It Smelled Bad, Anyway
by Willem Lange
EAST MONTPELIER – A little after six each morning, I greet Monsieur Café effusively, pour him a carafe full of fresh water, and add a couple of heaping soup-spoonfuls of fresh coffee. I call in Kiki from her morning yard patrol and, while I check my e-mail, inhale deeply the wonderful aroma that suffuses the house. All will be well with the world that day.
My earliest memories of coffee, from before the war, have as much to do with sound as aroma. My parents lightened and sweetened their java with Red Cross condensed milk, which poured slow as molasses from the larger of two holes my father punched in the small, rimless can. It was the stirring that I remember. Both parents were deaf and couldn’t hear the tink-tink sound of the spoon on the cup – especially my father, who’d aspired briefly to be a pharmacist like his father, and believed in a thorough mixing of ingredients (decades later, it drove my wife nuts). They never offered me a taste. It was a drink for grownups, and it smelled bad to me, anyway. During the war, when it was apparently very hard to come by, they switched to Postum, the American version of the German Ersatz. I did try that. One taste was enough for me.
I drank tea instead. But then, in the late fall of 1957, I was dating a coed at Bennington College. Saturdays after work I swung my old Plymouth southward from the Adirondacks and tooled down Route 22 in the early darkness to the promise of a warm welcome and a hot shower. One evening, dog-tired, I stopped on the way at a truck stop in Eagle Bridge, New York – famed as the home of Grandma Moses – went in for a cup of tea, and sat down on the only empty stool, right in the middle of a long row of truckers. “What’ll it be?” asked the counter girl.
I looked left; I looked right – and met the interested gaze of about a dozen very burly men. “Coffee!” I declared. “Black!” And since that evening I’ve never looked back.
The origin of coffee is, as the saying goes, shrouded in myth; but there seems to be general agreement that it was discovered in medieval times in the Kingdom of Sheba – now parts of Yemen and Ethiopia – by a goatherd who noticed that his animals were a lot peppier after they ate the berries of a particular bush. Naturally, he told his priest (an abbot, actually), who made a potation of crushed berries and was delighted to find that it kept him awake during evening prayers. He shared the new drink with his monks. The sleepy old monastery was sleepy no longer.
The name for coffee, first Arabic, changed as it became Turkish, and then Dutch, following the rapid spread of its use from the Arabian Peninsula into Europe, where it had arrived by the 17th century. Naturally, like many popular new things, it was greeted with suspicion by religious authorities. When it reached Venice, the pope was asked to rule if it was indeed mephistophelean. He sipped a cup and uttered the papal equivalent of, “Hmm. Not bad!”
It would be hard to exaggerate coffee’s popularity in Europe. By 1650 there were already over three hundred “coffee houses” in London. One hundred years later, during the heyday of one of literature’s fiercest and most erudite conversationalists, Samuel Johnson, all the great issues of the day were debated there. Johnson, owing to chronic penury, rejoiced that he could argue all day for almost nothing, in what became known as “penny parliaments.”
As a child, I often heard that coffee would stunt my growth. As an adult, I read that people who drink coffee black and whiskey neat, and shower in the morning (all of which I do), are among those most at risk for developing psychopathy. I’d rather give up my sanity than my habits, so I’ve been resigned. But suddenly, good news: According to studies cited in the February 26 issue of ‘The Week,’ folks who drink two or more cups a day of caffeinated black coffee enjoy a 30 percent decreased risk of heart failure, compared to those who drink none at all.
This month, as the air temperature rises, and the immunity to COVID spreads with vaccinations, I long for the day the morning sun at last breaks over the parapets on the south side of State Street and floods the tables on the sidewalk outside the coffee shop. Then I will sit with my chums as we convene our penny parliament and solve the world’s problems over a cup of joe—black!