In honor of The Sun’s fiftieth year in print, we’re revisiting topics that have appeared in past issues and reprinting some of the original responses. “Coffee” first ran in our February 2006 issue. It was our most popular Readers Write ever, in terms of submissions.
Compared to the gentle scent of bergamot that rose from my morning cup of Earl Grey, the aroma of a fresh pot of coffee seemed almost abrasive. I preferred the ritual of tea: Boiling a kettle. Filling my favorite cup with hot water to warm it. Pouring that water out and refilling my cup. Dropping in a tea bag and letting it steep. Breathing in the scent for a few minutes, then pulling the bag out and using the string to extract the last drops of flavor. Adding just enough sugar and a squeeze of lemon or a dollop of cream. It was a meditative way to begin my day. I didn’t think about anything else while I did it.
Then I met a man who loved coffee. He had his own ritual: Put the kettle on. Grind the beans. Rinse the French press with boiling water to warm it, pour the water out, and spoon in the ground coffee. Add more boiling water, and let the grounds steep. His coffee didn’t smell harsh at all. It smelled rich, dark, and full of mystery. He had a dog named Sunshine, and while the coffee brewed, he scratched behind her ears and sang to her: “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine / You make me happy when skies are gray.”
I fell in love with him, and with Sunshine. Nearly forty years later we’re still together. Some mornings we drink coffee; some mornings we drink tea. No matter what we drink, it’s our time to be together and watch the day begin.
Stone Mountain, Georgia
In the 1980s I worked a temp job for two investment managers on the top floor of Milwaukee’s tallest building. The swanky office had the latest in business machines — including typewriters with memory — and two coffeepots: one for regular, the other for decaf. When my bosses met with clients, they sometimes requested coffee be served in the meeting room. One afternoon the partner from Boston was conferring with a client and asked me for “two coffees, please, one of each.”
It seemed late in the day to be making coffee, but I set aside the papers he’d handed me, measured out both kinds of coffee, and waited for the pots to finish brewing. By the time I carried the tray of coffee to the executive’s office, his client had already left.
“Here’s your coffee,” I said.
My employer gave me a quizzical look. “Oh,” he said. “I asked for two copies. I made them myself.”
Fortunately he had a sense of humor, and we laughed at how much a Boston copy sounds like a Milwaukee coffee.
When I was a girl, my grandmother and grandfather would come over on Saturdays. While my mother did my grandma’s hair, my grandfather would usually sit upstairs at the piano, plunking out the melody of some new song he wanted to teach the Romanian choir he directed. Sometimes, though, he’d take my sister and me grocery shopping. Afterward we’d sit at the lunch counter at the front of the store. My sister and I typically got a hot dog while he got coffee.
This was a thrill for me because my family never went out for a meal — my parents were diligently saving to pay off their new house. My sister and I would spin round and round on the red-vinyl stools, something our mother would not have let us do. I think our grandfather took pleasure in seeing us so free.
One Saturday my seven-year-old sister spun so wildly her leg knocked the paper cup out of our grandfather’s hand. The hot coffee dumped right into her boot. While she yelled, he quickly pulled her boot off and rolled up her pant leg, revealing red patches on her skin. Apologizing like crazy (a man apologizing was new to me), he took her in his arms and went to the first-aid section, where he opened a tube of burn cream and gently smoothed it over her blisters. I’m not sure which shocked me more: that he gave no thought to the shopping bags we’d abandoned at the lunch counter, or that he didn’t care the tube of ointment hadn’t been paid for.
In the 1940s my family lived on an isolated farm in the Austrian mountains. We had no radio or newspaper, and our only news of the war came by mail from my grandmother in Silesia (now a part of Poland). Her last letter arrived in February 1945, on my sixth birthday. “The Russians are approaching,” it said. We lost touch with her after that.
In May 1946, with the help of the Red Cross, my aunt Hilde located my grandmother in a small village in the East German Soviet Occupied Zone. She and her brother lived in a tiny room with one bed and no bedding. They were starving.
My mother, Anneliese, made plans to visit my grandmother, whom she had not seen in five years. But before my mother could get permission to enter East Germany, my grandmother died.
