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Elder Wisdom

Coffee: A Delayed Love Story

A picture taken on February 13, 2022 shows a cup of espresso coffee at the historic Gran Caffe Gambrinus in Naples, Italy. - A shot of dark, velvety coffee is more than just a quick caffeine hit: Italy's espresso is a prized social and cultural ritual the country considers a national heritage worthy of Unesco status. Gran Caffe Gambrinus is a historic cafe, pasticceria, and gelateria that opened in Naples in 1860. (Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP) (Photo by ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP via Getty Images)
Alberto Pizzoli/AFP via Getty Images

In our kitchen, in one of the corner cabinets, sits a mug. It’s my mug. Everyone else in the family knows that’s Dad’s mug. It doesn’t have the usual dad mug graphics adorning its outside: “World’s #1 Dad,” “Ask Me If I Care,” etc. It’s just a mug. But it’s mine. Only I get to use it. No one else fucks with my mug but me. It’s my big piece of chicken. And every morning, right after I’ve seen my daughter off to high school but before everyone else has gotten out of bed, I christen my day with that mug. There’s a lot of me inside of it.

My love affair with coffee was so long in gestation that it’s a surprise I ever lived to experience it. From a very young age, I despised the shit. Hated the smell of it. Hated the taste of it. Hated the ads. Wanted to murder the Folgers couple any time they popped up during ad breaks for The Price Is Right. Oh, how I hated Coffee People. I didn’t want to be one of those people, with their whole “Don’t even talk to me until I’ve had my java” horseshit. My parents drank coffee, of course. But they were exempt. It was all the other coffee drinkers out there that I found despicable. My brother, also a coffee hater at the time, would join me in routinely singing “The best part of waking up … is Folgers in your butt” at the breakfast table. Mom would roll her eyes and giggle simultaneously.

I got older and more of my friends started to drink coffee, but I continued to abstain. I still found it to be a precious yuppie drink, and I was no yuppie. Sure, my dad was an airline executive who once brought home, from Japan, the exact same sushi machine that Charlie Sheen used in Wall Street. And we lived in a nice house on lakefront property. And I went to private school. But I still fancied myself HARD. Mean. A rebel. I had a vision of myself that was very male, very rugged, and very heterosexual. Turning into a coffee guy would have tarnished my thoroughly imagined reputation. In my mind, coffee was for sissies, only go ahead and swap out “sissies” for a much worse epithet. So I hated it. If ever in need of energy, I would guzzle Coke instead. I could not, would not, ever drink coffee.

One summer between college years, I worked for a restaurant setting up and breaking down large banquets: weddings, corporate shindigs, and every other form of interminable mass gathering. I heard “Wonderful Tonight” so many times this summer that, if you play it for me now, I will drive my car up your ass. Early in the morning, while setting up for a junket, I had to wake up more. There was no hot water for tea or any soda to be had anywhere. Just big urns of coffee. So I summoned my reserves of college kid energy and, in a twisted fit of inspiration, poured myself a Styrofoam cup of half-coffee and half-orange juice, with the orange juice intended to mask the flavor of the coffee.

You already know this was a poor idea, but I wasn’t about to drink pure coffee voluntarily. I threw down this unholy little mocktail and thought this tastes kinda good. Somewhere inside me, I liked the coffee part of what was in that cup, but I refused to acknowledge that appetite. This wasn’t like mayonnaise, which I genuinely did abhor (and still do). This was me being coffee-curious and too ashamed to admit it. To this day, I can still taste that coffee/OJ combination in my mind. But after that one cup, I never spoke of it, nor drank it, again.

