Of Coffee and Post-Modernism

22 Sep

One of my earliest memories of coffee was recognizing the aura surrounding this drink that my mother proclaimed was meant strictly for adults. As an undergrad in frigid Boston I consumed copious amounts of double espresso shots for the caffeine fix to fuel much dreaded all-nighters and then as a young adult, drinking coffee became more of a lifestyle choice and an essential ingredient in awkward first dates. Evidently, my associations with coffee have shifted in each successive phase of my life.

Apart from the continually evolving relationship between our personal histories and the products we consume, food and beverages have social histories that can shape the economies and histories of unlikely places.

Recently, I revisited a fascinating essay I read several years ago by William Roseberry titled The Rise of Yuppie Coffees and Reimagination of Class in the United States, where he notes that the coffee market “provides a window through which we can view a range of relationships and social transformations.” In the 1800s, coffee was the beverage of choice among the elite but by the early 1900s it had transformed into a relatively inexpensive drink consumed in working class households and factory canteens. The focus of Roseberry’s essay is on the expansion of specialty coffees in the 1980s that marked a departure from the past characterized by standardized mass production and consumption. In the following excerpt he makes the case for coffee as the beverage of postmodernism:

Might we, in turn, now consider coffee to be the beverage of postmodernism? That is, can an examination of shifts in the marketing and consumption of one commodity provide an angle of vision on a wider set of social and cultural formations and the brave new world of which they are a part? That I can walk across the street and choose among a seemingly endless variety of cheeses, beers, waters, teas, and coffees places me in a new relationship to the world: I can consume a bit of Sumatra, Darjeeling, France, and Mexico in my home, perhaps at the same meal. Such variety stands in stark contrast to the stolid, boring array of goods available two decades ago. We live now in an emerging era of variety and choice, and the revolution in consumption seems to indicate, and in some ways initiate, a revolution in production. As with coffee, so with other food products: the moves toward product diversification often came not from the established and dominant corporations but from independents whose initiatives have undercut and undermined the established practices and market share of those corporations.

So is the world’s second most traded commodity really emblematic of the post-modern world we live in as Roseberry claims? Ethical consumption such as FairTrade coffee is a good example of reflexive consumption that articulates a seemingly closer relationship between producers and consumers who are part of a complex global supply chain. In that sense, yes, coffee does lend itself to being a beverage that signifies late modernity but I remain unsure that it is ‘the’ beverage of post-modernism.

Photo Credit: Rodela Khan | NYC 2011


Roseberry, William. 1996. The Rise of Yuppie Coffees and the Recognition of Class in the United States. American Anthropologist 98(4):762- 75


2 Responses to “Of Coffee and Post-Modernism”

  1. Rodela September 23, 2011 at 7:22 PM #

    This is a great article Rida and coincidentally, I was walking by a “post-modern-type coffee shop” in the Chelsea area recently and the chalkboard sign in the front of the cafe caught my attention : “Coffee! The Revived Energy Drink of the 21st Century. Very Vintage!”
    I always think about the cafetal (coffee plantation) I visited in rural Panamá where one man runs a family whole operation from seed to plant to bean to a specialized ground coffee called “Geisha coffee” that is later sold to Japanese traders for several hundred dollars for fancy cafes. Interesting to think about the huge disconnect the coffee trend creates and how most people have no idea of the history behind their trendy morning commute drink.
    Thanks for the post!

    • Food Across Borders October 2, 2011 at 2:41 PM #

      Thanks for your comment Rodela! You are so right about the huge disconnect at least in terms of consumer consciousness. Consumption of products we take for granted have an effect on some far away place that we are hardly aware of.

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