The Magic of Coffee and Caffeine

I didn’t regularly drink coffee until reaching my thirties. I didn’t need it. People used to make any variety of this faux-joke, “Don’t talk to me until I’ve had my first cup”, and I thought that was just a nice way of telling me to shut up or go away. It seemed like a bad idea to start habitually using a “drug” that could so enormously impact your day.

The turning point for me came in Italy, where espressos are coffee, un caffè, and part of the culture. It is rare to find an Americano, or as the Italians sometimes call it, “acqua sporca”—dirty water. I liked everything about it: the dainty cup, the saucer, the little garnish of a chocolate or biscuit, the national price set at one Euro, the complexity of taste, the blackness. I love it paired with a chocolate-filled croissant. The espresso is so simple, so classic.

Perhaps by coincidence, causality or just from age, when I started drinking coffee, I became a morning person. Spending my twenties up past midnight, my thirties transformed into up before the sun, or at least up with the sun. There have been days when I don’t drink a cup, and I feel fine; other days, a second or third cup is required drinking. But coffee is never far away.

Coffee offers memories for me: my grandfather’s breath at church when he would lean over and whisper, “It’s really great worshipping with you”; my father sitting in the big chair on Sundays with his sports page and a steaming cup by the big living room windows; the modest pot on the kitchen counter; the giant pot for hungover Jersey shore mornings; midnight at the library during university; coffee break at the jobsite; espressos al fresco in Europe; coffee is in me. Smell, being so closely linked to memory, and coffee, having such a fragrant aroma, naturally entwines itself within one’s experiences.

Michael Pollan, the intrepid journalist of all things consumption, whose famous line, “eat food, not too much, mostly vegetables”, just put a book on Audible devoted to the topic of caffeine. I know there is caffeine in tea and cola, but my memories of tea and cola aren’t as accessible. Tea is so foreign, so fancy, and so fussy as to be inaccessible for most parts of the day. Plus, have you actually ever had a great cup of tea? It’s rare, and probably expensive. Tea is fine; cola has a nice first sip, but the sugar regret moves in pretty fast. I’ll stick to coffee.

Coffee is the hero of his book. It changed the world as it relieved Europe from its drunken stupor, and ushered in the enlightenment through coffee shop consultations and caffeine-fueled writing binges. (It is a curious coincidence that coffee originated (Ethiopia) near the first homo sapiens fossils.) Before coffee, Europeans were fed a diet of ale and lager for breakfast and whiskey for dinner. Naturally, those inputs resulted in sluggish outputs. Coffee brought energy and élan, proposals and plots, notions and thoughts.

It wasn’t the coffee; it was the caffeine. Usually, humans digest a form of caloric intake and magically transform those molecules into motion. But coffee, without sugar or milk added, delivers no calories. How can coffee, being nearly totally calorie-deficient, provide that bold shot of intensity—caffeine. What price do we pay for such alchemy—sleep loss. When Homer Simpson told us, alcohol is the cause of and solution to all of life’s problems, he could have added, caffeine is the cause of and solution to all our poor sleeping.

Maybe that’s true, probably definitely, possibly certainly, but what am I going to do, stop drinking coffee? The same people who say they don’t drink coffee are those same dreary souls who say they don’t watch TV, or don’t like music, or don’t eat pizza. Some things may not enhance our health, but to abstain would harm our psyche.

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