Utne Reader, the Reader's Digest of the alternative press, to increase coverage


October 23, 1994|By Jeanne Cooper | Jeanne Cooper,Boston Globe

What's brewing in Utne Reader? Coffee in the current November/December issue; change in the next.

The January/February 1995 issue of the Reader's Digest of the alternative press will feature a revamped design -- inside and out -- and an expanded list of sources to sample, according to editor Eric Utne.

"We'll monitor a broad range of additional genres -- the business press, discussion groups on the Internet, periodicals from the Christian right, [fan]zine culture, the black press and many more," he writes. "Thinkers and visionaries" largely ignored by the mainstream media, 100 of whom will be introduced in the next issue, will also appear regularly in the new Utne Reader, by way of profiles and essays.

The last of the old-style Readers hardly suffers by comparison, though. There are compelling articles on race drawn from the Blast (an interview with whiteness-renouncing Noel Ignatiev of Race Traitor magazine), Transition and Emerge; an excerpt from Andrew Klavan's horror apologia in the Boston Review, "In Praise of Gore"; and entertaining "gleanings" from Out (on fashion's co-opting of lesbian "work-boot chic") and Spy ("How to Be Annoying On-Line"), among other magazines.

Best of all may be the "special to the Utne" cover story on coffee by Mark Schapiro. He skips the frothy approach of other trend-noters -- no breakdown of the components of latte vs. cappuccino here -- for a broad-ranging history of the bean and a penetrating look at its contemporary marketing and economics.

Some of his grounds for thought: Coffee is now the second-most-actively traded commodity, "right after oil -- that other form of blackground." The current boom of more than 400 small-scale roasters -- nearly 10 times as many as 1979 -- parallels the recent closing of plants by the three major coffee processors (Nestle, Kraft General Foods and Procter & Gamble) "as we consumers tire of the wan, percolated brews of our childhood." It's a reversal of what happened in the '50s, when, just as with beer, regional competitors were forced off precious supermarket shelf space by increasingly powerful national distributors, which "directly affected the overall quality of the coffee available to consumers."

The profit margin on a cup of specialty joe is high -- the drink costs 7 cents, the napkins, spoons, etc., another 10 to 15 cents -- but the bucks are not percolating down to Juan Valdez, the Colombian coffee archetype. "The image of Juan Valdez was created by the very people, the big exporters, who are forcing the real Juan Valdezes out of business and replacing them with large coffee plantations," Angus Wright, a professor of environmental studies, says in the article. Speaking of the environment, U.S. agricultural scientists are responsible for the now-widespread high-yield coffee that grows in full sun (spurring land clearance) and demands "high levels of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and fungicides."

Mr. Schapiro, a professed "inveterate coffee drinker," also analyzes with acuity the interior design of a Starbucks franchise. His coffee chronology is sprinkled with proverbs such as this Turkish one: "Coffee should be black as hell, strong as death, and sweet as love."

He's cooking now

What's cooking with novelist John Irving? Well, he is, at least four nights a week, in his home above Vermont's Manchester Valley, according to a substantial profile by John Paul Newport in the November Men's Journal. "You can write all day and not turn out anything, but at least in the kitchen you always have something to show for your efforts," Mr. Irving says while preparing chicken breast, potatoes sauteed with yellow pepper, asparagus and a dessert compote.

The author of "The World According to Garp" and the recent "A Son of the Circus" discusses explicitly -- and humorously -- his use of explicit sexual scenes. As Mr. Newport notes, "In Irving's novels, untoward things happen to penises with disturbing regularity." Mr. Irving's literary trope and life obsession with wrestling also crops up, as does his "fair play" feminism, his disdain for minimalism ("those 89-page novels with type large enough for the legally blind that are all about what somebody had for lunch") and his painstaking research. For Mr. Irving, see ing is believing and so, sometimes, is smelling: Check out his description of hippopotamus breath.

Going underground

Better than a fanzine, although not in the big leagues yet, is Detroit-based Surreal, subtitled "Underground Entertainment." The fall issue highlights several artists -- including performance artists Guillermo Gomez-Pena and Roberto Sifuentes and dancers Urban Bush Women -- who explore minority culture often for a largely majority audience.

In the case of Pena and Sifuentes, that's part of their mission to provoke thought on Latino-Anglo interaction; for the Urban Bush Women, that's often a result of promoters booking them into venues perceived as "white." Fans of "The Crow" may also want to check out the interview with author-screenwriter James O'Barr.

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