One day a package arrived containing a few of my grandmother’s belongings, including a small bag of coffee beans, marked in shaky handwriting, “For Anneliese’s visit.” Coffee was worth its weight in gold after the war. How my starving grandmother had gotten ahold of any was a mystery. Perhaps she’d bartered food for it, wanting to have some coffee to celebrate her long-awaited reunion with her daughter.
Though my mother couldn’t afford coffee, she could not bring herself to grind those beans. They sat in the cupboard for years, a reminder of my grandmother’s love.
After earning my MD, I was admitted to my first choice of a pediatric residency, and academic achievement took a back seat to the heartbreaking reality of caring for very young, very sick children.
Those on-call hours were demanding — and long. I sometimes worked twenty-four-hour stretches with a few fleeting hours in between to sleep and recover. I struggled to help desperately ill children: The little girl who’d aspirated a peanut, suffered a cardiorespiratory arrest, and died after ten days of ICU support. The premature babies weighing less than a pound, some born addicted to opiates. The newborns with severe congenital anomalies who didn’t live long enough to be discharged from the hospital.
I’d like to say my principal source of support was my boyfriend (also a doctor), or my mentors and colleagues, but the truth is my mainstay was coffee. I drank cup after giant cup from the hospital cafeteria. It kept me alert when the patient lists were too long and the emergencies too numerous. I was soon addicted.
After my residency I married my boyfriend, and we decided to have children. During pregnancy I weaned myself off caffeine, fearful (perhaps foolishly) that children in utero should not be exposed to what I knew in my case to be a drug. Once I’d stopped breastfeeding, I returned to drinking coffee in moderate amounts, almost as a gourmet treat. I couldn’t fully say goodbye to the substance that had gotten me through the biggest challenge of my life.
Los Angeles, California
I’d been planning the trip since high school: the summer after graduating from college, I would backpack through as many European countries as I could, drinking tea in Ireland and sipping limoncello in Italy.
I paid my way through college with jobs and work study. For four years, every time I wanted to buy something, even the smallest purchase, I’d ask myself: Would you rather buy this shirt, or a train ticket in Europe? Would you rather drink this coffee here, or a cappuccino in Europe? The answer was almost always Europe.
When I finally did have a cappuccino, sitting in an Italian piazza, I knew I’d made the right choice.
My dad was what you might call a “man of taste.” He had traveled to several countries and acquired an appreciation for their foods and cultures. He scoffed at our society’s bastardization of foreign delicacies and our obsession with convenience.
Coffee was especially important to him. One night at a restaurant, after we’d finished our meal, my dad squeezed a lemon peel over his demitasse of espresso and told me about the Italian traditions associated with it. When I was a kid, I had to use a manual grinder in our basement to grind dark, oily beans for my father’s coffee.
Long after I had retired from my position as the house bean grinder, I worked for a few years as a barista in Seattle, where I learned to distinguish beans from different growing regions and taste subtle differences in brews. I also learned to make a decent cappuccino. On a visit home I set my dad up with an espresso machine and an electric grinder, and I demonstrated how to use them. The result was, by his estimation, the best cappuccino in Mid-Coast Maine.
Last year, after he was released from the hospital, I went to see my father in a rehab facility, and he asked me to bring him a cappuccino from home. There was just one problem: his house was about thirty minutes away. I knew it wouldn’t be hot or fresh, how he liked it, so I didn’t fulfill his request.
In hindsight I don’t think it would have mattered that his cappuccino was cold and flat. He still would have drunk it, and he would have told me again about how, when he’d visited the coffee shop where I worked, I’d made him the best cappuccino. It had changed the way he thought about cappuccinos, ruining for him the local Maine brews, with their dry meringues and charcoal taste. I would have loved to hear that story once more.
It’s 1983, and the Mesa Grande Refugee Camp in Honduras is home to ten thousand people who have fled civil war and political persecution in neighboring El Salvador. I’ve come here to document their stories.
I follow a pungent aroma to find a group of women roasting corn on clay griddles over an open fire, then scooping the blackened kernels first into their aprons, then into four grinders. The smell fills my nostrils. I wonder if this smoke reminds these women of their villages burning as they fled into the jungle with small children on their hips.
The women grind the corn, muscles glistening with sweat and rain. I ask in shaky Spanish what they’re making.
Corn roasted dark, they say — then laugh when they see my puzzled expression. It is the coffee of the people, they explain. Salvadorans pick and process coffee beans for the rich, but they can’t afford to drink it.
