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Representations, Receptions and Cultural Frontiers

International Interdisciplinary Conference
(Universitatea din Bucureşti – Universidade Nova de Lisboa,
Lisbon, 3-6 Oct., 2018)


Subject to anthropological, historical, literary, linguistic, economic, political and cultural(ist) approaches, the cultural institutions of coffee, bread and chocolate have benefited from both conceptually restricted and wide interdisciplinary evaluations in the last half century, more precisely since Cultural Studies and gradually Material Culture and Modernity Studies have occupied the forestage of onetime merely literary issues. Both have deep roots now in current analyses of cultural identity and boast relevant assessments of chronotopic diversity and difference as guarantees of unbiased critical appraisal. And this applies to no end of cultures, from the Westernmost to the Easternmost spaces of interest to our cultivated minds and curious souls, to culture tout court. This is as much as saying that imagological and culturalist tools operate at ease within their territory, able to secure the open analytical embrace thus proposed.

Coffee underwent a significant sea change in the collective imaginary of the West from its very inceptive moments in a long history, one of colonial discovery and occupation, of religious conversion and cultural readjustment, of – in a broader sense – acculturation: by adapting and adopting the apparently base and little exciting bean, Western culture(s) have reshaped their own make and substance to the extent that they could not be conceived of without the invigorating black liquid once deemed “puddle water”. Given the cold shoulder in Europe, not unlike the potato and tomato, coffee managed to fight a tough fight with tea and chocolate and, with its initial enemies helped put in place a modern culture of hot beverages, at once wakeful and civil, useful and elegant.

In tandem with coffee, cocoa gained more and more terrain on the map of the Western mind, from adapting cacao to a more “respectable” spelling and Europeanizing the Aztec and Mexican lexemes cachuatl and chocolatl to best suit the acoustic and palpable grasp of its identity. Could we possibly think of our lives without chocolate in our modern lives? Held in awed esteem as the great patron of chocolate, Montezuma played a crucial role in its colonial and postcolonial existence. Linnaeus referred to it a theo-broma, literally “food of the gods”, and the Spanish conquistadors, as well as their country fellowmen and women prided in being the promoters in the West of the “Spanish drink”. This met with utter dislike by the English, while it slowly and irreversibly grew into an adapted English space of the public sphere, the cozy chocolate house competing with the more familiar coffee house. Concurrently, chocolate grew into a perfect badge of cultural finesse, with aristocratic ladies validating its distinction in salon sophistication and etiquette-laden gestures of cultural distinction. What is now an item of demotic consumption on every rung of the social ladder was once an elitist and therefore rare and costly form of socialization.

Tobacco had been there for some time and when its related liquid “colonials” came to its succour, it became an inevitable element of socialization. Coffee drinking, tobacco smoking and leisurely exchanges of opinions stood for the pleasurable and equally efficient protocol of policing the coffee house, with newspapers, repartees and jokes as related items of sociability and clubbability.

Compared with the above-mentioned articles of leisurely consumption, bread stands out as the staple food of the community, nourishment for the poor and stomach-filling edible in times of war and peace. Prehistoric earthenware used for storing corn, Homeric millstones or Etruscan pestles and mortars, Roman hand-mills or querns and kneading troughs are as many proofs of the centrality of bread as the food of the labouring people, the murmuring masses of history. Wheaten, by the side of maize or rice, and wholegrain together with rye bread point to cultural differences carrying their own distinctive note: unleavened vs. leavened bread, white vs. brown loaves, rough vs. de luxe buns, every single one type standing for a social category or ambiance.

This conference aims to focus on coffee and cocoa/chocolate as the luxurious drink/dessert of sophisticated cultural space(s) and bread as the basic, humble and inexpensive food of the unfortunate and miserable of any society. The crossroads of the two extremes has not ceased raising brows and producing emblematic quips, anecdotes and stories. The following are possible items to be tackled in papers suggested for the occasion, while any other proposal(s) dovetailing with them are welcome:

  • coffee, tea and chocolate from reality to myth, embodying the utile dulci precept: personifications of any one of them and their use in cultural discourse(s); the panem et circenses, the “let them eat cake”, the “panem nostrum quotidianum” topoi
  • coffee tea culture(s): consumption, diffusion and propagation of plants securing the daily sustenance and assimilating rare items as current ones
  • acquiring the taste of coffee and tea and putting them to the use of public spaces as social protocols
  • domesticating tea and coffee: from “exotic” to “chic” drink, from barbarity to “social drug”; the “a colony in a cup”, “barbarity in a cup”, “a storm in a cup” figées as badges of cultural identity
  • social-cultural effects of coffee: sobriety, prestige, elegance and good manners at table
  • “from-rags-to riches” stories: coffee from beans for excited goats to chic beverage, from sacred potion to domestic drink, from bean to broth, from “the devil’s cup” to the elixir that “makes the politician wise”; cocoa from bean to bar, from sacrificial potion to chic ladies’ dessert, from salted medicine to sugared delight
  • the new hot drink of Classic Modernity as cure or/and poison (the φάρμακον trope)
  • famous dicta and the symbolic geography of coffee-tea-chocolate consumption: Bacon (“Coffee comforts the head and heart, and helps digestion”); Milton’s Comus speaks about coffee producing a pleasure beyond “the bliss of dreams”; Keats’s Cap and Bells values coffee as superior to Jamaican rum and Nantz rum; Eliot’s Prufrock confesses “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons”; Orson Welles can think of only three intolerable things in life: cold coffee, lukewarm champagne, and overexcited women
  • the representation of coffee, bread, tea and tobacoo in narratives about the past: revisions, erasures and anachronisms
  • the chronotopic supremacy of coffee as counterfactual cultural history: if only Horace and Virgil had known coffee…

Proposals of 20-minute papers should be submitted by 1 September, 2018 in the form of an abstract not exceeding 200 words. As each paper will be followed by 10-minute discussions, participants are kindly asked to limit their presentation to the allotted time-slot.

Please confirm your intention to participate in the event by 15 July, 2018 at coffeeandbreadconference@gmail.com.


Prof. MIHAELA IRIMIA, Ph.D. – mihaela.l.irimia@gmail.com

Dr.  DRAGOŞ MANEA, Junior Lecturer – dc.manea@gmail.com

Prof. ISABEL ALMEIDA, Ph.D. – isalmeida24@yahoo.com

Prof. LEONOR SANTA BÁRBARA, Ph.D. – leonorsantabarbara@gmail.com

Prof. LUÍS MANUEL BERNARDO, Ph.D. – lm.bernardo@fcsh.unl.pt

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