I wouldn’t start drinking coffee, sans OJ, regularly until my late 30s. In my mind, I was tolerating its flavor more than embracing it. Still hated coffee people. Hated coffeehouses. Hated coffeehouse music. Hated coffeehouse customers. And what was with those highfalutin names Starbucks used for drink sizes, am I right people?! I wasn’t one of them, nossir. Whenever Peter King did one of his weekly “coffeenerdness” segments in his MMQB column, I gleefully tore it apart. Look at the coffee dipshit, I told the internet. Always needing his coffee, like a true pud. One time Peter lamented a cup he bought that tasted, in his words, like “coffee-flavored water.” I not only goofed on that line the day it was published—what did Peter think actual coffee was?—I called it back when I made fun of him after that. Oh, there goes Mister Coffee-Flavored Water Man again, sitting in his automobile-themed car! Aren’t we so fancy?!

Yes, I myself now drank coffee, but I was different. The only reason I started drinking it was because I had three young kids, which’ll sap your energy faster than the Six-Fingered Man’s Machine. I needed it more than I wanted it. I took it black, so that I could taste the burn, like I was drinking hard liquor without a mixer. Made me feel like an Old West sheriff. I never drank too much coffee, because it would leave me cranky and because I was still clinging to the idea that I still didn’t actually like something that, by all visual evidence, I very much did.

The irony here is that you can absolutely make an airtight ethical case against drinking coffee. As a commodity, coffee has had as destructive an impact on human history—on entire cultures—as spices, cotton, salt, and liquor. It has begotten wars, slavery, mass killings, and other widespread evils.

When the leaders of the Industrial Revolution discovered that coffee made their workers both more alert and more productive, they seized upon it as the fuel for the engine of rising capitalism and still rely on it to this day. In the early 20th century, coffee planters took over—in terms of both land and governance—heretofore peaceful countries like El Salvador, eliminated their sustenance crops in favor of mass coffee tree farms, and then paid their laborers only in food: food that, until the arrival of coffee, had been both bountiful and inexpensive. One planter, an Englishman named James Hill, would put out breakfast for his laborers first thing in the morning to ensure that they showed up on time, and then dinner at sundown to ensure that those laborers stuck around for the whole work day. Both meals consisted of beans and tortillas. Nothing more. Any stray edible vegetation that grew on Hill’s property he would order destroyed, so that no one could pick it and eat it for free.

To this day, slave labor is still rampant in the coffeemaking industry, just as it is in the cultivation of other produce and in the manufacturing of other consumer goods, like the phone you’re reading this on. So there is an alternate universe where I remain firmly anti-coffee but adopt more progressive reasons as to why. I could have gone from being a shitheel Neanderthal about coffee to being a hectoring prick about it. That is not the universe I have chosen to reside in. Instead, I have joined the coffee people, and any moral conflict I sense as result of that hasn’t been enough to get me to quit. Quite the contrary.

I liked shitty diner coffee, and told everyone as much. It was the right kind of coffee for my personal brand: cheap, good, not terribly fussy. Diner coffee, like the drip coffee I made at home, got me where I needed to go. I was still drinking coffee more as fuel—just as the masters of the universe intended—than to celebrate the moments of my life with it. But this is a love story, so you can already see the plotline ahead taking form.

One day a few years ago, my neighbor invited me over to his house because his family was making their own coffee. They’re Eritrean, and on special occasions, they’ll get together as an extended family to roast whole beans in a wide pan, grind them up, and brew the grounds up fresh. He handed me a cup. It was the best coffee I’d ever tasted, and I told him as much. Then I went back home and kept drinking my plain-ass drip coffee, morning after morning. I figured good coffee was, as it was at my neighbor’s house, a rare and special thing. Not something you could experience as a matter of routine.

Two trips to New York would change that. On the first trip, I decided I’d finally try a cappuccino for the first time. See what all the fuss was about. I met a friend for breakfast at a nice hotel and the waiter served me my maiden cappuccino in a pretty little cup, a tasteful rosetta pattern outlined in the foam. I drank it in 10 seconds. The die was cast. I was a Cappuccino Guy now. I would sit outside cafes on summer afternoons, in a linen suit, drinking my little cappuccino and reading a worn-out copy of For Whom The Bell Tolls. Perhaps I would even grow a mustache.

