Reflections Upon My Morning Cup Of Coffee

A huge black grackle is perched atop a tall evergreen tree alongside our deck this morning. The grackles here have been up to something of late. Grackles are always up to something. As I sip on my morning cup of coffee, black of course, I ponder the schemes of grackles and of all critters, including man.

Coffee is the schoolteachers’ most evident form of addiction. During my nearly forty years in the classroom, I sometimes consumed two entire pots each day. After retirement, I cut down precipitously, down to one or two cups a day. More recently, concerned that caffeine consumption might be triggering occasional migraine patterns, I have switched to decaf. I cannot tell the difference but continue to harbor a resentment that decaf is somehow a limp-wristed, anemic version of the real thing.

I have a choice of K-cups on this fine morning. There is Tim Horton’s from Canada, Gevalia from Sweden, Columbian Supreme from Sam’s Club, Green Mountain, which claims to be committed to 100% responsibly sourced coffee. My favorite is Yuban, but I can never find it on local supermarket shelves. This morning, I choose an old favorite, Maxwell House, whose sales slogan “Good to the Last Drop” is said to have originated with Teddy Roosevelt when he heartily approved of the coffee served in a Tennessee hotel. Aides have shared that TR kept a mug of coffee as big as a washtub going in the Oval Office all day every day during his presidency. TR never did anything halfway. There is no evidence, however,  that he ever said, “Good to the last drop,” and, in fact, the slogan was first used by Coca-Cola.

One dark night many years ago in a Zionist restaurant in Tel Aviv, I sampled a cup of Turkish coffee, thick as syrup and very sweet, nothing like the Maxwell House I was accustomed to. Years later, during a sojourn in a French village, I ordered a morning cup of coffee. I remarked afterward that it was strong enough to send one clawing one’s way up the side of a utility pole. On another blazing day in Florida’s Everglades City, I learned that Cuban coffee makers vie with their French counterparts to create the strongest brew imaginable. It was said that the chuck wagon cooks during the days of the great cattle drives brewed coffee by boiling two pounds of grounds in two gallons of water for two hours, then tossing in a horseshoe. If the horseshoe didn’t float, the coffee wasn’t ready yet. Such experiences cause one to consider whether chuckwagon cooks, French and Cuban coffee roasters, and others involved in the trade learned their craft from the same teachers.

I wonder about how coffee, originating as small red berries on Ethiopian bushes, evolved into the world’s most popular beverage. Where did my morning drink come from? Whose hands processed it? What are the negatives, for instance its carbon footprint, the side effects of its cultivation, processing and vending? How and where did it all begin?

There is a charming legend, probably untrue, that coffee was discovered centuries ago by an Ethiopian goatherd named Kaldi, who became concerned when his charges refused to abandon a grove of trees laden with strange red berries. As they munched away on the leaves and berries of those shrubs, they began to frolic and prance with ever more frantic enthusiasm, even walking about on their hind legs. I doubt the veracity of this story because, having helped my daughters raise 4-H goats, I know that the creatures are both ingenious and congenitally insane and need no stimuli to encourage their frolicking and prancing. I do not doubt, however, that Kaldi began chewing those mysterious berries himself and subsequently began to frolic and prance alongside his goatish charges.

Kaldi shared the source of his newly found ecstasy with family and friends, and soon the Ethiopians learned to brew a sort of tea from the attractive red berries. Some centuries later, coffee lovers learned to roast the beans, enhancing the flavor of their drink. Word of this wondrous new brew spread along the trade routes frequented by Arab camel caravans and became popular throughout North Africa and the Middle East. Wondrous qualities were attributed to coffee, from serving as an antidepressant to an aphrodisiac. The Prophet Mohammed proclaimed that  under the influence of coffee, he could “unhorse forty men and possess forty women.” There is no record that Kaldi did anything more robust than prance with his goats while under the influence.

As time passed, coffee houses began to appear in cities and villages throughout the Middle East. Given that plots inimical to the ruling class were often hatched in such establishments, they were sometimes closed by suspicious potentates who proceeded to ban coffee drinking altogether. Such prohibitions never lasted for long. Too many among the top echelons of society loved their coffee.

