Open Anthropology Features Food Anthropology


The June 2016 issue of Open Anthropology is dedicated to Food Anthropology. Many SAFN members are featured in this open-access selection of articles and reviews from American Anthropological Association journals. Check it out!

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Review: Sacred Rice

Davidson, Joanna. (2016). Sacred Rice: An Ethnography of Identity, Environment, and Development in West Africa. Oxford University Press. (249 pp.)

Reviewed by Mark Dailey
Green Mountain College, Poultney, VT

In Sacred Rice: An Ethnography of Identity, Environment, and Development in West Africa, anthropologist Joanna Davidson presents a nuanced and in many ways classically holistic ethnography of rice production and the way this key crop ripples meaningfully through all aspects of West African Jola society. Rice is much more than a major food crop for the Jola of Guinea-Bissau: it is also the key idiom and central metaphor through which they express and negotiate household, community, gender, ritual, religious, political and economic relationships. This reality, which Davidson compellingly explores in thematically focused chapters, is all the more compelling given its contemporary unraveling due to climate change. Rice is central to Jola agriculture and identity, yet declining rainfall in the region is increasingly rendering adequate rice production impossible. Davidson’s book therefore revolves around two key questions: How does the centrality of rice production mediate social reality among the Jola; and in Davidson’s words, “what happens when this changes? How does something so totalizing unravel and disentangle itself from spheres of social, cosmological, moral, economic, political, and familial life?” (8) She draws equally on theoretical literature and on details of villagers’ lives to address these questions, and in so doing presents a rich ethnographic portrait of agricultural and social transition.

The book’s initial chapters frame these questions in some detail, convincingly emphasizing both the “sacralization” of rice and its material centrality. Chapter One provides a useful and interesting overview of the history of rice, drawing attention to the underappreciated endemic diversity present in West African varieties. The following chapters serially explore the role of rice in mediating dimensions of social life: we learn how rice production is gendered, how rice becomes a ritual ingredient of cosmological significance at spirit shrines, how its productive requirements filter through family and community relationships, and how the very bases of knowledge and morality cannot be construed without rice. Her treatment of rice’s mediating centrality of all things social is anthropologically familiar, recalling, for instance, Herskovitz’s “East African cattle complex” and Evans-Pritchard’s study of witchcraft among the Azande. Unlike these foundational studies, though, her portrait captures motion and transformation: by drawing upon fieldwork in 2001-2002 and a return visit in 2010, she shows us Jola lives in transition, struggling with outmigration, changing family norms, and even the key moral values that tell them “who they are.” We richly sense what is happening and become acquainted with significant trends, but like Davidson and the Jola themselves, we cannot see with certainty what the future will bring. (Although she acknowledges global trends of deruralization and agricultural modernization, a richer comparative basis would have been welcome.)

As an anthropologist, Davidson does several things very well, eschewing convenient tropes and easy essentialisms at every turn. Her constructivist caveats about African environmental studies, gender, the basis of knowledge, and the concept of “sacred,” for instance, subtly but critically remind us to avoid thinking through easily derived categories. The wealth of community-level data makes this possible, and pleasurable: she weaves together the lives of key informants with her own experiences in compelling ways. Her authorial presence is ample enough to humanize and ground her ethnography in rich and instructive stories, but they do not overtake the wealth of empirical data and theoretical contextualization that provide the book’s broadest foundation. We meet and hear the stories of real Jola individuals, and watch as their lives are clearly contextualized within macro-level data on climate, economics, demography, and national politics. The perceived value of “hard work” begins to unravel in the face of diminishing agricultural returns; families slowly turn to institutional educational opportunities versus subsistence production-oriented lives; and parental authority negotiates the new realities of unwed daughters returning pregnant from city schools.

One shortcoming of the book is more likely due to an editorial miscasting than to any deficiency by the author. The book is part of Oxford University Press’s “Issues of Globalization: Case Studies in Contemporary Anthropology” series, but there is precious little globalization here—and in fact, there needn’t be. As anthropologist Ted Lewellen has pointed out, globalization too often becomes a totalizing perspective, the default analytical frame of reference, when the phenomena we seek to explain are often best addressed by local, regional, and national levels of analysis—with globalization simply offering another level of context. And so it is with Davidson’s exploration of Jola lives. Given the theoretical contexts the author offers throughout the book (Chapter Four on the role of secrecy among the Jola, and between Jola and outsiders, is as fascinating as it is theoretically rich!), the paucity of scholarly attention to globalization studies is noticeable. Her book feels shoe-horned into Oxford’s series on globalization studies.

