Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Black as the Devil and Hot as Hell

By Michael Sims

DECEMBER 15, 1997:  "If it weren't for the coffee," David Letterman once remarked, "I'd have no identifiable personality whatsoever." Napoleon admitted that the strong coffee that got him going in the mornings could sometimes lead to headaches. Then he added that he would rather suffer than be senseless. These two are not alone in their dependence upon caffeine. Millions of people who neither host talk shows nor conquer nations require coffee to jump-start them every morning.

Besides its caffeine content--which can be remedied with decaf--lingering over a cup of coffee has long been an important social ritual. Countless first dates and business meetings occur over coffee, and this is not a recent innovation. "The government of a nation is often decided over a cup of coffee," the Duc de Richelieu observed centuries ago, "or the fate of empires changed by an extra bottle of Johannisberg."

Over the years coffee has inspired some curious tributes, from Bach's amusing Coffee Cantata to Richard Brautigan's melancholy story "Coffee." One-thousand-year-old Arabic medical texts refer to medicinal uses of coffee, and legend claims that coffee cured Mohammed himself of narcolepsy. The French statesman Talleyrand penned a love note in his "Recipe for Coffee":

Black as the devil,

Hot as hell,

Pure as an angel,

Sweet as love.

Nowadays coffee is everywhere. Over the last decade, coffeehouses have made a robust comeback. For the homebound devotee, there are gourmet coffee-of-the-month clubs. Coffee mugs have become advertising opportunities. In daily life we are likely to encounter coffee cake, coffee breaks, coffee klatsches, coffee tables, and even coffee table books. No one knows how it will end.

For that matter, no one knows how it began.

Dancing goats

Although coffee seems to have evolved in Ethiopia, no witnesses recorded who discovered its virtues or first cultivated it. We have only myths. For example, there is the story of Sheikh Hadji Omar, an exiled dervish who would have died in the desert if a ghost had not led him to discover the coffee plant.

Another popular legend, frequently displayed in coffee shops, attributes the discovery of coffee to an observant Arabian goatherd named Kaldi. Usually his goats were lazy and compliant. Then one day he noticed that they perked up considerably after eating the berries of a particular plant. In fact, they danced about on their hind legs in a drug-induced frenzy. Understandably, Kaldi felt he could use a little excitement in his own life, so he ate some of the berries. As a result, he didn't doze off once that afternoon. His mind seemed sharper; his heart raced; and for the first time goatherding seemed like a promising career choice.

Nearby was the monastery that would eventually grow up into the holy city of Mecca. After observing the buzzed Kaldi capering with his flock, one of the monks tried the miraculous discovery himself. Soon he was zapped. He took some berries back to the monastery, and the brothers discovered that now they could pray until dawn without nodding off. In time they shared this pious stimulant with others.

There are at least two grains of truth in this story. Coffee beans did indeed become standard equipment for all-night prayer sessions, and coffee was chewed long before it was drunk. Prior to being processed into a drink, raw coffee has a high protein content. Sir Richard Burton, the English explorer, reported that when he traveled in central Africa in the 19th century, the locals invariably presented visitors with a handful of wild coffee beans to chew. "According to the Arabs," he wrote, coffee "has...stimulating properties, affects the head, prevents somnolency, renders water sweet to the taste, and forms a pleasant refreshing beverage...."

Eventually addicts expanded the menu. First someone got the notion of crushing the berries and mixing them with that appetizing staple of early diets--fat. (The standard calculation was that a hunter or traveler required a daily ration of this concoction roughly the size of a tennis ball.) Next, a courageous gourmet fermented the pulp and drank the result. Later there was a drink incorporating both hull and fruit. Not until the 1200s or so did someone finally roast a coffee bean over a charcoal fire.

Soon the practice of drinking coffee spread across the land and began to flourish in cities such as Mecca. Coffee, which suited the Muslim religion's intellectual, anti-alcohol attitudes, has been called "the wine of Islam." With surprising speed, travelers carried the new beverage throughout the Muslim world. The first coffeehouses began to appear, complete with a number of activities proscribed by strict Muslims, including gaming, music, singing--and even, Allah forbid, dancing.

Worst of all, while gathered together over their stimulating coffee, troublemakers began to discuss the world around them and to question the wisdom and motives of their rulers. Naturally, this made the rulers uneasy. In the mid-17th century, one Ottoman official declared coffee drinking not only illegal but punishable by severe penalties. First offenders received a beating. Second offenders could look forward to being drowned.

Satan's drink

Coffee's journey from culture to culture is preserved in its name. The Arabs had a poetic term for wine, qahwah, which also came to be used for coffee. In Turkey qahwah evolved into kahveh. Several familiar modern versions are similar--koffie in Holland, Kaffee in Germany, and caff¸ in Italy. In France the brew lent its name to the establishment that featured it, the caf. From that word we get both "caffeine" and "cafeteria," which originally referred to a coffee shop.

In 1582 a German traveler included in his account of travels among the Arabs and the Turks some notes on their dietary habits. "Among other things they have a good drink which they greatly esteem," he wrote. "It is nearly as black as ink and helpful against stomach complaints." Apparently, some of our own coffee-consuming habits were already established there: "They drink it from earthenware and porcelain cups early in the morning, also in public places without any hesitation."

