It was early on a frigid day, one in a long string of ‘em. The house was cleaned and polished; the walks and drive were shoveled. The afternoon stretched ahead, as untrammeled as new snow.
The boyos, who had been avoiding the face-freezing air for several days, were restless. They decided to pack up and drop off the recycling; then they would go out to lunch. They stomped up and down the basement stairs and gathered things together, sliding boxes and bins out onto the little back porch, bundling themselves into bulky jackets, pulling stocking caps down to cover their exposed and tender ears. They hugged and waved and slammed out the door, and the house settled in.
And, oh the quiet! I put the teakettle on to boil; I would infuse a pot of rich decaffeinated coffee. I lit the fire, and pulled my old fuzzy blanket from the TV watching chair. I gathered up my books and put two cookies on a plate, and I placed all that on the table next to my reading chair.
The teakettle whistled. I poured steaming water over freshly ground beans, swirled a wooden spoon to start the alchemy. I wrapped a towel around the French press, and I went and warmed myself in front of the fire while I waited.
Finally, I slowly, slowly, pushed down on the infusing filter, and then I poured rich, dark, fragrant coffee into my special Christmas mug. I wrapped my hands around it and I lowered myself slowly into the reading chair.
Books and quiet and a crackling fire. I lifted the cup and bent my nose to pull in the wonderful scent.
“You and me,” I whispered to the coffee as its warmth spread through my palms. “I can’t think of anything I’d rather spend this time with.”
We go back a long, long way, me and coffee. Coffee knows all about my history: how I started drinking it when I was twelve or so; how I turned to beer and cigarettes in my fast and furious college days, and coffee became the taken-for-granted reliable friend who always picked me up on the mornings after, who provided a soothing counterpoint while I puffed foolishly away.
Coffee was with me in times of midnight worry and when a baby cried in the deep of night. It prepared me for long journeys and revived me on the way.
Coffee stayed with me, even when a cold, hard doctor dropped the word, “Decaffeinated,” from his uncaring tongue.
Yes, coffee knew all about my past and my present. But, staring into its chocolate-brown depths, I realized how little I knew about coffee.
“We’ve been together 50 years now,” I murmured. “Don’t you think it’s time I learned a bit about your past?”
The brew was unforthcoming. I sipped and sighed, and I decided I’d have to do my own research. I had come to a point where I needed to know more about this old companion’s roots.
Turns out a lot of folks on the Internet were eager to spill the beans.
Long, long ago, “About Coffee” (www.ncausa.org/About-Coffee/History-of-Coffee) tells me, a goatherd named Kaldi pastured his flock on a plateau in an ancient Ethiopian forest. And he noticed, Kaldi, did, that the goats would nibble on the berries of a coffee bush, and then they would be so bouncy, so energetic, that they could not settle down to sleep.
Kaldi took this revelation to a local abbot, and the holy man brewed a drink with the beans and drank it. And, oh the joy for the abbot! Now he could stay awake during evening prayer!
He shared the brew with the other monks, who hallelujahed its praises.
The bracing story of coffee, from its simple beginnings of buzzed up goats, would percolate ‘round the world.
The Arabia peninsula, the website tells me, is where the mindful growing and trading of coffee began in the fifteenth century. It started in Yemeni; it spread to Persia, Egypt, and Syria by the sixteenth century. And everyone who tried coffee, it seems, wanted coffee.
Coffee houses sprang up in the Middle East; they became important social enclaves where essential information was exchanged, and where dynamic discussions took place. The coffee shops were known, says “About Coffee,” as schools of the wise.
And pilgrims came to Mecca, drank coffee, went home, and spread the word about it. By the 1600’s, coffee was in Europe, and a furor was taking place. The clergy in Venice didn’t like the new coffee-drinking trend; they didn’t like it one bit. (They must not have had any trouble staying awake for evening worship.)
Venetians were not inclined to listen to their pastors on this account. A controversy brewed, and the Venetian clergy decided they’d call in the big gun, someone their flock would not dare dispute. They took the question of whether coffee was wholesome and proper to Pope Clement VIIII.
The Pope asked to have some coffee brewed.
He drank it.
He loved it.
He approved it.
The Venetian clergy were vanquished; the faithful of Venice rejoiced at the holy sanction of their java.
(This makes me think, for some reason, of that sassy papal rejoinder to obvious queries, as in…
“Do you enjoy chocolate?”