Nonetheless, Joanna Davidson’s scholarly presentation of the interesting, holistic, and changing world of Guinea-Bissau’s rice-farming Jola is impressive ethnographic work, and useful for environmental anthropologists, development experts, agricultural and social policy makers, agricultural and food historians, and both undergraduate and graduate audiences. For anyone interested in the multiple and inextricable ways that social lives and material production are mutually embedded, in fact, this book provides clear evidence, good story-telling, and a case-study that continues to unfold.



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Review: The Ethnic Restaurateur

Ray, Krishnendu. 2016. The Ethnic Restaurateur. London; New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.

Reviewed by Rafi Grosglik
Department of Sociology, Brandeis University, Waltham, MA, USA

When we sit in a restaurant and food is served to the table, most of us very often do not look properly at the waiter or the waitress. We pay a lot of attention to the dish that is put in front of us, while overlooking and not really acknowledging the person who serves us (not to mention the cooks in the kitchen, dishwashers, cleaning staff, suppliers and restaurateurs). Ordinarily, the food itself draws most of our attention. Thus, properly recognizing the people who prepared and served our food, and thanking them for doing that, is not done very often. This is one of the common practices that makes the food industry workers invisible. They do things for others—they cultivate, bake, prepare, cook, sell or serve foods—but they are not fully acknowledged. They are unrecognized.

Thinkers such as Nancy Fraser, Axel Honneth, Charles Taylor and others [1] stress that recognition is a basic need of any human beings and an essential process in the social nature of subjectivity and in social interaction. This non-recognition, or invisibility, of food producers can be attributed also to academic writing and to trends in food studies and in sociology and anthropology of food. These fields are saturated with studies focusing on foodstuffs and culinary artifacts, on the “social life” (Appadurai, 1986) [2] of certain foodstuffs or nutritional ingredients, on “food systems” and “foodscapes” or on representations of foods and dishes in popular media. As Krishnendu Ray argues in “The Ethnic Restaurateur”, contemporary theory of the social aspects of culinary culture and taste is strongly shaped by empirical work that examines food consumption and consumers. That includes theories on the opening up of the American palate and the growing popularity in Western cities of dishes and restaurants that are staged as “ethnic” and “authentic”. This scholarship is often done while not paying full attention to food producers and distributers, and thus adding to their non-recognition. Ray directs our attention to the people who produce and distribute so-called ethnic foods, and illuminates the labor  behind contemporary changes in the American palate. In “The Ethnic Restaurateur”, he addresses the paradox that although the foreign-born have numerically dominated the feeding occupations in American cities, their role in the culinary field and their own perspective on the transaction of taste are lacking in the literature that deals with taste and culture-making (p.1). In this respect, “The Ethnic Restaurateur” is an important and unique work that calls for recognition.

Centering on the visible different immigrants, those who look different, sound different and prepare different food (p.1), as well as looking at the urban culinary field from the perspective of the ethnic restaurateurs – Ray attempts to grasp both the subordination and the power of immigrant restaurateurs. He provides a voice to ethnic restaurateurs and describes what they have to say about the city, the consumers’ taste and making a living within the constraints of those constructions (p.24). Doing so, he contributes to their struggle for recognition, to their efforts to move from inferiority to equality and changing their visibility as Others to their visibility as Selves. In theorizing encounters between immigrants and natives—as it is manifested in shops and restaurants on the streets of New York City; in culinary teaching and training institution (Culinary Institute of America) and in restaurant evaluations and surveys—Ray offers both macro and micro levels of study of contemporary relationships between the non-ethnic center and the ethnic others. He provides an ethnographic description that demonstrates a double movement between discourse and practice. In his analysis, he pays attention both to the representations that produce certain contingent subject positions (ethnics, immigrants, Anglos, natives, etc.) or objects (ethnic food, Indian food, American cuisine, haute cuisine etc.) and to the physical, habitual and professional practices, which are more open to subtle possibilities than representations (p.22).

