culture or the immersion in a global imaginary that it entails. It turns out, not even COVID has been able to deter this. Recent surveys suggest that people have been drinking more coffee during the pandemic, brewing at home and ordering online. But the coffeehouse has morphed from an arena of vibrant political debate and affable banter to a sadder, lonelier pickup window. For now, our public spheres are approximated in small, dystopian Zoom windows, where large coffee mugs continue to make a guest appearance. On International Coffee Day, we might mourn the loss of the ease with which we accessed the international itself, at a time when the closest we will get to the Kona reserve or the Haitian mountains will be via branded coffee.

*Featured photo by Mike Kenneally.


Gitanjali Shahani is Professor of English at San Francisco State University, where she teaches courses on Shakespeare studies, postcolonial studies, and food studies. She is the author of Tasting Difference: Food, Race, and Cultural Encounters in Early Modern Literature. She has edited two collections, Food and Literature and Emissaries in Early Modern Literature & Culture. Her articles on race and colonialism in early modern literature have been published in numerous collections and journals, including Shakespeare, Shakespeare Studies, and The Journal of Early Modern Cultural Studies

Book Finder