I know, I know… bad habit, right? Maybe. Coffee spins like a wayward top in every medical journal and health publication, the bitter dark brew we lovingly refer to as a cup o joe, java, even the more scathing battery acid, has a reputation that oscillates from being a carcinogen one day, to fighting cancer the next, with all the good and bad in between. From these ongoing, sensationalist arguments, we can only surmise that coffee bears that same thing in common with butter, salt, and alcohol: it must be very enjoyable.
Let’s be frank: At 6:30 in the morning, no one appreciates the musky, earth-laden terroir of your non-local Madagascar coffee you justify drinking because of the pretty and ostentatious FAIR TRADE label slapped on the back. Or, at least, this holds true for the working world. Non-workers Entrepreneurs just sip obscure energy drinks called Jolt or Bitchin, or some otherwise onomatopoeic name that refers overtly to its 30 minute reversal of your sleep-ridden eyes into jittery self-awareness. Some of us opt for Yerba Mate, in the belief it’s healthier, despite not drinking it completely mashed up, like algae, in a seasoned gourd through a bombilla, which arguably may be the reason why mate is good for you, at all. In other words, throwing down that heavily caffeinated drink in your gullet every morning and calling it anything other than coffee is just semantics. We drink coffee in the morning because we want something that will rouse us from sleep, and coffee, as it so happens, has both a tantalizing, aromatic waft, and a heavily steeped cultural tradition on its side. We grew up watching our parents drink coffee, our aunts and uncles would slowly pour cream into the black brew when waiting for dessert after a Thanksgiving dinner, and then we, either because we were curious or because it was just one of those things we unwittingly, without prior thought, adopted into our lifestyle like not wearing baggy jeans any more, or foregoing the Abercrombie in favor of J.Crew in our 20s… somewhere in that mix we started drinking coffee.
I’m not even sure when coffee became a regular rotation in my morning routine, but I do remember my first taste. It was at the airport in Texas, age 8, in between flights to Mexico, and my mom was drinking a heavily milked mug – a preference I now wryly refer to as “anemic coffee” or “she takes her milk with coffee.” She said I wouldn’t like it, but merely shrugged her indifference, an attitude I can now look upon in retrospect as appropriately skeptical of my 8 year old tastebuds accustomed to apple and orange juice, liquid sugar in general. My brothers were the smart ones – their vision honed in on their predictable favorites – hamburger, fries, chicken tenders – and anything not within the usual spectrum was conveniently overlooked, selectively zoned out. I, on the other hand, couldn’t resist the opportunity to partake in an adult experience. So.
I took a whiff.
It smelled funny. Not bad, but not a great one, either. The thin paper cup warmed my already pink hands as I cradled, tipped it gently toward my lips. The hot liquid made me reflexively twitch, a sign usually, of avoiding something that could cause further discomfort, even pain. I plowed on, tentatively sipping both air and coffee, in an attempt to cool it down. Liquid touched tongue. Tongue tasted liquid. Bitterness. Mouth-sucking, puckering without sour, distaste and a grimace. My tongue felt dry, a sour aftertaste of instant dehydration. It tasted burnt, to me, why would anyone drink this? It befuddled me.
Years later, I would discover the cream-mellowed Cappuccino, en route to college classes, adopted, as mentioned before, without any clear start or timeline. It just was. Coffee to keep me awake, coffee as tradition. Eventually, coffee began to taste like something. Something strangely good, without a definitive expression other than the vague industry patois of earthy, rich, musky that barely even pointed me in the right direction, these words also used to describe wine, soups, and meat. Cappucinos gave way to Lattes, and then the occasional Au Lait, each time getting creamier for a more palatable drink, until one day, it crept up on me, unexpectedly, that I wanted to taste coffee again.
Today, I drink my coffee black.