Today I want to bring you a little coffee history. I was reading Starbucked by Taylor Clark and one of the stories he tells about the history of coffee in America caught my eye. I thought I’d share it with you. But first, a little background (I promise there is a point to this story—it just takes a little while to get there).
I don’t know how many of you grew up drinking coffee before Starbucks became popular. It may be that for most of you, you never cared about coffee before the big green apron came along. I didn’t drink much coffee myself until fairly recently. To be honest, I don’t know if I ever went into a Starbucks before 2002. Growing up, I had an occasional cup after church (a Methodist tradition) maybe once a year, but I was never really what you would consider a coffee drinker. During high school, I remember some older friends telling me that there was no way anyone could make it through college without drinking coffee. They were wrong about at least one person.
My own personal connection with coffee really began in 2001 on a trip to Italy. While staying at a hostel (Casa Olmata) in Rome, we were given a ticket for a complimentary breakfast—a cappuccino and a croissant—at a nearby bar (café) that was across the street from Santa Maria Maggiore. We found the bar about 8am and walked in, a little unsure of ourselves. It was my first trip to the country and I couldn’t speak much Italian. We handed the tickets to the barista and he immediately set to work on the drinks. I stood there waiting, looking around and taking in everything around me.
Out on the street, legions of small cars were buzzing past the front of the café. In the spaces between the cars, lots of Vespas (motor scooters) crowded in. The energy of the street scene was quite a sight. At the crosswalks, Italians would boldly step out into traffic, seemingly fearless. There were a lot of nuns making their way to the church piazza, dressed modestly in their habits. I watched them step right out into the traffic too.
Tourists, on the other hand, accustomed to cars stopping for pedestrians, were much more hesitant. They would walk up to the edge of the street and wait for a break in the flow of cars before trying to cross. Some were lucky enough to find a gap to cross in, but most would soon grow frustrated and impatient after a few minutes of waiting. They quickly realized that they were just going to have to cross the street like the Romans do—step out with boldness and don’t stop moving until you reach the other side (kind of like in China). A few of the wiser ones would wait for a nun to cross and then cross right next to her. After all, they figured, this offered double protection—God would protect His devoted servants, and no sane Italian would ever dare hit a nun. They might whack an American tourist without a second thought, but a Catholic nun? Never.
Across the street in the piazza, groups of tourists gathered, waiting for the church to open for the day. Some of the tourists sat on the steps leading up to the front door, chatting or munching on their own small breakfasts. Many were taking pictures of the church, the piazza or the people around them.
I stood there in the café and took everything in as I waited for the coffee. I could almost physically sense my world perspective opening up, a dreamlike feeling (the day would become even more surreal later, when we got news of the 9/11 attacks in New York). After a couple minutes, the barista had the drinks and croissants ready for us. I had never had a cappuccino before and was a little skeptical about drinking it, but, as we repeated often throughout the trip, “When in Rome. . .”
The cappuccino was more memorable for me as the beginning of a new outlook on life than it was as a great drink. I remember thinking that I could get used to it, even though at the time I would have been happier with some cold cereal. For the rest of the trip, I would drink the occasional cappuccino for breakfast, but I became very accustomed to an after-dinner caffè, always with sugar. After the trip, when I returned to the US, I began to go to Starbucks and other cafés once in a while for espresso.
The point of this story (finally!) is that much in the same way that Starbucks was heavily influenced by Howard Schultz’s time spent in the cafés of Italy, my personal coffee experience was shaped by Italy too. Therefore, when others of my generation and I think of coffee traditions that begin with Starbucks, we may think that coffee is linked to modern-day Italy. However, as I read in Clark’s book today, America has a long coffee tradition as well.
According to the book, coffee’s prominence as a beverage in this country became especially apparent in 1776, after the Boston Tea Party. As every elementary school student in this country is taught, a group of American patriots marched down to Boston Harbor, boarded three English ships and tossed their tea into the harbor as a protest against tea taxes levied on the colonies. This event is one of America’s great stories, one of the myths that form part of our country’s DNA.
The part of the story that we don’t learn, however, is that from that point on, drinking coffee “became a patriotic act,” a rebellious affront to the despots across the Atlantic. Americans began to consume large quantities of coffee instead of tea. Coffee became a very important national beverage consumed by people from all walks of life. The beverage itself became part of the American story. For example, like Clark asks in his book, who can imagine a group of cowboys sitting around the campfire drinking tea? Anyone? I didn’t think so.
So when you raise that cup tomorrow morning, remember that you are following a patriotic American tradition. Do your duty and drink it well.