Contrary to previous studies on “ethnic cuisine” that point to cultural appropriation, culinary colonialism or culinary imperialism, Ray is reluctant to use those sorts of explanatory accounts. He emphasizes that ethnicity is not a thing and therefore it cannot be appropriated. According to his view, the openness to “ethnic” dishes and tastes are the outcome of a “relationship of domination” (p.194). For Ray, ethnic entrepreneurs should be perceived as important actors in the aesthetic transaction. Their bodily presence in metropolitan spaces; their pre-reflective knowledge of everyday practices (such as cooking) (p. 192) and their labor that shifts between taste and toil (p.17)—all of these aspects played an essential and constitutive role in urban American culture and changed the ways people eat and think about food (p.192).

The first empirical chapter of the book, Dreams of Pakistani Grill and Vada Pao[3] in Manhattan: Immigrant Restaurateurs in a Global City, revolves around the story of two separate immigrants who tried to establish restaurants in New York City. It details their practices, their “being in the city”, and the ways they learned to deploy [their] hands and tongues (both for talk and taste) […as well as the ways they] brought their memories of things [they] had eaten (p.53). These practices are entwined with their education, economic capital, morals and motivation. Altogether, they form the basis for the design of their restaurants and their actions, and comprise their agency in the construction of an urban-cosmopolitan gastronomic discourse.

In chapter 3, Hierarchy of Taste and Ethnic Difference: American Gustatory imagination in Globalizing World, Ray steps out of the perspectives of the restaurateurs and points to the ways in which different kinds of restaurants and cuisines have been historically evaluated by American taste-makers. He describes how journalists and restaurant critics constructed certain “ethnic cuisines” in the lower stages of a hierarchical system of symbolic values and meanings. Within this system, the aesthetic values produced by immigrant restauranteurs have become invisible (to use again the terms of Axel Honneth[4]) and their product of labor and knowledge are discussed as a matter of necessity and toil. By contrast, those very taste-makers attributed high-status to other foreign foods, initially Continental and French cuisine and later Italian and Japanese. Ray exemplifies the formation of hierarchies of tastes and provides a convincing explanation to the question: Why aren’t Western consumers willing to pay the same prices they pay in Italian or French restaurants when they consume, say, dishes that are cast as Chinese, Vietnamese, or Indian?

In chapter 4, Extending Expertise: Men in White at the Culinary Institute of America, the author continues to discuss the reconfiguration of the American palate, as it is manifested in American haute cuisine. Based on ethnographic work in the premier cooking school in the United States, he portrays the strife between chefs (which are associated with characteristics of whiteness, masculinity and professionalism) and the ethnic restaurateurs (who are conceived as associated with otherness, femininity, toil and domestic skills).

In the last empirical chapter, Ray points to the tension between the categories of “chef” and “ethnic”, as indicated from his interviews with immigrant restaurateurs-chefs and his examination of the ways their experiences are reflected in restaurant criticism and cookbooks. Ray points to the barriers that ethnic cooks aspiring to be professional chefs face, and to their struggles when they already achieve this status, as they were required time and again to turn back to their heritage, to their allegedly authentic and natural skills (as subjects that were born to the category of ethnicity) – notwithstanding their professional skills. The chapter illuminates the boundary between ethnicity and expertise, but also suggests that the twining of ethnicity and expertise is actually “central to the fabrication of contemporary identities in urban settings such as Manhattan” (p. 183).

Ray contends that, on the one hand, public culinary culture in American cities is a domain of the social field where old elites (American native-born consumers, chefs and taste-makers) abject foreign-born cooks and restaurateurs (p. 190); but on the other hand, immigrants have the resources to turn the table on the dominant culture of taste (p.194). The latter statement is a derivative of his argument that the aesthetics of the dominant classes is no longer the dominant aesthetic in urban food consumption (as evident, for example, in the fact that a wide range of classes can afford non-expansive “ethnic” dishes) (p.189). However, in my view, the former statement—about the subordination of immigrants and their produce in the culinary field (which resonates a form of racial or ethnic hierarchy in American society in general) — is much more convincing, considering the empirical data presented thorough the book.

