Sunday, August 9, 2009
Book Review: A History of the World in Six Glasses
During my recent summer vacation, I whiled away an idle few afternoons reading a very nice bit of pop history by Tom Standage, A History of the World in Six Glasses. This book examines the impact of six beveridges on human development. The drinks considered are beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea and Coca Cola.
I love books like this that make me consider history in a different light. The section on Coca Cola was fascinating. Since I live in Atlanta, I know the Coca Cola company has tried to align itself with Americana as much as possible. But I hadn't realized how well it succeeded, especially during World War II, when Coke was exempted from sugar rationing so that production of the brown, fizzy liquid wouldn't be jeopardized. In fact, Coke was considered so necessary for the war effort that factories were built all over the world for American servicemen, hastening the global spread.
But I'm skipping ahead. Reading the origins of beer as an ancient method of preserving grain was enlightening. Learning about the impact of wine on the ancient greeks and Romans provides great context for studying those cultures. Any school child (especially if you've been in my US History class) can tell you about the rum trade in the colonies and how it especially affected the African slave trade. Coffee is connected to the rise of the financial markets and insurance business. Tea was a way of sanitizing water, especially in the filthy, plague ridden society of 18th Century London. And the thumbnail sketch of the British East India Company's engineering of the Opium Wars to ensure a steady and cheap supply for their monopoly is fascinating, especially as it connects to the origins of the American Revolution.
Standage's book is full of engaging details that illustrate the big picture point he makes regarding the development and use of each drink. I was strongly reminded of the old PBS series "Connections" while reading it. I highly recommend this to anyone interesting in learning a little bit more about how what we drink shapes who we are.