Mother’s Other Little Helper

by Christine Adams Beckett

Desperate for another cup, I hit a low point (not quite rock bottom) of my caffeine addiction and  helped myself to a lukewarm hazelnut coffee from a pump thermos at Kings Supermarket yesterday.  A watery brew of questionable origin, I sipped it while reading a posting on the wall behind their be-your-own-barrista bar.  The poster read that coffee had been inadvertently discovered in Ethiopia by a goat herder whose flock had mistakenly eaten the reddish berries to some pretty amusing consequences. According to Anne Fadiman, who wrote an essay titled simply “Coffee” in her collection At Large and At Small, sometime during the seventh century in a country somewhere near the Red Sea, likely Ethiopia or Yemen, the goats did mange on the red berry of an indigenous bush.  A German journalist by the name of Heinrich Eduard Jacob described our surprised goats in his 1935 publication, Coffee: The Epic of a Commodity:

All night, for five nights in succession – nay, for seven or eight – they clambered over rocks, cutting capers, chasing one another, bleating fantastically.  They turned their bearded heads hither and thither; with reddened eyes they gambolled convulsively when they caught sight of the goatherds, and then they darted off swift as arrows speeding from the bow.

They were some bloody brilliant goats in my opinion.  There have been many occasions where I needed a little help cutting my own capers: the morning aftermath of one AM excursions to to the attic with a mop to clean up a leaky air conditioning unit, after a sleepless night spent propped up next to a crib holding the hand of a toddler suffering from an ear infection or  for relief from a mid afternoon headache.  Even my self-diagnosed attention deficit disorder: remedied by goat candy.

Even more brilliant was the local imam who was somehow inspired to roast the berries, crush them and mix them with boiling water. The results were what we of course expect, but the Ethiopian imam was likely pretty shocked to find his mind racing, unable to sleep, yet able to tackle several tasks at once, with a heightened acuity in each and every one of his sense organs.

We’ve come quite a long way since the days of the imam’s mortar and pestle.  I normally brew my own on an illy espresso machine, a terrificly thoughtful Christmas present for a person mourning the high octane café of France upon American re-entry.  Ceramic bowls bought for a dollar each at Target holds a double shot (about thirty seconds from the initial depression of the button) with another another 2 – 3 ounces of whole milk, heated through.  I am careful not to keep it too close to the bowl of scrambled eggs I am busy turning into an omelette, as once I mistakenly pulled an Arnold Schwarznegger, taking a long draw on the wrong bowl and loading up on protein rather than caffeine.

There are a plethora of coffee shops in Montclair, two of the ubiquitous (and high priced) Starbucks on either end of town.  My personal favorite, Bluestone Coffee Company in central Watchung Plaza, the funky Café Ecclectic on Bloomfield Avenue, which I think might have closed; Trend Coffee and Tea House might have taken its place.  But as of late I see more folks toting water bottles than nifty sleeved paper cups filled with a wee drop of the high octane stuff.  I am left wondering if coffee is losing its panache, or if everyone else, like me, prefers the home brew.

There passed a period of time where many experts were pointing a accusatory finger directly at coffee, or more accurately caffeine, as a carcinogen.  But I won’t go into that…  Instead I’ll focus on Jacob’s insistence that when coffee became a commodity outside of the Middle East and Africa, and garnered demand in Europe in the 17th Century, Europeans were, well, rather drunk.  A caffeinated soul was a delightful alternative to the slurred voices and bleary eyes of someone soaked in beer.  One might even go so far as to claim that coffee was a catalyst to the Enlightenment.  Fadiman quotes an anonymous poet:

When Foggy Ale, leavying up mighty trains

Of muddy vapours, had besieg’d our Brains,

Then Heaven in Pity…

First sent amongst us this All-Healing Berry

According to the poster at King’s Supermarket, it’s the world’s most popular beverage, second only to water.  The Coffeehouse that reigns supreme for weary moms all over Suburbia has its origins in 17th century Europe.  Will the ultra coffee soaked Suburban mom inspire a modern enlightenment, reforming society and advancing knowledge?  I dare say yes.  Or maybe just able to get through ’til bedtime, when she switches to chamomile tea.