Margie and I are incessantly reading—digital and primarily print. And we’ve found it both entertaining and enlightening to read aloud anything that strikes our fancy. Since you can not overhear those brief readings, reproducing a few extracts here is the closest I can come to including you.
Noticed: Coffee and America’s way of life
In the April 2020 issue of The Atlantic, Michael Pollan published a fascinating essay, “Capitalism’s Favorite Drug,” exploring as his subtitle puts it, “The dark history of how coffee took over the world.”
Four hundred years ago, Coffea arabica, a tropical shrub bearing glossy green leaves and bright-red berries, was virtually unknown outside of the Arab world and the corner of Ethiopia where it had been discovered in the ninth century—by a goatherd who, legend has it, noticed that his animals would get frisky and stay up all night after nibbling its berries. In the years since people figured out that coffee could affect us in similar ways, the plant has done a great deal for our species, and our species in turn has done a great deal for the plant. We have given it more than 27 million acres of new habitat all around the world, assigned 25 million farming families to its care and feeding, and bid up its price until it became one of the most valuable globally traded crops. Not bad for a shrub that is neither edible nor particularly beautiful or easy to grow.
Coffee owes its global ascendancy to a fortuitous evolutionary accident: The chemical compound that the plant makes to defend itself against insects happens to alter human consciousness in ways we find desirable, making us more energetic and industrious—and notably better workers. That chemical of course is caffeine, which is now the world’s most popular psychoactive drug, used daily by 80 percent of humanity. (It is the only such drug we routinely give to our children, in the form of soda.) Along with the tea plant, which produces the same compound in its leaves, coffee has helped create exactly the kind of world that coffee needs to thrive: a world driven by consumer capitalism, ringed by global trade, and dominated by a species that can now barely get out of bed without its help.
The effects of caffeine mesh with the needs of capitalism in myriad ways…
“This wakeful and civil drink” also freed us from the circadian rhythms of our body, helping to stem the natural tides of exhaustion so that we might work longer and later hours; along with the advent of artificial light, caffeine abetted capitalism’s conquest of night. It’s probably no coincidence that the minute hand on clocks arrived at roughly the same historical moment as coffee and tea did, when work was moving indoors and being reorganized on the principle of the clock.
The story Pollan tells is a part of the history of coffee—part of my history—about which I have been mostly unaware. It is, as he notes, a rather dark history, not surprising since we live in such a badly fallen and broken world. The story doesn’t cause me to stop drinking the delicious brew, but it makes me more conscious of being a consumer, and more sensitive to the fact so many of the stories we tell are sanitized and incomplete.
Noticed: Someone else likes Kraft Mac and Cheese
My wife is an excellent cook, always finding new recipes to try even though her collection is great enough that past favorites sometimes can’t be found. Sometimes she simply makes things up from scratch because these ingredients were what she had on hand. It’s part of her love language, and I love her for it. Occasionally, when she is gone, doing a reading or visiting her mom, I make a pan of Kraft Mac & Cheese for dinner. Margie doesn’t consider it real food, but my love for it goes back to childhood.
And in “An Ode to Kraft Dinner, Food of Troubled Times,” I discovered a delightful fellow lover of the boxed dinner in the author, Ivana Rihter, a writer whose work covers the intersections of culture, art and fashion. You can read her article in Catapult (January 19, 2023) here.
In 1992, the Canadian band Barenaked Ladies sang: “If I had a million dollars / We wouldn’t have to eat Kraft Dinner / But we would eat Kraft Dinner / Of course we would, we’d just eat more.” Whenever they played the song live, fans would throw elbow noodles across the stage like confetti, pelting the band members with cheese powder and sometimes full boxes of Kraft Mac and Cheese…
Though my relationship with Kraft Mac and Cheese began in the ’90s, a time of economic prosperity for the United States, its role in my family history is rooted in hardship. Despite the economic boom, Clinton-era affluence did not really reach my family, who had freshly arrived in Canada as refugees of the Yugoslavian civil war. When I was born, we had three generations living under one roof: my grandparents, my uncles and my parents, and me. The adults worked minimum-wage jobs painting parking-lot stripes while I toiled at home, an unemployable baby.
No one in my family can agree on the exact moment Kraft infiltrated our Balkan home. My mother insists she never bought it, and Baba suspects my uncle was at fault somehow. Despite this unremarkable entrance, I started asking for it––even begging for it. Traditional Balkan food takes a lot of time and care to get right. Pita (a dish of phyllo dough, spinach, and feta all baked together) must be gently layered. The phyllo is handled like thousand-year-old lace in order to avoid ripping it apart. Baklava (a dessert of phyllo dough and walnut filling) involves hand-grinding walnuts, layering phyllo once again, and then soaking it all overnight in a vat of sugar syrup. Unlike these Slavic dishes, Kraft Mac and Cheese takes nine minutes, tops. While my family ran around trying to keep up multiple jobs and dealing with trauma upon trauma, the short cooking time became all the more alluring. My mother was especially gifted in the kitchen, but the task of daily feedings usually fell to my grandmother, who was often in charge of taking care of me and keeping me full…
The first bite was bliss. I usually started eating so fast that I had to pause while all the mouthfuls I had barely chewed could make their way safely to my stomach. I’d wait for a moment while a knot of noodles shimmied down my throat, and then I’d start again, only slightly slowed by my poor motor skills. It would be far too easy to write Kraft off as soulless junk food, but how could I, with its inextricable place in my upbringing? My baba taught me to make it with the same care she taught me to make baklava. Guess which one I make more often.
More than twenty years later, the sound of dried pasta tubes sliding across cardboard soothes me like a rain stick. Kraft was the first meal I ever truly loved, the first one I attempted to cook on my own, and the first food I could not live without. There are four boxes tucked into my pantry as I write this.
Author’s note: This is my fifth collection of such short extracts. If you’d like the read the earlier ones, you can find them on this website: Sundry (1). Sundry (2). Sundry (3). and Sundry (4).
Photo credit: Photo by Suzy Hazelwood. (https://www.pexels.com/photo/stacked-books-1333742/)