Friday, March 20, 2009

The Daring Life of a Coffee Drinker

G. Harvey, "Cowboy Coffee" (1999)

As I said in an earlier post, "Noble Tea," one of my students, Elizabeth Brown, a freshman at The King's College here in New York City, prompted me for my thoughts on coffee and tea and their relationship to the noblest human endeavors.

Among other things, I responded with this claim for the superiority of tea.

Tea is a nobler drink. It is more delicate than coffee. The folks at Upton Tea Imports tell us, "Like fine wine, tea is debated, savored, and treasured for its almost endless variety of subtle flavors. Indeed, in terms of its complexity, variety, and worldwide appeal, tea could be called the 'non-alcoholic wine.'"

It seems to me that the vessel from which a drink is properly consumed is an indication of its recognized nobility. For example, properly speaking, wine ought to be served in an elegant crystal glass. Tea is served in small china cups. Anything else does it horrible violence. By contrast, it is perfectly respectable to drink coffee from a cardboard or Styrofoam cup. Stoneware at a diner is equally suitable. Joe don't care.
In turn, Elizabeth offered this sympathetic agreement coupled with an informative early history of coffee drinking among the Arabs and Turks, together with an appreciation of coffee's historic alliance with spirited doers of deeds.

I agree that tea is the nobler drink. The very founding of this great country is awash with tea. Tea is healthy for the heart and body, to say nothing of inspiring mind and soul. It is delicate, refined, and diverse. The rightful place of tea is in fine china, in one’s stomach, or somewhere in between. On this, we are agreed. Did I have to choose one drink (aside from water) to partake of for the rest of my life, I would choose tea. Nonetheless, I do feel compelled to defend that thicker, stronger drink toward which you seem so ill-disposed.

The origins of coffee are more wild, exotic, and blood-stained than that of its leafy cousin twice removed. Coffee’s origins are in Ethiopia, but the beans were quickly discovered and dominated by the Arabs. Since alcohol is taboo for Muslims, coffee was used as a substitute for drinking wine. The Arabic word for coffee (which I sadly cannot remember at the moment) can literally be translated wine of the bean. Originally thought of as a Muslim drink, the Muslims themselves banned coffee due to its stimulating effects, until the Turks made it legal. For the Turkish, coffee was not merely a stimulant, it was a passion. The presentation and sharing of coffee became a major part of the Turkish culture, marking the beginning of coffeehouses as we know them to be. In such a culture, coffee is served in china or the finest cups available to the host. It is specially prepared with fine grounds and sugar boiled with water in a pot. The dregs settle in the bottom of the cup presented to the guest. This style of Turkish coffee is now common throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and the Balkan nations, where I have had occasion to be served such a brew, myself.

Matisse, "Arab Coffee-House (1913)

While relaxed, coffee also bears in its very pungency a sense of adventure. Cowboys on the cattle trail, soldiers in a war zone, sheikhs in the dessert; coffee is their drink, and true enough, it is not always served in fine china. Sipped from tin, Styrofoam, or paper, the vessel is merely a means to the brew, for the adventurer. Of course, now we often associate coffee with gas stations, paperwork, and beat poets, but I wonder if the sense of comfort in adventure is not still there. When the scholar copiously records his research, when the poet spouts forth heady and often incoherent words, when the driver returns to his truck with steaming cup in hand, are they not seeking new frontiers, in some form or fashion? Discovery, inspiration, leaving a mark upon the world—is this not the work beneath the toil? I can taste it. Even if it is bitter, I like it.

Here's to reckless adventure! Here's to the spirit of conquest and greatness! And here's to coffee, come what may!

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