This book combines meticulous ethnographic descriptions with refined theoretical analysis of the social aspects of taste, culture and power relations. It provides an original thesis about the connection between food and ethnicity and between commerce and culture. It will be of great interest to scholars of food studies, sociology and anthropology of food, culture, taste and consumption; but also to anybody concerned with ethnicity, immigration and diasporic studies, urban studies and sociology and anthropology of the body.

[1] Fraser, N., & Honneth, A. (2003). Redistribution or recognition?: A political-philosophical exchange. Verso. ; Taylor, C. (1992). Multiculturalism and the Politics of Recognition. Princeton, NJ; Princeton University Press.; Honneth, A. (1995). The Struggle for Recognition: The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

[2] Appadurai, A. (1986). The social life of things: Commodities in cultural perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[3] Deep fried potato patty served in a bread bun.

[4] Honneth, A. (2001). Recognition: Invisibility: On the Epistemology of “Recognition”. Aristotelian Society Supplementary,75: 111–126.

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What FoodAnthropology Is Reading Now, June 17 Edition

We have a global and eclectic collection of readings for you this week, with a lot of hidden treasures among the links. See below. If you are inspired by food and nutrition related items you find, please send them to us at either or

What is the market for religiously sanctioned foods? The French daily Le Monde reports on the growth of the halal meat market in that country. Anthropologist Florence Bergeaud-Blackler, author of a book on halal practices, notes that French companies started exporting halal meat to Muslim countries decades ago. Today halal meat may be a 5.5 billion Euro market, sold in both specialized butcher shops and big supermarket chains. The article is in French.

Historian and food activist Michael Twitty responds to queries about the intersection of sexuality, faith, race, and food activism in this blog article: “There is a dialogue in the world of food about homophobia in the industry kitchen and little whispers about queerness and food—but what happens when you sit at the crossroads of gayness, Blackness, and faith and do this sort of work?

A nice little video in which an organic seed rants in a foul mouthed way about big ag, chemicals, GMOs, and other aspects of our food system. Fun, with poop jokes.

From the website “The New Food Economy,” a series of articles devoted to considering the impact of Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” ten years after it was first published. This includes a timeline of what they think of as milestones in “the new food economy,” commentary from luminaries from many corners of the food activist world, and more. Curiously U.S. centric – it would be interesting to see what something equivalent with a global viewpoint might look like. There are alternative views of the timeline proposed in the series, including this one from the Small Planet Institute and this one from Brad Wilson, farm activist and blogger at FamilyFarmJustice.

This two part series in Sapiens by Karen Coates starts with a food diary from her work with a bomb clearance team in Laos, a country with a stunning amount of unexploded ordinance left over from the U.S. war in that region. The food the team prepared and ate while working there reflects the problematic local food economy and ecology, related to the history of war, the global trade in endangered species, and poverty. Useful ethnography with potential to set off great classroom policy discussions.

The seafood industry raises additional global issues. In this article, the author examines the exploitation of workers in that industry in sites ranging from Southeast Asia to Louisiana. She also documents efforts to organize workers and police the conditions in which they work. Meanwhile, fishers in Louisiana struggle to make a living in a context in which they are challenged by the global trade in seafood, disaster, weak U.S. regulation of imported seafood, and other issues, as explored in this excellent article by Michael Stein.

The Southern Foodways Alliance podcast Gravy recounts the strange phenomenon of Jubilee, in Alabama’s Mobile Bay. Why do thousands of fish, shrimp, crabs, eels, and more suddenly fling themselves on the shore in the middle of the night? Strange and true stories from the Gulf Coast.

In this short (around 9 minutes) documentary, Sol Friedman interviews a very philosophical ninety-year-old Jewish woman whose faith has been shattered by Google, among other things and who, as a consequence, decides for the first time in her life to try bacon. But not before considerations of faith, reason, family history, and the potential for God’s wrath.

After you consider all this, you are probably getting anxious about publishing your own research. Emily Contois has just published a very helpful guide to food studies journals on her blog. Get those articles submitted!

