Simple Pleasures: The Day’s First Cup of Coffee

I first started drinking coffee in the early 1980s when I was a kid working as a fish butcher in Sitka, Alaska.

Unlike most of the college students of my generation who made pilgrimages to the fish houses in summer, as a respite from the university life, I was a drop-out, one of those lost lost souls who doesn’t have the first clue what to do with their lives.

So I butchered fish all winter long, working the docks on the gray, rain-and snow-swept days when they were nearly empty.

I also put in long hours on the freezer crews, which meant that much of my time was spent inside massive blast freezers.  Imagine a bank vault crusted with half-foot thick rime of ice.

One of my harshest memories is of unloading a cargo of herring from a boat on Easter morning.

I swam in the hold in a slurry fish and blood and ice, struggling to fill a cargo net so that the crane operator could hoist it up onto the dock.

During the long night it began to snow.  I can still see the blood and gore dripping down through graceful snowflakes, all of it lit by raw industrial floodlamps.

In those hard years, the break room became an oasis, an island of noise and conversation and music (and occasionally of romance).  It was warm in a world where everything else was damp, cold, bleak.

The coffee, kept brewing in one of those old-fashioned percolator pots, was vile stuff.  We drank it heavily doctored with sugar and little packets of dairy substitute.

The result was drinkable only because it was scalding hot, literally burning the tongue as it went down.

I came to associate the drug of coffee — that’s what it is, really, our society’s most civilized drug — with the joy I have always taken in work.  I know that’s a weird linkage.  We Americans like to keep our virtues separate from our vices, in neat tidy compartments.

But for me, as I muddled forward in my fledgling, on-again off-again career as a journalist, I learned that one of the great pleasures of any day was drinking that first cup of coffee when I knew that I would be engaged in interesting and productive work.

The subtle vibration of the caffeine merges with the stimulant of anticipation. It tweaks the brain just the right amount.

It happens that my love affair with coffee has coincided with America’s discovery of the drink as a gourmet item, one which we complicate fetishistically, with all manner of gadgets and complicated brewing styles and specially roasted beans.

Fortunately, this is one mania that has actually improved our society.  When I was a kid, finding a really great cup of coffee was a rarity, like finding a really well baked loaf of bread, or a thriving farmer’s market.

Now there are great roasters and brewers everywhere.  You find people sitting in civilized fashion, talking, reading, working on their computers.

In my neighborhood in a tiny village in the Adirondack Mountains, I can smell beans roasting almost every morning from the little coffee shop down on the lake front.

But unlike most foodies, I still have a soft spot for all kinds of coffee.  When I visit certain members of my family in the Midwest, I drink Folger’s (remember those crystals locking in the freshness?) cheerfully.

I rather like the weird, ersatz-coffee taste of instant brews and still keep instant powder in my cupboard.

Traveling in foreign countries back in the day before the near universality of good coffee, I was always fascinated to find what weird chicory-tasting blend the locals hoped to pass off as actual coffee.

In some parts of the world, waiters still don’t ask if you want coffee.  They ask if you want “Nescafe.”  Good enough.  I drink them all cheerfully.

As a reporter, one who keeps peculiar and often long hours, coffee has been a mainstay, a tool of trade.  Many times, the sixth or seventh cup of the day isn’t such a pleasure.  It is, no pun intended, a grinding necessity, a way of making the brain do one more difficult thing.

But unlike most pleasures that are abused, I find that the very first cup keeps its romance.

From the civilized act of making it, to the rich complex smell of it, to the warmth and the vibration of energy imparted, coffee endures as one of the necessary ingredients that make life not just manageable but pleasurable.



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7 Comments on “Simple Pleasures: The Day’s First Cup of Coffee”

  1. Pete Klein says:

    Count me in, Brian.
    I do love coffee and sometimes tea. I make a pot in the morning. When, usually, the pot is empty, I’ll switch to making a K-cup so as to not waste a pot of the precious brew.

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  2. Mark, Saranac Lake says:

    Coffee…and tea…it is as much ritual as it is taste or stimulant. I’m with you, Brian, regarding that first cup of coffee in the morning. I love the taste, and the smell while it is brewing first thing in the morning, and I regard the ritual with sincerity. Unfortunately, I can not handle the caffeine (often makes me feel ill within a couple hours) but the other two values, taste and ritual, are enough for me to make it an essential part of my morning. I’m envious of all those that can use caffeinated coffee to wake themselves up or keep them going when drowsiness is taking over but for me, it is not worth the impending lousy feeling that comes with caffeine. Fortunately there are some very good tasting decafs now – it isn’t just Sanka any more.

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  3. tootightmike says:

    Good coffee starts with good water. You can make lousy coffee with very expensive ingredients if the water is less than perfect.The most important coffee making tool you can buy is a good water filter.

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  4. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    My coffee habit changed in Homer, AK during the summer of 80 or 81. I went north to work on a boat or maybe cannery but there was a bad salmon run that year and one of the canneries in town had closed, so having arrived in Homer broke my 2 friends and I hunkered down and looked for work, mostly unsuccessfully.

    The diner on the main drag in town charged 50 cents for coffee and they pretty much let you drink all day long without additional charge. Before that summer I always drank coffee black but we figured there was some nutritional value in adding lots of half and half and sugar – free!!!! We sat there and drank coffee for hours until shift change at the cannery. If you hung out at the break room in the cannery and someone didn’t show up for work you might get hired but there was a waiting list and you had to be the lowest number on the list that was there waiting. About every other day we would order either french fries or a baked potato for another 75 cents, if I remember right. With the french fries you got ketchup but with the baked potato you got sour cream and butter. Tough decision.

    One day at the diner the dish washer quit and the owner asked if one of us wanted a job. We drew straws and I lost and became a dishwasher for 3 weeks. I got one meal a day and could take any left over soup back to camp at the end of the day in a 2 lb coffee can. But I never did get paid. So like the guy before me I quit, opening up a slot for the next sucker.

    I still take sugar in my coffee and sometimes white stuff too. Liquid or powdered. Extra nutrition.

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  5. Kathy says:

    I enjoyed reading these stories!

    11 years old – “Yuban” instant coffee; New Jersey.

    Now I’m a Starbuck’s, St. Lawrence Valley Roaster, and Seattle’s Best fan – in that order.

    That first cup of coffee in the morning never gets old!

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  6. Bob Falesch says:

    The text to J.S.Bach’s coffee cantata (from the 1730s) includes this: “If I can’t drink my bowl of coffee three times daily, then in my torment, I will shrivel up like a piece of roast goat.” The arrival of coffee into Europe would have occurred during Bach’s lifetime. I can only imagine how wonderful this discovery must have been for adults on the continent.

    Here’s a brief excerpt on YouTube which includes the great soprano Emma Kirkby.

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  7. hermit thrush says:

    i think drinking coffee is truly one of the great privileges of being a human being. unfortunately my stomach doesn’t seem to be able to handle it any more….

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