Friday, May 4, 2007

The pause that refreshes

This leisurely morning I feel like an actor in a coffee commercial. I smell the brew, carry a mugful to my favorite location, look out over the vista and take a sip. Ahhhh. It is a moment that not only connects me with a Maxwell House and Folgers advertisement, but with coffee drinkers through the ages.

The first coffee break was taken before 1000 B.C. with goats and goat herder all imbibing. Legend has it that Ethiopian goats discovered the caffeine rich berry while grazing. When they began dancing, the goat herder took notice, tasted the beans and did his own two-step.

It is said that a Monk saw the happy little band of goats and herder and brought some of the berries back to his pals in the monastery. That night a miraculous thing -- they were all wide awake for midnight prayers.

Through the years coffee was served with every major event in history. No place on earth seemed free of its effects. Even Bach, that dour-faced, bewigged composer, wrote a light hearted cantata about a girl needing her caffeine and her protective father coming between her and her coffee. Learning of Bach's delight in coffee, my attitude about him has lightened. After all he also gave us Ode to Joy. I bet he wrote that ode in the morning, right after his first cup of coffee.

Homer mentioned coffee in his writings and we've been writing about it ever since.

It was 1952, about the time I entered the world, when a savvy ad writer coined the phrase 'coffee break.' Mom had been drinking her morning coffee throughout the pregnancy, so I suppose I was a coffee drinker before I was born. I grew up adoring the aroma but not able to handle the taste. It wasn't until I took my first job in a newsroom that I started drinking coffee.

Newsrooms run on coffee. There was a time when it was coffee and whiskey. But the newsroom, like the Wild West, has been tamed. Coffee gave us an excuse to walk across the room, ruminate over a cup, and take it back to our desks where we cranked out some of our best writing between sips. We socialized around the pot. Amazing how many reporters could fit into a tiny kitchenette waiting for morning coffee.

Turkey, if I remember correctly, had the first coffee houses. Westerners came late to the coffee pot, having enjoyed the drink for about 300 years. These houses were the one location where men AND women could gather together and share a drink and conversation. They may well have been the first step toward equality of the sexes. Yet when coffee appeared in the Western world, it played havoc with England's favorite teatime and the king banned that noxious brew. America, quite the opposite, ran on coffee.

The strong brew holds ferment in its depths. Ferment as in revolution. In the 1760s several men began meeting for coffee at the London Coffee House in Philadelphia. There they conspired to overthrow England's rule, planned the Boston Tea Party, and eventually laid out the blueprint for the independent nation. That must have been some strong cups of coffee!

Coffee is the great equalizer. Men and women, even newsroom hierarchy. Everyone from the publisher on down to the lowly editorial assistant took their turn at the coffee urn and shared the joy of that first sip.

I would like to think that a world that can embrace a single brew (although the recipes and preparations vary greatly) should be able to come together and figure out how to coexist peacefully. Maybe all world peace needs is a good cup of coffee.

Now that I can raise my mug to on this lovely sunshiny morning: world peace.

For more coffee history, visit
or read Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World by Mark Pendergrast. Kristine Hansen and
Travis Arndorfer have a new release:
If that doesn't soothe your pallet for coffee, here are a few more titles:

NPR has a fun essay about the history of coffee breaks, including clips from coffee music including Johann Sebastian Bach's Coffee Cantata.

1 comment:

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