Coffee, History & Literature

Adam Gopnik, one of our favorite essayists, wrote an excellent essay on this topic; and Michael Pollan, among others, wrote a book.

There is still plenty to say about the history of coffee, as far as we are concerned, and Ed Simon demonstrates it in this essay from The Millions, an online magazine:

Coffee, the Great Literary Stimulant

“I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.” –T.S Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915)

Maronite priest Antonio Fausto Naironi once claimed that the greatest of miracles happened in ninth-century Ethiopia. It was then and there, in the province of Oromia, that a young shepherd named Kaldi noticed that his goats were prone to running, leaping, and dancing after they had eaten blood-red berries from a mysterious bush. Kaldi chewed on a few beans himself, and suddenly he was awake. Gathering handfuls of them, he brought them to a local abbot. Disgusted with the very idea of such a shortcut to enlightenment, the monk threw the beans into a fire, but the other brothers smelled the delicious fragrance and gathered. Naironi is a bit scant on the details, but for some reason the grounds were filtered into water, and the first cup of coffee was brewed.

Such a perfect creation myth. Coffee, from the highlands of Ethiopia (still one of the largest producers), that ancient land which was home to the Queen of Sheba, the Ark of the Covenant, and where humanity first walked. The youthful innocence of Kaldi. And of course, the dancing goats, so perfectly Dionysian, so exquisitely demonic. Regarding Naironi’s apocryphal legend, William Henry Ukers writes in All About Coffee that there may even be “some truth in the story of the discovery of coffee by the Abyssinian goats.” Regardless of the original prohibition, even the abbot came around to the medicinal, not to speak of the intellectual, emotional, psychological, and spiritual benefits of caffeine.

Born Mehrej Ibn Nimrum in Lebanon, Naironi moved to Rome around 1635 where he latter Italianized his name and wrote his most important work: the 1671 book The Art of Drinking Coffee. Naironi tutored Italians—who were not yet the people of the latte, the cappuccino, the espresso—in the sublimity of caffeine. Before coffee reached Venice, or Milan, or Florence, the flowering berries of the coffea plant had been roasted in Jerusalem, Cairo, and Aleppo; ground in Constantinople, Baghdad, and Damascus; and the result—which looks nothing so much like rich, black soil—had been filtered into boiling water in Mecca, Medina, and before them all, Addis Ababa. Naironi bemoaned that many in Christendom were “unaware of [coffee’s] qualities and good effects,” which he enumerated. Then as it is now, coffee allowed for meditation and exuberance, conviviality and alertness, endurance and brilliance…

Read the whole essay here.

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