The World of Food: Coffee

By Julia Maish |

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“I love coffee…I love tea,
I love the Java Jive and it loves me.
Coffee and tea and the Java and me,
A cup, a cup, a cup, a cup, a cup…boy!”

Java Jive,” The Ink Spots, 1940

“Pace the floor, stop and stare,
I drink a cup of coffee and start pulling out my hair.
I’m drinking forty cups of coffee,
Forty cups of coffee,
Forty cups of coffee, waiting for you to come home…”

– “Forty Cups of Coffee,” Ella Mae Morse, 1953

A Bloomberg study conducted in mid-2016 estimated that before the year ended, Americans would consume, on average, 6.8 pounds (yes, pounds!) of hot coffee per person. If you are one of those “java junkies” (and you know who you are) who are on a first-name basis with your local barista, you might be wondering where this popular brew came from, and how it got to be so omnipresent. While you’re standing in line waiting for that grande skim latte with extra foam, let’s take a look back…

It is not known for certain how coffee originated, except that it has been around for centuries, and its likely birthplace is Ethiopia. One of the most popular legends is that it all started with a goatherd and his flock. One day while navigating his goats through a forest on the Ethiopian plateau, the man noticed that his goats were strongly attracted to the berries from a certain tree, and after consuming even a small quantity of them, they became so filled with energy that they refused to lie down and sleep.

The goatherd, undoubtedly after throwing back a few berries himself, hotfooted it to the local monastery to share his exciting discovery with the abbot, who got the bright idea to incorporate these berries in a beverage, and was pleased to find that it did a great job of keeping him awake during his many hours of prayer and contemplation. The abbot shared this invigorating new elixir with his fellow monks, and very quickly, more and more people across Africa and Arabia were as happily wired as they were.

By the time coffee found its way to Europe in the early 17th century, there were some, especially among the clergy, who were suspicious of its addictive qualities – so much so that Pope Clement VIII was asked to give coffee a try and weigh in. Once he did, he immediately gave it an enthusiastic papal thumbs-up (and probably asked if he could have some more). With that seal of approval, coffee houses began springing up everywhere, brimming with gamers and stimulating conversation, and people quickly got the message that starting the day with coffee (as opposed to alcohol) was making them a lot more productive, and maybe even smarter.

Shortly after that, coffee made its debut in America, but took a back seat to tea in popularity until the infamous Boston Tea Party revolt in 1773, during which colonists responded to the exorbitant tariff imposed by the British on their tea by dumping crates of the stuff in Boston Harbor. Shortly after, in a further act of defiance, they turned to coffee…and never looked back. Our “epicurean president,” Thomas Jefferson, naturally was asked for his opinion and he obliged, calling coffee “the favorite drink of the civilized world.”

An 1897 Rajah coffee ad by artist Henri Meunier

Today, of course, coffee is anywhere and everywhere, anytime you want it. Everyone from Johann Sebastian Bach (with his comic opera, The Coffee Cantata) to 1920s jazz singer Annette Hanshaw (who lent her cute flapper charisma to “You’re the Cream in My Coffee”) to Frank Sinatra (“…they’ve got an awful lot of coffee in Brazil…”) to Ella Fitzgerald (“Black Coffee”) to Bob Marley (“One Cup of Coffee”) to Carly Simon (“You’re So Vain,” in which she found “clouds in [her] coffee”) to Mandy Patinkin (bemoaning “the helter-skelter life we lead” in “Coffee in a Cardboard Cup”) has paid tribute to the brew in song – while virtually every corner boasts a coffee house, and every home and office boasts at least one percolator, espresso maker, French press, or pod brewer.

Is coffee bad for you? Not according to the National Coffee Association of U.S.A. (NCAUSA), who claims that “moderate coffee consumption (or 3-5 cups daily) may be associated with many positive effects, including liver disease prevention, improved cognitive function in older adults, sharper memory, increased athletic endurance, reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, [and] longevity.”

It would be impossible in this space to list every location in Chicago where you can find coffee. Just walk out your front door – almost anywhere you live, within a block or two, you’re sure to find something to get you going, from a national chain to a local roaster to a great breakfast spot. And if the NCAUSA is right, you don’t even need to feel guilty. That Ethiopian goatherd would surely be proud.