A Brief (and Highly Personal) History of Coffee

June 24, 2011

First there was the percolator.  It was a fixture in our house when I was small.  Coffee in the morning was the rule rather than the exception.  And in fact my mother, who was something of a practical joker, and loved April Fool's Day almost with a religious fervor, once heated black olive juice and served it to my father in a coffee cup at breakfast.  She considered it one of her triumphs.


Eventually (and probably not related to that little joke, but still) my father gave up drinking coffee at breakfast and my mother, not wanting to bother making a pot of coffee for herself, quit making coffee altogether.  The percolator got put away and only came out when there was company who would drink coffee with Mom.  I don't remember ever asking for a cup when it was being served.  If I had I'm sure they'd have said I wasn't old enough.


And then, when I was in my early 20s, I spent a month in Scandinavia.  I went with my best friend and we stayed with her relatives wherever we went.  That meant Scandinavian hospitality and Scandinavian hospitality means more delicious food than any human being should ever be asked to eat (To this day the phrase "var så god" can make me salivate.) and pots of very strong coffee served in tiny, delicate porcelain cups.  I was raised to eat and drink whatever was put in front of me rather than offend my hosts and so I learned to drink coffee.  I used lots of cream and sugar and I choked it down.  


Something happened during that trip.  I came home with a taste for coffee.  I started drinking it when I went out, and eventually bought a Mr, Coffee machine.  The results were far from satisfactory, though.  I followed the instructions and ended up with what my housemate likes to call "church coffee" which is a weak and pallid brew fit only for invalids in need of a small bit of perking up.  (It's kind of a shame the phrase "perk up" isn't related to the percolator.  That would be true poetry.)


My friend's parents made the kind of coffee I'd gotten used to, so I liked drinking it at their house, and eventually I asked what the secret was.  "Make it strong," I was told.  So that's what I began doing.  It worked.  I started enjoying my own coffee, though most other people found it a little overwhelming.  My mother liked it which confirmed her status as a true coffee junkie, in my opinion.  I stopped using sugar in my coffee.  I felt grown up.


And then one day I had The Best Cup of Coffee Ever. It was that monumental.  I was out shopping with the gal who is now my housemate and we'd stopped at a little gourmet shop in Arlington Heights where they served free coffee to all the shoppers.  I will never forget that the coffee du jour was Sumatra Mandheling and they served it with real cream.  Not milk, not even half and half.  Cream.  It was a revelation to me.  I'd never tasted coffee so big and rich and smooth.  It was assertive without being aggressive, it seduced rather than bludgeoned.  It was the best  damn coffee I've ever had or ever hope to have because I haven't ever duplicated that cup.  


Not for want of trying.  I bought a pound of the ground Sumatra, took it home and brewed it up every which way.  I tried it my way, I tried it by the book.  I put cream in it, and I came close but I didn't find the secret of that cup.  But y'know what? That's okay because not only does it give me something to strive for, it put me on the coffee varietal path, the one where you find yourself saying things like: "I tend to prefer the Indonesians over the Central Americans, to be honest." and "I find the Ethopian coffees really bright.  I think they're wonderful afternoon coffees."  Yeah, okay, I did the whole coffee snob thing.  I got over it.


In the end, I still have my preferences, I still like the Pacific coffees best, and I still drink them strong with a generous amount of whole milk, half and half or when I'm feeling really decadent, cream.  I still think sugar is an abomination in good coffee unless you're talking Thai iced coffee which is a whole other thing.


I still think of Mom when I make a pot of coffee, and sometimes I remember sitting down at the kitchen table with her and sharing a pot of coffee, talking about... whatever.  That's what you do with a cup of coffee and someone you love, isn't it?  Coffee has meaning for me beyond being just a hot beverage.  It reminds me of good times, friendship and love.  It tastes like being an adult, it smells like a promise.  If the day ever comes when I stop drinking coffee voluntarily, it'll be time to start writing my eulogy.  I purely love the stuff and all it means.

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