robertogreco + howtoaskquestions   1

6, 68: Questions
"Imagine a big-budget documentary series on coffee, tea, and chocolate. I’m thinking of something between Planet Earth and Parts Unknown, but with special attention to problems of representation. It’s very easy to imagine this being full of clichés, talking down to both its audience and its subjects. I want to see something that has lovely 30 second panoramic shots of Sri Lankan hills and can hold the camera on a tea-picker talking about their economic conditions in their own words for the same length of time. I want something that can mention certain points about coffee prices and the IMF’s structural adjustments in Rwanda leading up to 1994. I want something that can talk about why several hundred Guere people died in Duékoué on 28–29 March 2011, and what that has to do with a Hershey bar.
I’m not looking for muckraking in particular. I want the interviews with the louche tasting-master, and the gruff operator of the cocoa butter mixer, and the slightly prickly olfactory researcher in the paper-filled office saying something counterintuitive. We all know coffee, tea, and chocolate are touchstones – of shared sensory experience, as social nucleation sites, casual drugs, conduits of globalization, economic staples – we get this. So someone should go out and ring the changes. Walk us through it. Let’s see it. There have been many good, small documentaries about these things, but I want a big one, something with a bank and an arc – crack out the fancy cameras, hire the good interpreters, add some zeros to the travel budget.

Look, I can pitch some episodes right now:

• The Chain. First episode if they’re 40 minutes, first three if they’re 20. For each of the drinks, we go from a plantation, through processing, to a shelf. I don’t care if we have to blur out logos because we don’t have permission. All we’re doing is orienting the viewer in the jargon and in our style.

• Health. What does caffeine do in the brain? What is addiction, like medically what is it? We talk to long-distance truckers. Why does green tea make some people sleepy? Are coffee, chocolate, and tea good for you? (Not: Is there a negligible trace constituent of chocolate that, if you feed ten grams per kilogram per day of it to rats, they have infinitesimally lower blood pressure? Not: “Black tea has long been said to be…”.) Why do these plants have caffeine at all?

• Land, Part 1. We’re at the edge of the Mau forest in Kenya. It’s the largest highland forest remaining in East Africa, and it’s disappearing fairly quickly – for, among other things, controversially, tea. And there are suspicious evictions: some people don’t seem sure where various park borders really are on the ground. Tea is economically complicated because it’s valuable but the markets are variable. We think about how multicropping, banking, a welfare system, trade, and hierarchical ownership are all ways of aiming for economic sustainability. We hear from two different tea smallholders, and one who had to make the switch to dairy. We hear from optimists, and from environmentalists talking about how hard it is to balance conservation against development. Comments from insightful academics who have worked in the area (say, Pratyusha Basu, who has looked at gender and dairy farming here) are recounted to and remarked upon by the smallholders. As in every episode, precedence is given to academics with more local experience – say, in this case, Naomi Shanguhyia, who grew up in the area and did a doctorate on tea farming among other things. What’s this? A grandparent remembers the UK and Canada’s program of persecution, encampment, and torture in the area in the 1950s, and how the montane forest was used as a redoubt. We think about the fact that coffee and tea both like high elevations in tropical climates, and bring this to James C. Scott’s ideas about using hills to hide from state power, and the taxability of tea.

• Everything Else. Stuff people do with cocoa that isn’t candy bars or hot chocolate: Why is cocoa butter used so much in beauty products? How do you make tejate? Or mole Guatemalteco? We talk with Mexican experts to reconstruct a plausible recipe for the earliest known drinking chocolates, and taste-test it. Coffee: How good a fertilizer is coffee grounds? Tea: Check it out, you can make cellulose from kombucha.

• Fermentation and Oxidation. How are washed and unwashed coffees different? What does the “washing” look like? When chocolate pickers cover the beans with banana leaves, what’s going on? How could it be that as recently as ten years ago we thought Pu-erh tea fermentation was led by black mold fungus, but now we think it’s primarily Aspergillus luchuensis? What do completely green/unfermented versions of each drink taste like if you make them in the ordinary way? What about over-fermented versions? We visit several tea processing facilities in China, taking flavor and microbial profiles of the leaves at various stages, and talk to people in Tibet for whom Pu-erh is the primary source of certain micronutrients.

• At Home. We look in detail at how some people who grow and collect the drinks use them. How does a Nilgiri tea picker brew it, or do they? Do cocoa farmers in rural Côte d’Ivoire know what chocolate is? (Spoiler: many of them do not.) When I hear that some Ethiopian coffee-growers like to roast their beans with butter, is that the same butter as is in my fridge? (This is, of course, an excuse to look at living conditions. But also I’m just mundanely curious about recipes.)

• Hipsters. Where does American third-wave coffee come from? What was the causal braid from Ethiopia through invasion to Italy through occupation to GIs on the US’s West Coast to hipsters to the national fashion for Seattle in the 90s to people being mad at the word “barista”? We talk to competitors and judges at the World Barista Championships, treating them with the dignity and assumption of subjectivity that is due to any human being, and with the people who write lengthy tasting notes that make you kind of embarrassed for them. How has the flat white been spreading over this last decade? Can people with bangs and beards tell the difference between Blue Bottle and Starbucks in a double-blind taste test? We talk to mom and pop coffeeshop owners about the economics, difficulties, and pleasures of the business. (I know just the ones. The rumors that I liked their coffeeshop so much that I moved into their spare room, 2011–2012, are slightly exaggerated.)

• Timing. We visit with a commodities day-trader, a logistics expert at a processing plant, a logistics expert at a shipping company, someone who works with agricultural prediction, meteorologists, trendspotters, whatever you call the people who develop and test things like Pumpkin Spice Latte®, and so on. Starting with recollections from farmers, we look at how weather and politics in given years affected prices. (What happens in Chiapas if the belg was late?)

• Final Episode. We look at behind-the-scenes footage. How did the interviewers talk to the interviewees when the (main) cameras weren’t rolling? We meet the fixers, the translators, the camera operators. The presenters talk about what they learned: as cliché as it is, do they think about a latte differently now? We watch people who were interviewed watching episodes they were in – or rough cuts, at least. What about the time in New Guinea when rain got in the $50,000 camera? How many shots did the medical insurer insist they get before equatorial travel? What news has there been of issues covered in the first episodes? A producer explains how they persuaded someone at the head office to sign off on some inadvisable travel that produced a single 30 second subsegment. An editor describes how they tried to wedge that shot in but there was just no way. We see that shot.

Is this making sense? We could easily brainstorm as many again – on history, on economics, on botany. I want something that would mostly fit inside this decade’s dominant documentary formats, but which wouldn’t take the “look at the quaint poor people” stance that is still mostly normal. (Nor the “anything called development must be good” stance, nor the “look what corporations did” stance, nor, nor, nor.) I want to learn why the Japanese market buys almost all the Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee produced. I want to learn why Coffea liberica isn’t more popular, and what’s up with the boutique chocolate market segment since Dagoba got bought, and whether tea pickers can talk to each other while they work. I’m willing to have a slightly square documentary if that’s what it takes to talk about the effects of theobromine, and a slightly radical one if that’s what it means to talk about why people making luxury goods can be hungry, and a slightly Vice-y one if that’s what it takes to look at child labor up close. It seems like such an obvious topic, so woven into timely and visually appealing issues."
charlieloyd  questions  curiosity  2015  coffee  tea  interestedness  howtoaskquestions  questionasking  learning  howwelearn  commodities  systemsthinking  food  drink  health  history  geography  science  politics  askingquestions  interested 
october 2015 by robertogreco

Copy this bookmark:



description:


tags: