An Illusion of Nutrition

The guys from On Top of the World podcast recently began a fascinating exploration of food history. They mentioned a critique of overemphasizing (or maybe solely focusing) on the role of sugar in the slave trade. Expanding the exploration of sugar (or food generally) is an incredibly powerful way to expose students to what a diverse understanding of history looks like in the classroom and out.

The connections between the demand for sugar, the rise of the coffee trade, and labor systems in Latin America was a focus of this year’s attempt to effectively teach industrialization. We read a selection from Mark Pendergrast‘s Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How it Transformed Our World. Much like the impression made by Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton, a short passage from Pendergrast’s book keeps popping up in student essays and discussion:

With the advent of textile and iron mills, workers migrated to cities where the working classes lived in appalling conditions. As women and children entered the organized workforce, there was less time to run a household and cook meals. Those still trying to make a living at home were paid less and less for their work. Thus, European lacemakers in the early nineteenth century lived almost exclusively on coffee and bread. Because coffee was stimulating and warm, it provided an illusion of nutrition.

The rest of the passage (and the focus of class) was about the impact of this demand on labor systems in Latin America. However, this passage was “sticky” – it pops up in discussion and essays almost weekly. Granted, many of the references are connected to my ubiquitous Colectivo coffee mug, but this one paragraph has really shaped their understanding of industrialization. I mean, seriously, how many APWH Key Concepts are addressed in that ONE paragraph?

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