Saturday, February 15, 2014


        I began drinking coffee when I was in high school.  My father was my alarm clock and at 6:30 AM he scratched my head and as I sat at the edge of the bed, he handed me a cup of his Swedish style coffee—with lots of cream and sugar.  I glugged it down and was fired up for the day.  At NYU, GIs from WWII taught me to drink coffee black and unsweetened and that I have done ever since. Coffee was cultivated in the Middle East but got its origins as a beverage in Ethiopia and it spread to Yemen. It got to Europe from Constantinople to Venice by Italian traders during the Renaissance. Coffee beans were smuggled out of the Middle East to India and later to Java (hence a cup of Java), and then to the Caribbean and South America. The first coffee houses in England began in 1637.  It was not until 1683 that coffee shifted from black and unsweetened to cream and honey in Vienna.  Coffee houses spawned the stock exchange and the Royal Society among other enterprises.  In 1773 our Boston Tea Party led to the American patriotic duty to drink coffee and shun tea. Coffee percolators were invented in 1818.  Decaffeinated coffee was invented in 1903.  Instant coffee was introduced in 1938. The coffee break was invented by a clever marketer in 1952 and the variety coffee house became nationwide with Starbucks in 1982.

      Coffee comes from a red berry of the tree Coffea arabica. The berries are dried, the seeds removed and roasted and then the seeds are ground.  Coffee’s appealing qualities include its stimulation from caffeine that in many people represses drowsiness.  Caffeine is a purine (like adenine and guanine found in DNA) but it is only weakly mutagenic at high doses. At various times coffee was considered satanic (but Pope Clement VIII approved it in 1607) or equivalent to alcohol (and hence not permitted for early Moslems). It is still banned by Mormons (Latter Day Saints) and when I spent a semester as a visiting professor teaching at the University of Utah, those who drank caffeinated coffee were called “Jack Mormons.”  Most observant Mormon students drank decaffeinated coffee (such as Sanka) or ersatz coffee (such as Postum that C. W. Post made from roasted wheat bran and molasses). During World War II when coffee was rationed, I remember hearing on the radio Eleanor Roosevelt describe how she mixed yesterday's coffee grinds with Postum and a spoon of fresh coffee grounds to make coffee for Franklin. 

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