“Huh. Is the Pope Catholic?”
From now on, I’m going to replace that. When a silly question is posed, I’m going to snap back, “DUH! Does the Pope drink coffee???”)
Driftawaycoffee.com tells me that coffee shops appeared in Damascus and Constantinople and Vienna in the 1500’s. The Viennese were the first to add sweeteners to their brews.
Coffee shops appeared in England in 1652, and by 1700, according to my friends at Driftawaycoffee, there were somewhere between one thousand and eight thousand coffee shops flourishing in Britain. Coffeehouses were GOOD things, say the authors; they promoted sobriety. Water was not very potable in the days before public sanitation. To avoid the germs and illness available drinking water provided, people drank beer and ale instead. That, of course, led to its own set of problems.
Coffee’s brewing process also eliminated the unsavory ingredients in drinking water. But, instead of promoting drunkenness, it promoted thought and conversation. English coffee shops became business hubs, public houses where clearheaded commerce could take place.
But what England’s coffee houses were NOT, back in the day, was female-friendly. Women were not allowed in coffee shops unless they worked there. Their “Women’s Petition Against Coffee,” says Driftawaycoffee, was “mostly tongue-in-cheek, but does provide this lively description: ‘…the Excessive use of that Newfangled, Abominable, Heathenish Liquor called COFFEE.’”
Maybe excluding women from the coffee craze is one reason many English still prefer their tea.
On NewYorkseriouseats.com. I find a section called ‘Coffee Chronicles in America.’ This notes that the Tea Act of 1773 pushed colonials to consider coffee as a serious hot beverage contender. Before the Act, Colonists mostly used coffee for medicinal purposes; it was pricey and rare. But by 1793, coffee beans were roasting in New York City, and the beverage had taken hold in the USA.
According to the Coffee Chronicles, a Coffee Exchange was established in New York City in 1882, and coffee quaffers were then guaranteed a certain standard of bean. The Exchange was a response to the great coffee crash of 1881, when unscrupulous sorts tried to corner the coffee market. They were unsuccessful, and we are still the beneficiaries of healthy competition among coffee-growers, insuring all tastes are amply provided for.
Satori Tato, a Japanese-American chemist, developed instant coffee in 1901, I learn from talkaboutcoffee.com. Two years later, German coffee trader Ludwig Roselius was stuck with a batch of ruined coffee beans. Roselius decided to experiment. His staff noticed that the water that soaked and ruined the beans also leached away their caffeine. They deliberately repeated the process, coming up with Sanka. The first commercially available decaf was born.
And coffee laced itself through United States life, bolstering business discussions and card parties, becoming a morning ritual for millions of folks. When Prohibition became law in 1920, United States citizens turned to coffee (in addition to their bootleg liquor) for beverage stimulation. It heartened soldiers and fortified those they left behind. It was a staple in break rooms and private kitchens.
Starbucks placed the coffee shop in the mainstream of United States society in the 1970’s; its own shops, and responses to them, proliferated.
The coffeeguide.org tells me that decaf coffee, my brew of choice, has had its challenges. It’s been embraced; it’s been rejected. A quick internet search offers a cacophony of competing decaf views. I read about health benefits and I read about the dangers of decaf. I read that decaf coffee still contains caffeine. I read about different processes, some of which are healthier than others, the writers report.
I think about the 60-point drop in my blood pressure, and I think about my ability to have a steaming cup of joe every morning, and I stop reading.
I write this on another cold morning, and as I write, I steadily drink my morning pot of medium roast decaf. And I realize there’s an awful lot to learn about my old friend, Coffee; my Internet ramble has not even scratched the surface of its depths. I remember, for instance, learning that coffee was used to treat hyperactive children in the 1970’s, before other drugs were identified; I remember reading that coffee may be one effective tool in individual arsenals that help people deal with depression.
I remember reading that agricultural coffee workers are victimized. Does coffee production harm the environment? There are sustainable, organic, free trade products I can buy. And there is much I still don’t know about my lifelong companion.
But my relationship with coffee emerges from my brisk study undamaged. We are still tight, coffee and me; we still share our mornings, our social times, our after-dinner dessert moments. I know that I’m not the only one; coffee has helped millions of people over hundreds of years enjoy and savor, and stay awake for, life. I can live with that. I can share.
Knowing coffee’s history just makes me love it more.