As coffee made its way to Europe, it was first considered a beverage that the devil had given the heathens because the Koran forbade wine. Around the end of the 16th century, Italian priests complained about this possibly evil substance to Pope Clement VIII. Before ruling, the story goes, the pontiff decided to try the pagan brew himself. His response warms the heart of any modern coffee lover: "This Satan's drink is so delicious that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it." He resolved that, just as the Church had taken over many pagan holidays, so it would Christianize coffee.

There were other forms of opposition. Coffee acquired a reputation in some quarters for reducing sexual power. Some critics even claimed it caused impotence. Apparently, the English women of the time were not prudish, for in 1674 some of them expressed their concern for their mates' potency in a widely publicized broadside. It bore the informative title, "The Women's Petition against Coffee, Representing to Publick Consideration the Grand Inconveniences accruing to their SEX from the Excessive Use of that Drying, Enfeebling LIQUOR."

Not surprisingly, the men of their acquaintance objected to being described as dried out and feeble. They replied with "The Mens Answer to The Womens petition against Coffee: Vindicating their own Performances, and the Vertues of their Liquor, from the Undeserved Aspersions lately cast upon Them, in their Scandalous Pamphlet." Eventually the coffee drinkers won.

Opposition continued to flare up here and there. In the late 1700s, Frederick the Great of Prussia insisted that his subjects should stop drinking coffee--although he wanted to keep it available for himself and the aristocracy. Frederick claimed that importing coffee siphoned too much money out of the country. "My people," he said, "must drink beer." His excuse was interesting: "Many battles have been fought and won by soldiers nourished on beer; and the King does not believe that coffee-drinking soldiers can be depended upon to endure hardships or to beat his enemies in case of the occurrence of another war." One official proclamation of the period demanded that all cups and bowls used for coffee, and all grinding and roasting equipment, be "smashed to bits, so that the memory of its destruction may be impressed upon our fellows."

Naturally, prohibition didn't end the popularity of coffee. Beer, that devoted standby, regained some of its lost ground, but the love of (and addiction to) coffee couldn't be eradicated. For a time, however, German citizens found themselves the prey of government spies they indignantly called "coffee smellers."

Penny universities

The coffee shops flourishing all over the U.S. nowadays are part of a long tradition. In Europe, as elsewhere, coffee began as a sociable public drink. Londoners, for example, first heard the term "coffeehouse" in the early years of the 17th century. These establishments were designed to encourage important social interactions, including business, journalism, and literature.

In the 1680s, a man named Edward Lloyd opened a coffeehouse in London. It drew mostly importers, ship owners and captains, and those who made a living insuring such enterprises. Eventually, the latter even rented booth space to conduct their business. In time the insurance brokers united. By the end of the 18th century, Lloyd's coffeehouse had been replaced by an insurance conglomerate called Lloyd's of London.

Coffeehouses were not restricted to the elite. In fact, they encouraged a tentative equality (among white males, that is). A 1674 code of behavior stated the rules:

  • Gentry, tradesmen, all are welcome hither,

  • and may without affront sit down together:

  • Pre-eminence of place, none here should mind,

  • But take the next fit seat that he can find:

  • Nor need any, if finer persons come,

  • Rise up to assign to them his room.

Such attitudes, and the lively and educational conversation they inspired, proved threatening. As it had in Islamic countries, coffee was once again accused of nourishing rebellion. In 1675 Charles II issued a "Proclamation for the Suppression of the Coffee Houses," but the response from all quarters was so ferocious that he had to withdraw it.

In time those public meeting places earned the nickname "penny universities." More than one periodical editor listed a coffeehouse as his business address. The Caf de la Rgence in Paris included among its illustrious patrons the novelist Victor Hugo; the legendary chess player Franois Philidor; and encyclopedist Denis Diderot, whose wife allotted him nine sous daily for coffee.

Although some European coffeehouses came to admit women, in many they were not allowed. In Germany, women responded by inventing a private gathering called the kaffeeklatsch. The term meant "coffee gossip" and was said to have been coined by the husbands who were excluded from it--and who mocked it as a pale imitation of their own manly public gatherings.

My little demitasse

In the 1730s Johann Sebastian Bach took a brief vacation from religious music and composed a cheerful secular work satirizing the fanatical devotion to coffee. Its title, Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht, translates as "Be quiet, don't prattle," but it quickly acquired the nickname it has carried ever since--the Coffee Cantata.

In the text, written by a friend of Bach, a father named Schlendrian demands that his daughter renounce her addiction to coffee. Young Lieschen refuses. One translation of the dialogue includes her memorable lines, "Dear father, don't be so strict! If I can't have my little demitasse of coffee three times a day, I'm just like a dried-up piece of roast goat!"

Finally Schlendrian insists that he will not find Lieschen a husband until she is caffeine-free. She pretends to submit, and father and daughter are reconciled as she awaits marriage. But Lieschen is too smart and strong-willed to give in that easily. Without Schlendrian's knowledge, she lets it be known that she will consider only those prospective mates who are not opposed to her coffee habit.

Bach's was not the only mocking commentary on the fanatical devotion to coffee. To the French writer Madame de Sevign, coffee seemed yet another fleeting novelty. In one of her less perceptive moments, she predicted, "Racine will go out of style like coffee."

The playwright may no longer be a household word, but the beverage seems to be doing just fine.

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