Allegan County News & Union Enterprise Commercial Record Courier-Leader & Flashes

Life as Performance Art

    King Charles I of England detested coffee, and especially coffee houses.  If he had had his way, coffee would be forbidden in his realm, and coffee houses would slither into the recesses of history.
    It had nothing to do with the smell or taste of coffee, nor the money people spent on buying it. Rather, it was the effect of coffee that left him trembling in his boots.  Coffee, laden with caffeine, was a very dangerous stimulant that awakened men’s minds and allowed them to think clearly.  And the burst of energy from the caffeine enticed them to talk with one another.  His royal highness liked the idea of his subject’s drinking beer that would keep them stupefied.
    Intelligent conversation led by a few intelligent men could entice people to rise up against taxes, military conscription, laws, and ultimately, the monarchy itself.  That is exactly what happened, and at the end of the English Civil War, Charlie I lost his head.  All because of coffee. Dangerous stuff, that coffee.
     For centuries the English had trundled off to their taverns for beer, stout, and ale.  During the reign of William, the Conqueror, a decree went out that every parish church, monastery, and cathedral had to plant yew trees.  The reason was simple:  from yews came the long bows and arrows used in war.  Every parish was to have a designated room where the arms were kept. (That gives a new twist to the idea of the Church Militant, doesn’t it?”
     Every Sunday afternoon during Whitsuntide (from Pentecost to the beginning of Advent) all able-bodied men were required to turn out at their parish and practice their archery and military drill for two hours.  When they were dismissed, they went off to the nearest pub, usually run by the monks, for their free mugs of Whitsuntide Ales.  Free, because the monks had a royal monopoly to brew the beer and the king used a bit of strong-arm persuasion to convince them to share.
     This tradition had worked from 1066 for the next 600 years.  Then came coffee.  Beer and ale made men drowsy, slowed down the brain cells and slurred the speech.  That made the king’s subjects far more compliant.  But not coffee.  It perked them up after the first swallow, they had energy, and they talked.  Coffee hours rivaled the pubs for business.
     For example, at Lloyd’s Coffee House, beginning in 1648, ship-owners and sea captains would meet for morning coffee, and it wasn’t long before they came up with the world’s first mutual insurance company.  They would all contribute into the coffers, if there was a loss they would receive at least a partial payment, and if there were too many losses in a year, they all had to ante up even more.  Thanks to coffee, the insurance company has remained in business.
    Other places that served coffee, such as Ye Old Cheshire Cheese, became popular hang outs for the earliest newspaper writers, pamphleteers, and authors. It is still that way, and the lucky person who is there in the evening might get to sit in the same booth where Boswell and Johnson planned their famous walking tour of Scotland.
      The tradition of morning coffee or meeting someone for coffee, or doing almost anything else that includes coffee, is an important part of our life.  Coffee is the medium of hospitality, especially among some ethnic groups.  When someone comes to the door of an Upper Midwest home and is invited in, generally the first thing they hear is “first we have coffee and then we talk.”  Conversely, not to offer a cup of coffee is a serious social faux pas.  “They didn’t even offer us coffee,” people have been known to say about previous long-time friends.
     During the pandemic when almost every business was defined as either essential or non-essential, many coffee shops were open. Customers could come in, buy a takeaway, and then leave.  The idea of sitting down with friends or strangers to enjoy the drink was forbidden.  A lot of people decided it was cheaper to brew a pot at home. That’s because it wasn’t the taste of the drink we missed so much as the connection with others.
    During that time many churches put a halt to their coffee hours following the worship service, and it was rough on morale.  Garrison Keillor described the coffee hour as the “third sacrament” – coming in right after Baptism and Holy Communion.  He is probably right because sometimes more good things happen over coffee than at any other time. Friendships are strengthened, newcomers are welcome, and plans and ideas are laid out.
     Growing up, my parents drank coffee, seemingly around the clock. The first thing in the morning I could smell what I thought was a long dead, roadkill skunk ripening on the black top on a hot day. No, it was one of The Olds putting on the coffee.  Mother drank it all day at home while she was working; Father would get to his store, and about an hour and a half later walk down the block to Woolworths for a cup with some of his long-time friends.  An hour or so later, and he was off to the Broadway or Blacks where he invested a whole dime in more caffeine. More coffee in the afternoon, and then after dinner, something weird called “Sanka” that was decaffeinated.  It still smelled just as bad.
     I had my first cup about 16 years ago when Pat and I were on an art tour in France. They don’t drink much tea there, and I was parched. I had one choice – coffee, French style – espresso here.  I blew the air out of my lungs and tossed the drink back and swallowed hard, the same as a Scotsman might toss back two fingers of a cheap blended whiskey.  The taste didn’t kill me, but about three minutes later I felt like the top of my head had blown off. Everything was clear; every sound perfect; my brain was sliding into overdrive.
      Good stuff, that caffeine. I have been drinking it ever since.
     Some coffee drinkers go for the experience. They want to find the right coffee shop with the right atmosphere, the right baristas and staff, sometimes even the right age group among the customers.  They will choose their preferred blend of coffee, taking into consideration where it is from, whether it is fair trade coffee, and might even ask if the owner of the shop has visited the farm. From there, they add the extras – a triple shot of espresso with a quarter shot of flavoring. After that it is on to the pastry case to make decisions about the ‘nibbles.  Sometimes, it means more questions:  Is the wheat from an organic farm and made into flour at a company that pays its employees a livable wage, and so on.
    All of this is important to them because they believe it is truly part of the experience.  I don’t quite understand it, but as Mother would say, “if it makes them happy, I’m tickled to death.”
     My system is a lot different.  I’ll buy whatever brand of grounds  is on sale, provided that it’s dark roast.  Pat gave me a nifty little coffee maker that I use at home. At church, I’ll take mine straight from a Bunn carafe, straight into a porcelain mug – the bigger the better.  Like our sailors and submariners, I don’t believe in washing out the cup. The more caffeine infused into the interior, the better the taste.
     Whatever or however you like your coffee, just remember that you are participating in a revolutionary act that dates back the better part of three and a half centuries.  And Charlie I was right about being wary of those coffee drinkers in London. They’re the ones that started the first and second English Civil Wars, and when it was over Charlie lost his head.  He was replaced by the miserable old sod Oliver Cromwell.  Cromwell had street smarts.  He saw how coffee had brought down a king, and promptly closed the shops as places of immorality and decadence.

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