As ubiquitous as coffee is today, its use is a relatively recent innovation in human affairs. The Romans and all those born in the first eight hundred years after the time of Jesus never got to “wake up and smell the coffee.” It wasn’t until the ninth century that Arabs first began drinking the now familiar beverage. And it didn’t get to Europe for another seven hundred years. Thanks to trade between Moslems and the city of Venice, it finally entered Europe in the late 1500s. The name itself came into English in 1598. Pope Clement VIII officially deemed it a “Christian” beverage in 1600, despite many who wanted to ban it as a “Moslem drink.” And by 1675 there were more than three thousand coffeehouses in England alone, though Starbucks would not arrive anywhere on the planet until 1971 when their first coffeehouse opened in Seattle, Washington.
As a child, I remember occasionally trying to drink a cup of coffee. My great aunt Loule would often drink coffee with milk and sugar in it, and when my mom and I would visit, I would sometimes ask her for some. Dutifully she would comply, and invariably I would not enjoy the experience.
The same lack of enjoyment resulted whenever I asked for some coffee from my mom when we were at home. Knowing that I didn’t like it, she was usually reluctant to give me any, but occasionally she would relent and so I’d get a cup. I would drink only a little bit. I can’t say I every learned to like it. I think I wanted it only because the adults in my life would drink it and I wanted to imagine myself grown up.
When I finally left for college, I arrived in a place surrounded by people—fellow college students—who drank coffee regularly. So I dutifully made the effort again, and just as before, found myself not much appreciating the beverage. I would sometimes make the instant variety in my room with an olive green electric pot that I had. But I found I never liked the result. I had far better luck with the Lipton instant soup.
At the end of my freshman year of college, the opportunity arose for me to travel to Israel to work on a kibbutz. A kibbutz is a communal farm, usually inhabited by about three hundred people. The particular kibbutz I was assigned was located just south of the Sea of Galilee on the border with Jordan. It had been established in the 1930s by Jewish people who had come from Romania. During the summer of America’s bicentennial celebration when I was there, the major crops grown on that kibbutz were bananas, olives, citrus fruits, dates, and alfalfa. They also raised dairy cows and chickens. And there was a small engine valve factory.
Being a farm, we had to get up by 4 AM six days a week to go to work. The work day lasted until noon. When we first got to the field we were assigned on a given day, we would always gather in the workshed, where there was a pot for boiling water, along with hard cookies. Every morning we would fill handleless glass Pyrex cups about a quarter full of finely-ground coffee. Into the mug we then poured the boiling water. A stir or two of the spoon, and then I would wait for the coffee grounds to settle. By that time the water in the cup had turned dark black and the small shed would be filled with the aroma of strong coffee. After drinking that, sometimes with sugar and sometimes not, we would head out to the fields to do our day’s labor.
Over the course of that summer, I drank a lot of that thick coffee. One had to be careful, when drinking, not to go too far. Otherwise one would be picking coffee grounds out of one’s teeth. Instead, one had to be careful to leave the sludge, like mud, on the bottom of the cup.
I found the taste of this kibbutz coffee to be foul. But it was all we had at four in the morning to go with the hard cookies, and so I consumed it day in and day out. At 8 AM each day we would leave the fields and head back to the communal farm for a more normal breakfast, where we had hard boiled eggs, yogurt, thick French bread, butter and date jelly—along with either coffee or tea to drink.
Lunch and dinner were mostly the same choices for food, with the addition of noodles, soup and occasionally chicken. And the drink choices were constant: coffee or tea.
So all summer long, I drank enormous quantities of coffee and got to where I could tolerate it.
At the end of that summer, I was twenty pounds lighter, tanned, and in great physical shape. I returned to America aboard British Airways and they served us coffee with our in flight meal. To my surprise, I discovered I really, really liked the coffee they served us. The contrast between properly brewed coffee—even airline coffee—and what I had been guzzling all summer in Israel—was so great, that for the first time in my life I discovered that I actually liked the taste of coffee.
Ever since, I have been a fan of coffee and consume at least a cup every morning. In fact, I usually drink two or three. People today know me as a happy coffee addict.