My Coffee Evolution

Posted: March 25, 2013 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , ,

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

Why do our food tastes change over time?  Is it culture or nature?  Just like all arguments regarding nature vs. nurture, it is actually a bit of both. Natural changes of taste are no big mystery, and not really surprising.  A person despises olives at 10 years old, but finds them irresistible at 30.  Tastes for food and drink transform; desires evolve. We’ve all been there.  More intriguing is when culture forces a change; when nurture is the cause of evolving tastes.  My gradual love of coffee is a perfect example.  

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When I was a kid, I remember my Grandpa Jocks would often have a post-meal coffee.   As it brewed, the aroma was wonderful!  Once ready, he poured just a little cream in the black, steaming drink, and stirred it around with the handle of his spoon (I don’t know why he liked to use the handle).   Anything that looked so creamy, and smelled so incredible must be delectable.  At 10 or 11, I finally asked for a taste. The family laughed. I took a sip.  God, it was nasty.

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My coffeehouse crew.

Fast forward five years.  I tried coffee again.  This time, I started to go with friends to local coffeehouses on the weekend.  I would order a latte, and it always came with these little, buttery cookies.  It was a good thing those cookies were included, because I needed something to eat before and after sipping the milk-laden espresso.  I used the cookies to hide the acrid coffee flavor. The Italian concoction tasted just as I remembered my grandpa’s brew: Burnt, sour, bitter, with a terrible aftertaste.  But, I kept ordering those lattes. I kept forcing them down.

Why would I drink something I didn’t like? Simple.  I wanted to be a coffee drinker.  Dare I dream it, perhaps I could even become a coffee aficionado.  When I started to frequent coffeehouses with my friends, coffee was going through a rebirth of cool.  It was the early to mid-1990’s, and the independent, local coffeehouse (no Starbucks please) was where young, fascinating, intelligent and, yes, pretentious kids went to converse, and be seen.  In our little town, this coffeehouse crowd was ‘alternative’ from the mainstream,  and drinking coffee at 17 was as important as understanding who was a sell-out in the world of music. Coffee identified you as a member of the group.  I wanted into the club.

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My 24 hour college haunt.

By the time I began college, I kept pushing the coffee.   Coffeehouses were still the place I went to be seen, but now for different reasons. In my mind, coffeehouses were ground zero for university intellectualism.  At the 24 hour coffee joint I frequented, graduate students would be working on their dissertations at 2AM; professors might show up between classes to order an espresso; college kids may sit for hours acting like they understood Heidegger or Derrida. Mocha lattes were no longer appropriate in this world. Those who ordered a drink that required a blender need not apply to the intellectual realm. To be a part of this culture, you drank straight coffee. And so I drank straight coffee. I felt like I belonged.

By graduate school, a taste switch had flipped. I loved coffee.  I needed coffee.  I was addicted to coffee….literally. I had physical symptoms of withdrawal if I did not drink my morning cup. No longer did I only drink coffee to be part of a scene.  The earlier desire to partake in a specific cultures started me on coffee. Now, there was no stamping out the desire.  Culture 1, nature 0.

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