If one could sum up how a typical foodie feels about food and wine, I think a good word would be “passion,” and passion is what Anthony Capella’s novel The Various Flavors of Coffee is about. This, and the fact that coffee is at the center of everything that occurs in the story, is what makes this novel our choice for today’s Foodie Book Friday.
The central character is Robert Wallis, a struggling poet and man-about-town in turn-of-the-century London. A chance encounter at a café brings him much needed employment but also changes the entire course of his life. His new employer is Samuel Pinker - coffee distributor, entrepreneur, visionarynd father. Pinker’s passion is his business, and he wants to create a tasting guide for coffee that will help him buy and sell it more effectively. He thinks Wallis’s writing skills and distinguished tastes make him the man for the job.
But this is only the beginning. A hesitant yet loyal relationship between Wallis and Pinker’s eldest, Emily, develops as they work on the tasting guide together. When Wallis is sent to Africa to oversee the development of a coffee plantation for Pinker, he is seduced into a passionate love affair by a defiant slave who changes his outlook on life and love. Upon his return to England, he finds it is not only he who has changed – Emily is in a dispassionate marriage to a government official, Pinker’s business ambitions have become much more grandiose, and the suffragist movement (Emily’s true passion) is in full swing.
Although it is tempting to focus only on the intriguing characters of this novel, the historical events happening behind the scenes are also enthralling. Capella offers up the tale of coffee – from plant to pour – which is interesting in itself. Yet he also teaches lessons in the economics of the industrial revolution, the abolitionist and early feminist movements, and the colonization of Africa, all the while showing how each of these affects not only those very characters but also the society at large.
Now, to the foodie part. This is the third of Capella’s novels to feature food, making him an appealing author for lovers of fiction and flavor alike. His descriptions of “the various flavors of coffee” and other foods are skillful and mouth-watering. As if brewing a cup of the title’s elixir, the author craftily blends story with history, violence with romance, sweetness with bitterness, all of which only serve to make the reader thirst for another. Grind some freshly roasted beans, make a big pot, and dig into this passion-filled novel.