Book Review: “A Secret History of Coffee, Coca and Cola” written/illustrated by Ricardo Cortés

In light of the recent marijuana legalization passed in Colorado and Washington, one can find many parallels to the legislation covered in A Secret History of Coffee, Coca and Cola by Ricardo Cortés. While I write this, I am drinking my third cup of coffee, and were this 16th century Turkey, just owning the beans would be punishable by death.

Cover of A Secret History of Coffee, Coca and Cola by Ricardo CortésCaffeine is the most popular stimulant on earth, perhaps mostly due to its legality, but also because of the relatively low side effects. It is possible to overdose on this alkaloid substance, but for the most part, those of us who are dependent upon it just get terribly (terribly) cranky without it.

There is an epigraph at the beginning of Secret History from W. Golden Mortimer’s 1901 work, History of Coca, that I find especially apt to today’s current drug law debates:

It is amusing to now look back at some attacks which were hurled against substances that all the world to-day considers as necessities”¦ How real must be the merit that can withstand such storms of abuse, and spring up, perennially blooming, through such opposition!

Stoners, y’all. Weed may not be an upper, but its fans are not unmotivated.

When coffee – qahwah, as it was then known – began to travel from Ethiopia, Yemen and throughout the Islamic world, some people were nervous about a substance that people seemed to enjoy a little bit too much. Prohibition laws passed, dealers were punished, and even when coffee made its way through Europe, some still called it a terrible vice. The Mormon/LDS faith is still not a fan.

In 1910, Dr. Oliver Osbourne, an employee of the Coca-Cola company, was sued over the use of caffeine product. Never mind the fact that Coca-Cola has that name for a reason.

The most popular cola, Coca-Cola, was invented by Dr. John Pemberton, a pharmacist who mixed the kick of kola caffeine with with a kick of coca.

At first, cocaine was used as a depression treatment and as a local anesthetic, and doctors found it to be useful for all sorts of pain and exhaustion-related treatments. Of course, soon people began to find it reallysuperbrilliantandwhyamIgrindingmyteethsomuch. Certainly compared to caffeine, the side effects were more detrimental. In 1914, the Harrison Narcotics Act made coca illegal.

Commissioner [Harry J.] Anslinger was a notorious anti-drug zealot, best known for his relentless crusade against the marijuana plant. But he was an integral supporter to the coca business of Coca-Cola and Maywood [Chemical Works factory], forwarding them relevant State Department reports, prying media inquiries, and intelligence on South American coca farmers along with maps of their cocaine factories. As the law against coca evolved, Anslinger was consulted by and cooperated with [US Secretary of War and Coca-Cola employee] Hayes and Maywood executives on legislative phraseology.

And some people say corporate influence in government is a recent problem…

Images from A Secret History of Coffee, Coca and Cola
Image screencapped from

There’s plenty more to the story, and it’s impressive how much information Cortés is able to include in what is essentially a slim picture book. His research extends to released government files, interviews with journalists and other experts, along with help from librarians. His illustrations are beautiful, detail-rich colored pencil and pen drawings, and his hand-lettering of typed documents is fantastic. Despite so much information, my only complaint is that I found myself wanting more, but luckily, Cortés does provide a selected bibliography at the end of the book, as well as a website with more information.

When Cortés spoke with representatives from the Coca-Cola company about coca, he was repeatedly told, “As much as I would like to answer this specific inquiry, I am not able to comment on matters relating to the formula, which is one of our most valuable assets.”

Chew on that, my fellow Diet Coke fiends.

Overall, A Secret History is a fascinating look at a few of the substances people use to keep themselves going throughout the day, and Cortés’ illustrated approach is a form of journalism I really enjoy. Do take a peek at this book, if you get a chance.


Full Disclosure: Akashic Books sent me this as a review copy. The book will be released December 4th. I thank them for the gesture and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.

By Sara Habein

Sara Habein is the author of Infinite Disposable, a collection of microfiction, and her work has appeared on The Rumpus, Pajiba and Word Riot, among others. Her book reviews and other commentary appear at Glorified Love Letters, and she is the co-manager of Electric City Creative.

5 replies on “Book Review: “A Secret History of Coffee, Coca and Cola” written/illustrated by Ricardo Cortés”

I knew that Coke used to have well, coke, but did not realize there was such concern over coffee! I am pro-coffee. Not so much diet Coke anymore, but I understand the dedication to it.

I will be curious to see how things evolve in Colorado and Washington- I’ve always thought taxing the hell out of pot (like booze and cigarettes) would be better than charging for possession.

I will be looking for this book once it’s released- I have a few coffee/coke drinkers on my list who may enjoy it!

Leave a Reply