Tastes of Paradise by Wolfgang Schivelbusch

Tastes of Paradise: A Social History of Spices, Stimulants and Intoxicants by Wolfgang Schivelbusch is a fascinating socio-historical study that offers revealing insights into the role various spices, “drugs” and particularly beverages have played in (mostly) Western culture. While the section on spices is brief, it forms a sound introduction to the three major “tastes” Schivelbusch examines: coffee, tea and tobacco (others do get a small platform, such as opium, beer, ale and gin). Chocolate gets a brief glimpse, but it’s mainly the role the non-alcoholic and hot drinks of tea and coffee, and concomitantly tobacco, and how their production and consumption – one that changed from medicinal to pleasurable – reshaped society that’s the primary focus of this book.

141602Rather then simply understanding coffee, tea and tobacco from the commercial point of view (though Schivelbusch does examine this as well as the relationship between East and West in terms of trade and production), his main concern is to look at how coffee and tea functioned ideologically and socially in terms of promoting a specific protestant and middle class view of the world.

Turning from the beer and ale of the Middle Ages and Renaissance working classes and the inebriated state that often followed a day of drinking (remembering that water was not drunk to quench thirst in the Middle Ages or the Renaissance – it was dangerous – so beer/ale was not only drunk to stave off thirst but to provide much needed calories for workers and soldiers – he discusses the popular “beer soup” as an example), the rising middle classes, the bourgeoisie, embraced coffee and tea as “their” drink. As Schivelbusch argues, “Coffee… spread through the body and achieved chemically and pharmacologically what rationalism and the Protestant ethic sought to fulfil spiritually and ideologically. With coffee, the principle of rationality entered human physiology…”

So, not only did coffee become a class-based drink, it was also associated with a religious and aesthetic viewpoint as well.

Not at first. At first, coffee, tea and chocolate drinking were regarded as part of the cult of luxury and only available to those with the means to consume them. It was only later that it became the drink of rationality and conviction and thus spread through the middle classes – familiarity breeding not contempt but desire. Likewise, with tea. Chocolate didn’t fair so well being regarded a bit more suspiciously and as a drink associated with idleness and decadence.

While women in public consumed none of the drinks when they first became available, over time tea particularly became very domesticated and even feminised. Chocolate drinking also became something women did in private, and bore connotations of sexual liberty and naughtiness, partly to do with the idea it had aphrodisiac qualities. Women who drank it were viewed with a jaundiced and unrespectable eye – something that changed when chocolate became mass-produced and women were used in advertising and targeted as the major market.

Schivelbusch also discusses the role of coffee houses and chocolate ones too, especially in England. How they became places where, unlike taverns and inns, conversation was sober and robust. Men of business (not aristocrats necessarily) could meet and discuss daily news, politics and generally gossip. Various coffee houses became so renown for this, they also had strong ties with either the newly emerging Whig or Tory parties. They developed reputations as hotbeds of potential coups. They also became closely identified with particular types of business – for example, Lloyd’s Coffee House was the place where maritime folk met – sailors, captains, sea-venturing business people met, especially those who functioned as underwriters and insurance brokers. Of course, Lloyd’s eventually evolved into the now famous Lloyd’s of London. Men chose carefully which coffee house they entered, and thus the establishment and the beverage served all became strongly associated with self-definition.

While Shivelbusch’s research is wide-ranging and impressive, it’s his discussions of the social role of human consumption of substances like beer, tea, coffee, chocolate, gin, opium and tobacco that are this book’s strength. Written in the 1970s, so much of what it uncovers is so relevant – the rituals around alcoholic drinking, the bar as a public meeting place where strangers can converse and rounds are bought and what this all signifies – is all very strong. It’s when he discusses various opiates, other drugs and even tobacco in the contemporary setting that the age of the book shows, but this should not deter a reader. Instead, it’s easy to fill in the gaps which demonstrates how important all these things – drugs, stimulants and various other intoxicants – liquid and non-liquid – are in society even today. We all have an opinion on their role and how and where they should be consumed and by whom.

A gem of a book that was an easy and fascinating read. Highly recommended.



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