Decaf, Caf--Is It Really All Caf?

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Today Jerry Baldwin brings up one of my favorite coffee-related subjects--the way, that is, a particularly problematic child becomes your favorite. Researching "Caffeine and Decaf," a longish chapter in my Joy of Coffee, easily took longer than any other chapter, and involved reading as I recall 325 articles on caffeine--not scanning, or just reading the abstracts, but reading them.

I didn't come out a scientist, or an expert--but I did come out with an appreciation of how complex the subject is, and how it can make even the calmest researchers, shall we say, a little high-strung. Any epidemiologist has to tackle it, not to mention cancer or heart-disease researcher.

The news then, and the news recently, is pretty much all good. Whatever potential benefits claimed for drinking coffee--alertness, of course, perhaps reduced risk of stroke and certain cancers, perhaps not--no definitive harm has been shown. As for addiction, another story. I learned a lot about the definitions of "addiction" and "dependence," and the societal harm associated with them. Caffeine, so far, is not defined as a societal harm.

But an epicurean menace? Here's where Jerry comes back in. We've both spent years and years sampling different methods. I even journeyed far, far into the south of Italy to visit a usually super-secret plant that used the then-brand-new supercritical carbon dioxide method of decaffeination, which held enormous promise--promise, as Jerry comments, that hasn't been quite fulfilled.

I'm with him on general disappointment with water process, though less cross about the Swiss Water ads he mentions--ads I heard all the time on public radio on a recent swing through the Bay Area, so I understand why he grits his teeth on a daily basis. I just look for methylene chloride, the chemical process I'm convinced is safe and is the best for flavor--and, as it happens, was defending in a coffee shop at our Aspen ideas fest just last week. Maybe Jerry and I will form a Friends of Safe Chemicals In Your Food group and spend the rest of our days living it down.

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Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." More

Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." Julia Child once said, "I think he's a very good food writer. He really does his homework. As a reporter and a writer he takes his work very seriously." Kummer's 1990 Atlantic series about coffee was heralded by foodies and the general public alike. The response to his recommendations about coffees and coffee-makers was typical--suppliers scrambled to meet the demand. As Giorgio Deluca, co-founder of New York's epicurean grocery Dean & Deluca, says: "I can tell when Corby's pieces hit; the phone doesn't stop ringing." His book, The Joy of Coffee, based on his Atlantic series, was heralded by The New York Times as "the most definitive and engagingly written book on the subject to date." In nominating his work for a National Magazine Award (for which he became a finalist), the editors wrote: "Kummer treats food as if its preparation were something of a life sport: an activity to be pursued regularly and healthfully by knowledgeable people who demand quality." Kummer's book The Pleasures of Slow Food celebrates local artisans who raise and prepare the foods of their regions with the love and expertise that come only with generations of practice. Kummer was restaurant critic of New York Magazine in 1995 and 1996 and since 1997 has served as restaurant critic for Boston Magazine. He is also a frequent food commentator on television and radio. He was educated at Yale, immediately after which he came to The Atlantic. He is the recipient of five James Beard Journalism Awards, including the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award.
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