With the passage of time, coffee, like such other commodities as cotton, sugar, rice, tobacco and diamonds, expanded hand-in-hand with slavery. Under French dominion, coffee production in Haiti depended upon some of the most gruesome conditions for slaves. Rather than provide adequate rations and medical care for their coffee workers, owners simply worked them to death and proceeded to purchase new slaves. This was a pattern repeated by colonial masters in numerous locations, such as the Bolivian silver mines at Potosi in modern-day Bolivia.

Coffee workers and others finally succeeded in overthrowing their oppressors, but their leader Toussaint Louverture continued to force  production under circumstances little better than previous enslavement. Napoleon Bonaparte attempted to retake the island in 1803,  planning  to utilize it as a base for his dreams of a North American cattle empire. His plans evaporated as his legions fell in large numbers to yellow fever and rebel bullets, enabling the  Haitians to  finally win their independence, and causing France to sell its North American territories, stretching from Louisiana to the Pacific Northwest to the fledgling United States of America. Following independence, the horrors of coffee production were at least somewhat mitigated.

Deprived of Haitian sources, European coffee merchants turned to the islands that now compose Indonesia, particularly Java and Sumatra. If the French slave masters of Haiti were brutal, the Dutch who controlled the islands equaled and  may have even outdone them for pure cruelty. Such realities were repeated in places like Brazil where slaves were required to work 17-hour days, the islands of the Caribbean and throughout numerous African nations suffering beneath the iron heel of European colonialism, in too many cases only to later be supplanted by local self-aggrandizing generalissimos.

Today, too much of our coffee consumption remains the consequence of exhausting work by impoverished third world peoples, even children. Such workers struggle along with no benefits, no retirement funds, no medical care and heavy-handed treatment from overseers. Many struggle along with wages equaling only five or even three dollars a day.

What is a modern conscientious consumer to do? Coffee is one of the most heavily sprayed agricultural products. While the chemicals only affect the outer layer of the berries before they are roasted, any sort of spraying impacts surrounding topsoil and vegetation. The environmentally sensitive consumer is safest purchasing any of the many certified organic brands. Environmentalist and author Jane Goodall promotes coffee produced by the Kanyovu Cooperative Society which educates African farmers in order to increase production on their own lands in order to reduce the impact on nearby forests and wildlife areas. One can identify organic brands by the stamp of approval of the Rainforest Alliance. Some more recognizable companies like Starbucks have made an effort to improve conditions. Sadly, I find that few supermarkets offer shade grown or Fair Trade brands. Some offer organic brands.

There are brands of coffee certified as shade grown or bird friendly, who sincerely attempt to preserve avian habitat. Others bear the stamp Fair Trade, assuring buyers that suppliers, many of them small farmers, receive a reasonable price for their products.

Navigating one’s way through the ethical minefield of the modern global economy is a challenge, and the struggle involves much more than just coffee. I see that the blueberries I enjoy on my cereal were harvested in Chile. The bananas sitting on the counter originated somewhere in Central America. Upon checking labels this morning, I find that my jeans were manufactured in Pakistan, my shirt in Bangladesh, my Jockey shorts in Cambodia, the fleece pullover I am wearing on this unseasonably cool June day in India, my favorite red bandana, reminiscent of those worn stereotypically by generations of farmers, in China. I dread asking where my socks originated. How many of my articles of clothing were manufactured by tiny hands of enslaved children struggling for long hours in third world sweat shops. Such thoughts rightly sinks one’s conscience into a brown study.

As I struggle over this bit of scribbling this morning, I recognize that it is Juneteenth, a day celebrating the freedom of U.S. slaves. It is important that this historical milestone be honored. At the same time, as I contemplate the clothes I am wearing, the coffee I am drinking and many other items that are an essential part of my everyday life, I wonder how many were manufactured by the tiny hands of small children slaving away in third world sweat shops. Perhaps a global Juneteenth needs to be established and recognized.

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Lorin Swinehart
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1 thought on “Reflections Upon My Morning Cup Of Coffee”

  1. Excellent article, Lorin. While visiting Hawaii, I had Kona coffee, a brand name & grown on the big island, Hawaii. Apparently, Hawaii is the only place in the United States where coffee is grown. I wonder if the climate crisis & the warming will make that always true.

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