Ricardo Cortes explores the forbidden virtues of the coca leaf
Ricardo Cortes has made a name for himself with controversial books. In 2005, he published a children’s book called “It’s Just a Plant,” which set out to be the “Heather has Two Mommies” for pot-smoking parents. Last year, he helped make Adam Mansbach’s children’s book parody “Go the F– to Sleep” a best-seller with his tenderly subversive illustrations of children sweetly (and maddeningly) refusing to go to sleep.
Cortes’ latest, “A Secret History of Coffee, Coca & Cola,” uses a combination of gritty, mural-like illustrations and painstaking investigative research to explore the relationship between three of the most famous stimulants of all time: coffee, coca leaves (from which cocaine is an alkaloid derivative) and Coca-Cola.
In setting out to make the argument that drug laws should relax around coca leaves (chewed worldwide as a mild stimulant), Cortes begins with the history of coffee. He says the drink many of us enjoy daily was widely prohibited for centuries. Conversely, Cortes argues that coca plants were harmlessly enjoyed until becoming a casualty of the war on drugs — specifically cocaine — that began with the 1930 appointment of U.S. drug czar, Harry J. Anslinger.
According to Cortes, Anslinger spent most of his 40-year career leading the prohibition of coca while simultaneously helping the Coca-Cola Company secure exclusive access to it. In exchange, Anslinger received political gain from the powerful support of the company. “He was giving a back-door to Coca-Cola for their product,” says Cortes.
Rather than try to depict handshake deals and shadowy alliances, the most fascinating illustrations in “Secret History” are of letters between Ans-linger and Coca-Cola — meticulously rendered by Cortes from public documents. They chronicle how Coca-Cola has maintained access to coca for use in its secret formula (called “Merchandise No. 5″) even as the U.S. wages war against the very same plants in South America.
“It’s an investigation of rumors,” says Cortes of his use of letters as art. “You can find information of Coca-Cola and coca leaf on Wikipedia. But I wanted to have all the primary sources that you could look back at.”
Rather than condemn Coca-Cola for using coca, Cortes says he believes that drug laws should relax around the leaf, citing thousands of years of “social, spiritual, medicinal and nutritional” purposes.
While you’re at it, sip on some New Coke
Remember in 1985 when Coca-Cola shocked drinkers by changing the formula and rebranding it “New Coke”?
Fans railed in mob-like numbers to bring back the classic formula. This resulted in the drink-maker keeping New Coke but additionally adding back the original “Coca-Cola Classic” just months later.
Cortes is one of many who believe that the change was an effort by Coca-Cola to extract themselves from the political problems caused by using the coca leaf. But Coke won’t talk. “They say the secret formula is their most valuable asset,” says Cortes. “Therefore, they say that’s why they can’t talk about it.”
If you go
‘A Secret History of Coffee, Coca & Cola’ reading
Tuesday, 7, Book Court
163 Court St., Brooklyn
Friday, 6:30 p.m.
La Casa Azul, 143 E. 103rd St. 212-426-2626