Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Grounded: Ode to the Coffee Cup

Every morning, I stop at Starbuck’s, Peet’s, or Copenhagen Pastry for a cup of coffee.  Friends ask why that since I drink decaf, why do I bother? I actually drink it for the taste, but yes, I do need a kickstart. This morning ritual serves that purpose.

Clouds in my coffee: A shot of deep, dark espresso with a
pristine froth of foamed milk at Profeta
in Westwood Village.

What, you ask, could possibly be motivating about standing in line waiting to pay two to three dollars for a cup of coffee? Ask everyone else who is standing in line with me. My two chief reasons are a) I hate cleaning up after making coffee at home and b) I need the personal attention in the morning. As a regular at my usual coffee stops, I get smiles and acknowledgement. But even in an unknown coffeehouse, I feel somewhat pampered by the attention, even if it is from a barista who makes $8.50 an hour.  

Why does coffee bring people together in a way that tea and other beverages – except for alcohol – do not? First off, for most people who drink it full-leaded, there is the promise of an energetic buzz, which seems to encourage the genial airing of half-baked ideas. Secondly, coffee is usually served in thoughtfully decorated environments that are typically graced with art, literature, and a parade of humanity to gawk at.

UCLA's William Andrews Clark Library

Imagine then, the chance to enjoy one's enervating cup of coffee in a setting that feels like a location for “Downton Abbey.” UCLA’s William Andrews Clark Library is such a place, built in the early 1920s, a hidden jewel in the West Adams district of South Los Angeles. In January, the Library presented “Bittersweet Uprising: An Exhibition at the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library: Coffee and Coffeehouse Culture in EarlyModern England,” which showcased a collection of dictionaries, diaries, broadsides, pamphlets, and satirical plays related to coffee and its caffeinated mystique. I attended an event celebrating the exhibit, which featured a keynote by Professor Thierry Rigogne from Fordham University titled, “The Creation of the French Café in Myth and History.” His talk complemented the exhibit and outlined the growth of coffee's popularity, from its origins in the Middle East to fortifying lively forums of intellectual discourse through the establishment of coffeehouses in Europe.

Preceding the lecture was a fabulous demonstration and tasting by Verve Coffee Roasters of Santa Cruz. Michael James of Cafecito Organico in Los Angeles was the Clark's barista for the day and demonstrated the French press method of brewing. Similar to Asian tea ceremonies, traditional and slower methods of brewing coffee are an artform that is rarely experienced in today’s hurried world.

What a grind: Yellowish "chaff" separates from
fresh coffee grounds.

James ground and brewed Verve’s “La Providencia,” a variety is grown in Guatemala, where he said that the diversity of climates leads to a myriad of flavors in a single cup of coffee. Lining a Chemex vessel with a white paper cone filter, he prepped by rinsing the filter with hot water to rid the paper of any flavors that would come from its processing. He then filled the cone with fresh ground coffee that was visibly separated from its “chaff.” James did “pulse-pours” that steadily filled the filter without letting the water get too high. His use of an electric kettle also kept the water at a constant temperature. The result was an aromatic and caramelly brew that I sipped happily without my usual cream and sugar.

In French, the word “café” stands for both the beverage and the place where it is served. The first scholarly history of the café begins in the 16th Century, when Europeans first drank coffee in their travels to the East. Suleiman Aga Musta-Féraga was the Ottoman ruler who established the use of Coffea Arabica as a beverage. The plant was first cultivated in Yemen and used in religious ceremonies by the Sufi. The beverage became known as qahwa, a term formerly applied to wine. Thusly, it became known as the “Wine of Islam” to Europeans. Presumably, the caffeine’s stimulating qualities would help keep worshippers awake during their evening dhikr.

"Pulse-pours" keep the brewing process steady, with
the water's temperature controlled by an electric kettle.

According to Rigogne, between 1650 and 1694, the enjoyment of coffee had spread throughout Europe, from Paris to Marseille, to Oxford to Leipzig. By the end of the French Revolution in 1799, there were 4,000 cafés in Paris. Coffee’s origins evoked for Europeans a history of Asian romance. Hence, the term, “Armenian” was often synonymous with “café owner” in the late 1600s.

According to the information displayed in the “Bittersweet Uprising” exhibit, at one point, more than 50 London coffeehouses were named "The Turk's Head" in recognition of the beverage's Oriental roots. This inclination toward exoticism still exists today in the names of coffees. Antigua, Colombia, Kenya, any place in Italy that ends in a vowel - the names are invoked by devoted drinkers as if they were magical incantations to transport one to a faraway place. I'm lucky if my tall Americano will last through the long and arduous morning commute through West L.A., its streets forever plagued by the ongoing renovation of the 405 freeway and the sheer volume of traffic.

A feminine call to arms by 17th Century"coffee widows"
of  London. From "Eighteenth-century
coffee-house culture, edited by Markman Ellis (2006).

Another artifact in the Clark’s exhibit was a recipe for making “artificial coffee,” from William Ellis’s “The Country Housewife’s Family Companion” (1750), the formula of which includes burnt breadcrumbs, which were used when real coffee was too expensive. Such measures were also used in coffeehouses, where a cup of "coffee" was a great excuse to linger with one's tricorne hat-wearing homies.

A little-known aspect of coffeehouse culture is the gender debate that ensued. A treatise titled "The women's petition against coffee, representing to public consideration the grand inconveniences accruing to their sex from the excessive use of that drying, enfeebling liquor" was printed in 1674 by women in London who were miffed that their husbands spent more time in coffeehouses than at home. Forty years earlier, an account of travels in Persia by Adam Olearius cited coffee as having an adverse effect on male desire. Is this why in this über-cautious age, so many blind dates and first meetings are done at Starbucks?

According to an article by ethnobotanist Chris Kilham in the Ethiopian Review, coffee has no diminishing effect on desire, nor any linkages to cancer, miscarriage, or birth defects. It also has some therapeutic qualities that help reduce the risk of gallstones, cirrhosis of the liver, and colon and rectal cancers.

W.W.G.D.: What would Goldilocks do? Giant cup of house
blend (in a cup too big) and French press (with a cup too
small) are just right at brunch at Bread and Porridge
on Wilshire Boulevard.

The caffeine in coffee stimulates the brain, decreases mental fatigue, and overall is a great mood lifter. It’s no wonder we are all addicted. And it’s a natural food pairing with dark chocolate, which has been found to lower "bad" cholesterol and blood pressure, is rich in fiber, and (this is a shocker) increase insulin sensitivity, thereby reducing the risk of diabetes.

While tea is also a highly social drink, somehow it just doesn't have the same cachet for me that a caramel macchiato does. Tea is more about the ritual, which makes it a serene and wonderful experience. But when I need to wake up, a gently brewed pot of dragonwell green isn't going to cut it.

I need to be where the people are, with my fellow commuters shuffling along in line engrossed in their mobile devices, baristas shouting at us to pick up our drinks, and impatient caffeine addicts elbowing me while reaching for the nonfat milk at the condiment bar. That being said, to hell with decaf. Make mine a double, fully leaded.

1 comment:

  1. Beloved Readers: I apologize in advance if you received another message that this post has appeared on GMS. Due to technical difficulties beyond my control, I had to repost the text and photos.

    Rest assured, however, that these efforts were not in vain - I did make some revisions that were constructively suggested by well-meaning readers. And yes, I did have regular coffee this morning.