I told my best friend Howard about my discovery—who knew that cappuccinos tasted good, except for every other living adult?—and he told me that he was a Cappuccino Guy too. He only had cappuccinos while out, he told me. I instantly adopted that rule. I would only have them when I was away from home, and never out of a paper cup. Always porcelain. That would keep the drink special, because coffee on its own couldn’t possibly be special.

But it is. There’s a reason countries rearrange their entire economies, and the economies of other countries, around coffee. And there’s a reason that workers gleefully quaff it as their bosses openly rub their hands together in delight: because coffee is fucking delicious.

I went back to Howard’s apartment one night a few months later to shoot the shit. I asked him for a decaf coffee. Years prior, decaf coffee made no sense to me. It was the near beer of coffee. What was the point? But I was lightly stoned on this evening (I used to think stoners were losers too!) and gave myself permission, this one night, to have coffee just for coffee’s sake. It was the right move. Howard whipped me up a decaf from his Nespresso machine—and buddy, if you want an evil corporation, Nestle is the pinnacle of the form—and the die was cast yet again. I inhaled that decaf. It wasn’t just cappuccinos that were special to me now. It was all coffee: regular, decaf, espresso, whatever. I didn’t care what coffee did for me in terms of energy or productivity. I just loved the taste of coffee. After that, I drank a particularly weak cup while out on the road and thought to myself, well this is just coffee-flavored water … OH GOD.

I lost some of my sense of taste four years ago in a terrible accident, but coffee I can still taste in full. So you better believe I savor that shit. Save for maybe a pint of Guinness pulled fresh from the cask, nothing else hits like coffee. It has notes in it. It has earthiness. It has personality. I even noticed, probably long after you did, that nuking coffee ruins its flavor. Look at me now, abstaining from alcohol and getting all purply about fucking coffee. What would younger Drew have thought of this?

Well I don’t care, because fuck that guy. It’s very easy, especially in the internet age, to get wrapped up in your own perception of yourself. The hard part is divorcing yourself from the need to be seen the way you’d like other people to see you and just doing what you really want to do and liking the things that you really want to like. Now that’s a rather tidy lesson, but I just told you a bit of coffee’s ugly history. There’s far more ugliness where that came from. I know what it takes to get that coffee into my dad mug, and you know it too. You know that you live in a world where morality and pleasure are often incompatible, and how often pleasure wins out.

I have let pleasure win out.

I bought a Nespresso machine for my wife last Christmas (contrary to the brand name, certain Nespresso machines, like the one I got, can brew all forms of coffee). In the most stereotypical of husband moves, that gift turned out to be more for myself than her. I love that fucking machine more than my car. Love the look of it. Love the sound it makes when I snap a capsule into place. Love hearing it whirr and hum as it brews me a fresh cup. I drink my coffee in the morning with an inch of oat milk and then, on weekends, treat myself to a decaf after dinner. Last week my parents visited. My dad saw me brew a cup of decaf and asked, "You mind if I get one of those?" I didn't mind at all. He drank his cup, said, "This is REALLY good," and that made my week.

My grandma was a coffee-after-dinner lady. She’d hold us hostage at the table by ordering a cup after dessert, and then ANOTHER. All us kids would fucking die whenever she’d ask for more coffee instead of the goddamn check. Now I’m the coffee-after-dinner guy, but you don’t have to stay at the table with me while I savor the flavor. You’re beside the point once that mug is in my hand. Fuck off to wherever you wanna fuck off to and leave me with my coffee. Coffee is what I love and what I daydream about now. My coffee in my stupid mug. People my age … we’re not terribly interesting people. We don’t have a lot going on. I should think about more vital shit than coffee on a regular basis. I do not.

Because it’s possible that I love the taste of coffee more than the taste of anything else. That’s not a certainty—pizza still does exist, after all—but it is possible. This is an earned love, one I put off embracing for far too long. Now that I have it, I won’t be relinquishing it anytime soon. I wish there was a teaspoon of regret mixed in with all this pleasure, but alas, I take that black now.

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