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SAFN at the ASFS Scarborough Fare


SAFN is a co-sponsor of the Association for the Study of Food and Society conference that will be held in Toronto next week from June 22-25. A number of SAFN members will be participating and we are organizing an informal gathering for SAFN members on Friday from 4-5pm.

Here is a partial of list of SAFN participants:

Abby Golub will present a poster at the pre-conference student day on June 21st. It is called: “How is Life After Fruit Picking? Precarity, Aspirations, and Social Mobility in the Life Trajectories of Hindi-Speaking Migrant Agriculture Workers in Belgium.”

David Beriss is participating in a roundtable on Sidney Mintz “A Sweet and Powerful Contribution: Sidney Mintz and Food Studies (A Multidisciplinary Roundtable)”. This is session C6 on Thursday, June 23 1:30-2:45. Beriss will also be giving a paper, “City in a Cup: The 2013 Public Drinking Crisis in New Orleans” in panel F2 “An Intersectional Approach to the Gentrification of Culinary Knowledge” on Friday, June 24, 10:15-11:30. Ashante Reese is the chair of this session and she will also be presenting on this panel. The title of her paper is “D.C. is Mambo Sauce: Race, Class, and Authentic Consumption

Rachel Black, Alyson Young, Mike Burton and Rick Wilk will give papers in session D1 “Food and Gender: Anthropological Perspectives” on Thursday, June 23 from 3:15-4:30.

Rachel Black will also be participating in the roundtable session L6 “Professional Development: What Do Journal Editors Want?”

Friday, June 24, Janet Chrzan is giving a paper in panel H1 “Pseudoscience and Nutrition: The Enduring Appeal of Magical Thinking, Dietary Fads and Nutritional Extremism”. The title of her paper is “Organics: Food, Fantasy or Fetish”

Amy Trubek will be participating in a number of panels:

  • Roundtable: Food and Agricultural research: What can French and American researchers learn from each other?
  • Panel G8 “What Does Income Have to Do With It? Making Meals and Socioeconomic Status in the United States”. Her paper is entitled “Time is Money: A Century of Changes in Cooks, Cooking Times and Eating Locales”
  • Roundtable 15: Changing Diets, Changing Minds: The Menus of Change University Research Collaborative
  • Roundtable: What can STS offer Food Studies?

Penny Van Esterik will participate in the roundtable C1.“Feminist Food Studies, Part 3 of 3: Toward a Feminist Food Studies” and L5. “Conversations in Food Studies: Working the Boundaries”

Helen Valliantos is participating in the panel B11. “The Politics of Milk and Maternal Health”. Her paper is entitled “Mothers’ Food and Health Perceptions and Behaviours in Ghana”

On Thursday at 10:15, Greg de St. Maurice and Rick Wilk will be on Roundtable B6, “Washoku in Jeopardy? The cultural economy and future of Japanese cuisine.”

If your name is missing, please contact Rachel Black with your details.



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A Food Anthropologist at the John Dewey Kitchen Institute

Rachel Black
President, Society for the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition
Connecticut College

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend the John Dewey Kitchen Institute at the University of Vermont. The goal of this three-day workshop was to “emphasize experiential education, of course in teaching about food but also as an important pedagogical approach for teaching any subject.” As a long-time believer and practitioner of hands-on learning, I was eager to hone skills and think more about how to create opportunities for experiential learning in my anthropology of food classes.

Getting our senses warmed up straight away, we passed around, smelled and identified plates of herbs and spices. The instructors then asked the 12 participants to think of a life experience we could relate to a specific herb or spice. These flavorful narratives were a great way to get to know each other. At this point, we also began to discuss John Dewey’s philosophy of education, which would provide the underpinnings for our activities and reflections over the next few days. Instructors Lisa Heldke and Cynthia Belliveau gave the class a list of 12 Deweyan tenets. These ranged from “Education is experience” to “Enquiry is value-laden”. The tenets were an attempt to answer the questions: “What does it mean to learn, and how should that understanding inform our teaching and learning in the food studies classroom?” and “What is the world like, how does inquiry work, and how should these inform our teaching/learning?”


Using all our senses to think about lunch at the Dewey Kitchen Institute.

