The Jitter Bug

The Jitter Bug

Coffee has been waking up aficionados for centuries.

By Leslie Bilderback 06/02/2014

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They say the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. I realized the depth of my addiction recently when the coffee canister was empty, and I proceeded to dig through the camping supplies for my jar of Folgers Crystals. Blech!    

To say that I am addicted to coffee is an understatement. I sip it all day long. I start the day with a full pot, then periodically invest throughout the day in iced red eyes (coffee with a shot of espresso) and black eyes (the same, with two shots), singlehandedly keeping my local barista employed. I can even finish the day with an espresso with no fear of insomnia.  

What is it about this magical elixir that so captivates me? Besides its miraculous effects, coffee has a pretty interesting history. 

The story of coffee’s discovery is probably just a myth. As is often repeated, an Ethiopian goatherd named Kaldi witnessed his flock nibbling on the berries of a bush. They promptly exhibited excitable behavior and had a heck of a time falling asleep. Soon, the natives were chewing the berries each morning as they perused their newspapers.  

Coffee seems to have been domesticated first in Yemen, in the seventh century. Mystic Sufis are said to have steeped the bean into a drink that assisted them in their ascetic trances. They are credited with transporting the beans across the Arab peninsula and beyond, spreading it to Cairo, Damascus and Mecca. Alcohol-free Islam took to the beverage immediately, claiming that Muhammad gave coffee to the world via the jittery archangel Gabriel. It was soon dubbed the “wine of Araby,” and coffeehouses sprang up across the Moslem world.  

By the 16th century the convivial atmosphere of the coffeehouse began to worry the sultan, who feared the beverage stimulated primal carnal desires. More likely he was concerned that the coffeehouses were brewing subversive political ideas. Bags of beans were burned in Mecca, putting an end to the popular buzz, which had spread even inside the Great Mosque.  

But once coffee has been accepted by the masses, it’s not that easy to quash. (Because when you’re wired out of your mind, you can solve any problem.) Coffeehouses opened outside the city limits, and the bean soon spread to India, Indonesia and Istanbul. The Turks opened their own cafes, and Silk Road merchants from Italy and elsewhere began smuggling out beans in their suitcases. (“Your valise smells great!”) Soon Venice was selling coffee to the rest of the continent and the British Isles.  

In England, coffee caught on immediately. The first public venues are thought to have been in Oxford, a legacy continued by procrastinating college students the world over.  There, academics paid a penny a cup and dispensed advice in what have come to be known as “penny universities.” Intellectuals noted that coffee stimulated the body and cleared the mind, unlike wine, which usually resulted in conflict and orgies. (Another tradition carried on by college students.) Women complained that coffee made their men impotent, and Charles II was concerned about the political ramifications of rooms full of smart people hopped up on the stimulant. He tried, like his Islamic counterpart, to shut down the coffeehouses. But by 1660 there were at least 500 coffeehouses in London. The damage was done. 

Other tales of coffee’s introduction to Europe stem from the 1683 Turkish siege on Vienna. Unable to penetrate the city walls, the Turks abandoned their camps, leaving behind bags of the brown beans, which the Viennese promptly brewed and served with Sacher tortes. Eventually that city created its own unique coffeehouse culture, admired and emulated across Europe. Drawn in by coffee and a side of strudel, patrons sat for hours reading dozens of volumes of printed materials that were readily available and ripe for dissemination. Each café catered to specific groups of like-minded thinkers. Doctors, psychoanalysts, philosophers, politicians and artists knew in which coffeehouse they could find their kindred spirits. 

Eventually, coffee was replaced by tea in England. Luckily, coffee remained popular in much of Europe and America. The Dutch East India Company successfully cultivated coffee in Java, and the resulting demand in Europe led to new plantations in Ceylon and Sumatra. Coffee was brought to New Amsterdam, where it was eventually popularized by patriots as the anti-English beverage of choice.  

It wasn’t until 1971, when a few wide-eyed students opened a coffee roaster in Seattle, that we developed our current national obsession. They wanted to name their business Pequod, after the ship in Moby Dick. But investors thought it sounded weird, so they settled for the chief mate of Melville’s tale — Starbuck. 

I started drinking coffee when I was nine or 10. Desperate to prove to my doting grandmother that I was “all grown up,” I was immediately hooked. I always loved coffee ice cream best and was horrified to discover that coffee cake was meant to be served with coffee, and was not, as I had hoped, made entirely out of coffee. I started serving the brew to my kids when they were in elementary school in an effort to get them moving in the morning (“Mommy, this cocoa tastes weird.”) One kid climbed aboard the bandwagon immediately. The other saw through my scheme.

Both of them still sleep until noon, however. You’d think they’d have learned by now that Mother Knows Best. 

Leslie Bilderback, a certified master baker, chef and author of Mug Cakes: 100 Speedy Microwave Treats to Satisfy your Sweet Tooth (St. Martin’s Press), lives in South Pasadena and teaches her techniques online at culinarymasterclass.com.

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