Old City may be my least favorite neighborhood in Philadelphia. During the day, it’s swarmed by tourists and smells constantly of horse manure. At night, thick-necked Jersey dudes and girls shivering in tank tops wend their way drunkenly to the next booming-bass club. It has its good points, of course–AKA music, Franklin Fountain, a couple decent used bookstores–but give me South or West Philly any day.
Old City Coffee, with two locations in Reading Terminal Market, began in this neighborhood more than a quarter-century ago, so I should number that among the area’s virtues. Old City is fine, as coffee shops go. You’ll get a decent black coffee, since they roast the beans on premises (sometimes there’s a faint burnt flavor, however).
Opt, sometimes, for an espresso drink, like the mocha froth, which is even better. I’m not sure what constitutes the “froth” or what makes it different than a regular mocha, but it’s highly enjoyable. If you venture into Reading Terminal Market looking for Old City Coffee, I strongly recommend the larger location of the two for your daily java infusion, although they don’t let you put your own milk or cream in your coffee which I find somewhat infantilizing. The waitstaff at the smaller one, like dissident writers exiled to Siberia, tend to be as dour and brusque as black bread.
But back to the neighborhood that gives the coffee shop its name. On Front and Market streets, you’ll see a sign denoting the former location of the London Coffee House, which opened in 1754. If you’re like me, your mind will race with images of men in waistcoats and curled wigs, arguing over cups of this newfangled Turkish drink in Habermasian splendor about free will or the status of the body politic. Other bodies enter the picture when you read a bit further: the London Coffee House “served as a place to inspect Black slaves recently arrived from Africa and to bid for their purchase at public auction.”
Too much foodie writing is agog with the dazzle of good food, cooked well. What’s forgotten and what history shows us (to paraphrase Sidney Mintz) is that food is power. At that corner, merchants daintily sipped coffee after checking the teeth of chattel slaves who might have been or were destined to be “seasoned” in the violent environment of the sugar plantations of the Caribbean. Labor to produce the world’s beloved commodities, whether coffee, chocolate, sugar or oil, mustn’t be forgotten in our quest to taste the best, most unique, most authentic. The British slave trade was halted in part when citizens, including children, refused to eat sugar. I’m thinking, today, of what is happening in our world–protests in North Africa that have toppled dictators and resulted in tragic deaths and rallies in Wisconsin to fight the evisceration of labor’s rights come immediately to mind. Food seems frivolous in comparison, but it’s not, of course, as global commodity exchange and production show. Today we have the opportunity to salve our consciences with fair trade, shade grown coffee, which is a measurable improvement over ignorance. But what else is elided in that simple daily choice of what to eat?
Recommended: coffee at Old City; on food and labor: Sidney Mintz’s Sweetness and Power; Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the American Meal and the documentary Food, Inc among others.