After a brief kitchen orientation, we engaged in our first hands-on activity–knife skills. We were instructed how to chop onions and carrots and then given knives, cutting boards and ingredients. What became quickly apparent was the amount of focus the activity took, whether you were a professional chef or someone who eats out for most meals. This is when I began to understand that the goal here was not learning to cook but rather cooking to learn. It was the reflection on the embodiment of skill and the presence of the mind in the body that resonated with me in this first lab. This activity was focused on the fifth tenet “play”: “Far from being trivial, play is “interested absorption in activity for the sake of activity itself.”

A diagram of mise en place.

A diagram of mise en place.

The next day we discussed the concept of mise en place and how this type of kitchen organization task might be used to get students to think about planning and organization in new ways. As we drew out our mise en place, I began to think about the spatial relationships between sensory experiences. That was a new dimension for me. I never really gave much thought to where I put my ingredients and why. After some reflection, we  began to prepare lunch. This was an activity that not only fed us but taught us to think about divisions of labor and timing in the kitchen. This activity could be seen as an exercise in “education as a practice of democracy”. Having to organize ourselves and work together put this tenet in to action. I began to think about all the applications for such skills beyond the kitchen.

We did a number of tastings in the course, from the herbs on the first day to local craft beers on the last day. We were not provided with tasting sheets but we did discuss the different ways in which we might structure tastings in order to achieve specific learning outcomes. Here we explored the tenet “theory is practice” and how “when theory and practice operate together effectively, learners act reflectively and inquiringly, with a sense of purpose and for the sake of learning.”

On the last day, we were given a market basket and asked to cook lunch in teams. We were told that our dish had to embody one of the Dewey tenets. This was a challenging culinary and organizational task. My partner and I focused on “chance and change.” Although we ultimately produced some tasty poached eggs on toast with a romesco sauce, we felt that the experience was mediated by this tenet: we did not know what we would get for ingredients, what would happen in the cooking process, and we felt the need to adapt to the unexpected.

As an anthropologist, I kept thinking about the ways I could introduce cultural diversity in to these exercises. While Dewey’s philosophy is second nature to most of us who do fieldwork, this workshop was an opportunity to bring the worlds of food studies and anthropology together. As I prepare my courses for the fall semester, I will be thinking of ways to bring experiential learning scenarios in to my anthropology of food courses.


Cooking to learn.


Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, food education, Food Studies, teaching

What FoodAnthropology Is Reading Now, June 10 Edition

Hello FoodAnthro readers. If you have articles you’d like to share in future round-ups, please send the link and a brief description to Thanks to the readers who provided the content for this week!

We are in the month of Ramadan–which began June 6th this year–meaning the internet abounds with articles documenting, debating, and explaining the month of fasting. Some resources food anthropologists may want to be aware of include the #RamadanDiaries hashtag on Twitter and accompanying blog series over at Savage Minds.

Fusion featured tips from Muslim food bloggers on surviving and enjoying Ramadan fasting, Vox offered some basics in the form of 9 Questions You Were Too Embarrassed to Ask about the holy month, and The Atlantic wrote about how Muslims in Nordic countries handle sunrise-to-sunset fasting when the sun never sets: How to Fast for Ramadan in the Arctic.

From the end of May, Anthony Bourdain shared a snapshot of sharing a meal with President Obama in Hanoi: Six True Things About Dinner with Obama

Gastropod came back recently with an episode dedicated to one of humanity’s long-standing hobbies: beer. They take listeners from pre-industrial brewing to contemporary trends in Everything Old is Brew Again

NPR covered the heated and intractable debates in New Jersey over what to call the state’s signature pork product which, as the reader who submitted the article commented, “sounds like Spam or baloney”: New Jerseyans Chew Over What To Call Their Favorite Pork Product

Ancient rice and beans allow archaeologists to trace links between Madagascar and ancient Indonesia, as reported in the Washington Post (Signs of Madagascar’s first settlers discovered — and they came from 3,000 miles away). Or, if you prefer, the full report is here (Ancient Crops Provide First Archaeological Signature of the Westward Austronesian Expansion)

And finally, from the Washington Post, a story of about how coffee is displacing tea in England: The Slow Death of the Most British Thing There Is

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