The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in Central America

15 Apr

(And the prize for best title goes to…sadly not me.)

I bought a wonderful book in  Rare and Racy, my most favourite book shop of all time, last summer in a fit of Must-Spend-Money-On-Something-Other-Than-Giant-Boots consumption-frenzy. It is: 
The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America by Michael Taussig

Not only am I extremely keen on that title, but the content is pretty good too. Today I finally got round to reading it, while sitting in Caffe Nero, supping espressos to refuel after a gym session. Along comes Grem. “Buy us a coffee??” he says. “Fat chance!” I reply. Pretty much the same opening lines that we use every time we meet. Greetings (!) dealt with, he then picks up my book. I have to explain that commodity fetishism does not mean what he thinks it means. It is not, or at least, very rarely is it “kinky.”. Grem looks disappointed. Next question: “What the fook’s “Cosmogenesis”? I mentally calculate whether the length of time it would take me to explain that would be longer than his attention span. Very probably. Sigh… this was not going to be a productive afternoon.


Three weeks ago, I was sitting in another cafe, drinking espressos as well. Only that place was Cafe Central in San Jose, Costa Rica. It is still very strange to think of it like that. In some ways I feel like I’ve been back for ages, but then, I don’t feel I’ve been away from Central America long enough yet to miss it too much. It both amazes and scares me how easily I seem to have just slotted back in to life in the UK – university work, home life reunited with Long-Suffering Husband, the smell of Ferret, mad, over-ambitious plans and my usual impatience – no place for Tiempo Nica here. And the more mundane stuff: gym sessions, entertaining teenagers, coffee in Nero.

A few weeks ago, I was at the cooperative that supplies some of Caffe Nero’s coffee, specifically, CooproNaranjo, who sell Nero the Costa Rican Peaberry coffee that they sell in bags in the stores, rather than the stuff that goes into their cappuccinos.See the bottom of the Caffè Nero Buy Online page. I’ve bought bags of those beans from Nero before, and it was pretty good. But on the farm, it was EXCEPTIONAL. Completely different tasting, and soooo much better. It could be due to the fact that the coffee hadn’t been transported halfway round the globe, and was very fresh indeed; but then, Nero buys it in green, and it is all roasted in the UK. Green coffee shouldn’t go stale during transportation – that is the point of shipping it green. So, it should be at least partly due to the roasting. In which case, I hope to be able to grill people (pun fully intended – sorry) at Coburg (the roasters) about it when I visit them this summer.

But the same applies to Starbucks too. I tried the coffee on a few of the farms that supply Starbucks, and it was Infinitely Better. Caffe Nero’s coffee isn’t great, but it’s not that bad either. Starbucks, in my opinion, is truly terrible. But it is not that they are buying in low quality coffee. Some of that stuff is world class. So, it all begs the question, What The Hell Do They Do To It To Make It Taste That Bad???

Methinks, they just burn the hell out of it. I have heard several coffee professionals refer to the place as “Charbucks” for that reason. My knowledge of coffee roasting is limited, but I do know that to mask the flavour of low quality coffee, you can just bake it – roast it at a lower temperature but for a longer time, which effectively flattens it all out. It gets rid of the bitter flavours of bad coffee, but it also kills off all the complex variations of good flavour in high quality arabicas. This is also why Costa Coffee’s ad campaign promoting their “slow roasted coffee” amuses my cynical little mind….

The people I met in both Nicaragua and Costa Rica moved me by their obvious passion for their coffee, and the pride they took in their work. But this was not the same thing as my own passion for coffee – they were talking about growing the absolute best coffee plants they could; about organic practices that protected and nurtured the plant and the soil, about harvesting techniques that boosted their crop yield, about working with cooperatives to provide for their families, or about branding their coffee so people would associate their name with high quality. Essentially, it is fetishised. But it was never about a passion for drinking the stuff. Coffee consumption was another world away. And that is exactly what I feel like right now. I am having real difficulty bringing my experiences in Central America together with sitting in Caffe Nero judging Stacey’s barista skills. “Coffee” means something so different depending on where you are, that it is hard to believe I am talking about the same little brown beans.

I do wonder if some of the farmers I met have any idea where their precious crop ends up, or any concept of barista championships or chain coffee shops or a decaf-one-shot-grande-white-choc-mocha-with-cream-and-no-syrup. In his book, Michael Taussig tells of Colombian sugar plantation workers who make a pact with the Devil so they can produce more sugar cane to make more money. This arises because sugar cane is a cash crop – the workers do not own the land they work, instead they are making money for someone else. They cannot subsist off their labour, because you cannot survive off sugar alone, and you cannot eat money. These farmers would prefer to grow food crops for themselves rather than farm sugar to make money to buy food from other people. It is far more logical, if you think about it. Capitalism is Satan’s banking!! Ahem. But having found themselves in this difficult situation, they makes deals with the Devil to try and improve their lot. Taussig’s accounts of this are literal – they visit sourcerers to help make these pacts and summon up demons and so on. Fascinating stuff.

Of course I am going to argue that some of the coffee farmers do the same. I never found any diabolical dealings in Nicaragua (sadly), but metaphorically, coffee farmers share the same plight. Coffee is still a cash crop, you can’t eat it. When coffee growing is fetishised to such an extent, when the farmers are so proud of what they do, do they worry that their precious crop ends up in Nescafe Instant or in an over-roasted blend in Charbucks? Or do they just want to sell it to the people who pay the most? (Probably not Starbucks either…) Is selling wonderful coffee to people who will burn it, like making a pact with Lucifer himself?

Incidently, when I started working at Caffe Nero, someone – probably Grem – pointed out that if working at Starbucks was akin to selling your soul to the Devil, then what does that make working for Nero?;

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Posted by on April 15, 2009 in Uncategorized


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