The New Complete Coffee Book
by Sara Perry
Published by Chronicle Books
120 pages, 2001
Highballs High Heels
by Karen Brooks, Gideon Bosker and Reed Darmon
Published by Chronicle Books
96 pages, 2001
Elixir's Tonics and Teas
by Jeff Stein & Edgar Veytia
Published by Clarkson Potter
128 pages, 2001
Juices: Nature's Cure-all for Health and Vitality
by Jan Castorina & Dimitra Stais
Published by Periplus Editions
111 pages, 2001
Reviewed by Adrian Marks
Although Henry David Thoreau said that water "is the only drink for a wise man," for the most part, good old H2O doesn't offer enough variety to hold our interest. And we are interested in ingestible fluids. Of course, since humans are largely made of liquid -- about 90 per cent, in fact -- that interest is self-serving. As a species, we don't just like liquid, our basic survival demands it. But just as no one said all ice cream had to be vanilla-flavored or that all bread must be smooth and white, not all fluids need to be pure, see through and perfectly good for you. Ask anyone.
When you think about it, through the ages humankind has gotten downright creative about sucking the purity out of the fluids they ingest. It's possible to brew any number of caffeine-laced beverages, or to fatten things up with carbohydrates, sweeteners and even milk. If caffeine isn't mind-altering enough, you can cut straight to the chase by infusing your liquid with variously brewed or distilled alcohols. Or you can head off in the other direction and concoct beverages that will soothe everything from your bowel to your brain. There seems to be no end for the lengths we'll go to, according to Thoreau, anyway, avoid being wise.
The far and away favorite not-so-healthy drink in the west is coffee. In fact, it's so much a part of many people's lives, we tend not even to think of it as an aberration. And yet, of course, in terms of healthful drinks, coffee is right up there with a vodka rocks. As Sara Perry points out in The New Complete Coffee Book, "Controversial investigations have claimed that ingesting caffeine may lead to cancer, fibrocystic disease, heart attacks, and sterility, but there is no hard medical evidence that conclusively proves these allegations."
Whatever. Everyone knows coffee isn't good for you, but a whole lot of us drink it anyway. In fact, coffee is the world's most popular brewed beverage and people have been drinking it since the 13th century. Coffee beans were around prior, but earlier than that, they were fermented into wine. Earlier still -- up until the 10th century, Perry writes that, "coffee was considered a food. Ethiopian tribesmen mixed the wild berries with animal fat, rolled the mixture into balls, and ate them during their nomadic journeys." They probably got pretty good mileage out of their early energy food, as well.
As interesting as The New Complete Coffee Book may be, it's primarily a cookbook. While there is ample background on history of coffee, its selection and the beans themselves, and there are pages and pages on brewing the perfect cup no matter what the method, more than half of the book is devoted to recipes of things to make with coffee: from coffee drinks (iced coffee, Irish coffee, Turkish Coffee Float) to desserts (with recipes that either include coffee or are intended to be eaten with coffee) right through to savory dishes made with coffee in places where you never dreamed coffee would be: Grilled Lamb Chops with Coffee Rub and Mango Salsa, for instance. And Cowboy Coffee Texas Chili.
For those that demand their liquids pack a little more punch, Highballs High Heels: A Girl's Guide to the Art of Cocktails is a weird little book that delivers that punch in the adult drinks department. From the same crew that brought us Atomic Cocktails back in 1998, Highballs High Heels would be a sequel to that book if the authors hadn't seemed to go out of their way to (seemingly pointlessly) exclude a whole gender.
A cocktail goddess, first and foremost, is a mood-maker and spell-caster. When a woman makes a drink, she becomes an epic force, a fearsome creature, with the power to dazzle and delight, command and control.
While all of this rah-rah girl power seems a little tired here at the spinoff of the new millennium, if you can ignore this aspect of Highballs High Heels (and, believe me, in a book that includes recipes for drinks like Chocolate-Mint Hormone Replacement Therapy and RX for PMS, it ain't always easy) you find a fairly fun and attractive collection of cocktails, mostly not of the virgin persuasion.
If you like the idea of a cocktail, but would prefer a more wholesome approach, Elixir's Tonics and Teas: Invigorating Tonics For the Body, Mind, And Spirit by Jeff Stein and Edgar Veytia is a very strong starting point. In case you think it's a typo -- I initially did -- Elixir's does demand the possessive: the book shares its name with the California-based "herbal empire" that the authors started in 1997. Elixir's outlets, the book's introduction informs us, "has become an oasis for customers who want more from their beverages than a caffeine jolt."
With the advertising (mostly) out of the way, Stein and Veytia get down to business and the business is gorgeous: rich color photographs of food and drinks so calmingly named and illustrated, you practically get sleepy looking at them. From Primordial Sea Memory Soup (a fish and garlic-based soup), to Serenity Harvest (based on apple, poppy and several other ingredients) and Positive Outlook Tonic (I'm not making these up), if the book is any indication, Elixir's clientele must be entirely comprised of people so annoyingly healthy-looking you want to cross the street to avoid passing them too closely.
If you prefer your liquids to be more about health and vitality than plain old invigorating or spiritually stimulating, try Juices: Nature's Cure-all for Health and Vitality by Jan Castorina and Dimitra Stais. Castorina and Stais don't spend a lot of time discussing the "cure-all" aspects of their book. Instead, they jump straight to the business of, well, curing all. The contents page breaks everything into neat chunks: "Vitamins and Minerals," "Immune Boosters," "Detoxing and Cleansing" and so on. No fancy names here, either. We get monikers like Carrot and Parsley Juice (Bad-Breath Improver) and Cranberry and Apple Juice (Bladder-Infection Fighter).
So maybe we should just forget Thoreau and listen instead to Baudelaire, who said, "A man who drinks only water has a secret to hide from his fellows." At least no one is telling us to eat cake. (Maybe in a future column.) | September 2001
Adrian Marks is an author and journalist.