I can. Every morning. I carry my cup right now, and I hold it out for them to fill with their very dark roast. It tastes strong and bitter.
Their stories pour out, too. I try to memorize their faces as they speak: leathery, sun-scorched, tears sometimes running down their cheeks. They’re always moving their hands, patting in circles as if shaping tortillas. They begin to sway, as if soothing babies.
Their tone rises, and a chorus asserts, “Verdad!” — This is the truth! The massacre at the Río Lempa. March 18, 1981. Terrible to remember. They crouched in shallow caves next to the river. Pinned down by machine-gun fire from helicopters, they watched family members jump as the bullets hit them, then fall into a river red with blood. The women recount their history like a catechism, decades of workers being killed for trying to form unions. All for the sake of coffee.
Visiting a coffee shop in Seattle more than a decade later, I look at the menu: flavored lattes, mochas, cappuccinos. Three columns follow the type of drink: size, price, calories. There should be a fourth: the cost in blood.
Scotts Valley, California
Hours before our wedding, my fiancé and I were crouched over a stack of index cards, reworking the seating chart for the umpteenth time. My parents were out making their way down a list of tasks I’d assigned them, but my future in-laws were off the hook. My fiancé had asked that his parents not be given any wedding-prep duties. They wanted to spend time with their out-of-town relatives, who had traveled far for our special day.
So I was surprised when his parents and sister interrupted our card-sorting to bring my fiancé a coffee. His dad smiled brightly and held out the steaming cup. “I thought you could use this,” he said. I waited for his mom or sister to present a second cup to me, but there was none.
“Thanks for the coffee,” I said.
The looks on their faces were not nearly embarrassed nor sheepish enough to satisfy me. My fiancé said nothing.
The truth is, I didn’t even like coffee. I preferred Diet Pepsi. But they didn’t know that. On a visit to my future in-laws’ home, I’d learned they frowned upon soda, so I had sipped coffee in silence, not wanting to add to the list of things that made me not quite cultured enough.
In that moment before the wedding, I experienced a feeling of dread. I told myself I was marrying my fiancé, not his family, and that they were generous in other ways. But I couldn’t forget how my fiancé had done nothing to alleviate my discomfort or show he was willing to shift his allegiance from his family to me. He didn’t even offer to share his coffee. That sense of foreboding hung over an otherwise splendid day.
Twenty years later, what I now think of as the “coffee incident” remains the first of many times I should have trusted my instincts.
From 1989 to 2007 my parents owned five Dunkin’ Donuts locations in Philadelphia. My dad was the general manager, and my mom handled the books and ran one of the shops. The other four were each run by an aunt, and various uncles worked as overnight bakers or delivery drivers. My siblings and I filled in wherever someone needed a body.
It was 1999 when I first donned the branded visor, polo shirt, and chinos. Folks were delighted by the sight of an eight-year-old working a cash register and asking how they liked their coffee: Skim milk, whole, or half-and-half? Sugar, Equal, or Sweet’n Low? And that was just the coffee. I hadn’t even started on the doughnuts.
Each day had a morning rush, a lunch rush, and then hours of mind-numbing lulls before it was time to go home. I remember the smell of my uniform by day’s end: an earthy, sweet, sweaty odor, like I had been dipped in a vat of spent coffee grounds, dumpster doughnuts, and bacon grease. Our parents would drive from store to store to round up my siblings and me. The smell started to linger in the family car, too.
By the time my parents sold the stores, people’s coffee tastes started pivoting from Dunkin’s dirty dishwater to Starbucks’ burned dirt broth. In response to Starbucks’ gaining market share, Dunkin’ Donuts had come up with the tagline “America Runs on Dunkin’.” I know it was just marketing, but I always felt like that ad campaign was honoring my immigrant parents and their place in this country.
The single-engine bush plane that flies to Alaska’s Kahiltna base camp has a strict baggage-weight limit. You can bring only so much, and there’s no popping into the corner store once you’re in that colorful tent city of mountain climbers.
I decided to pack only tea, because tea leaves are lighter than coffee grounds. I also had a notion that giving up coffee would improve my life in some undefinable way.
The rhythm of life on a glacier consists of long periods of waiting out the snow, interspersed with intense days of climbing. All in all my partner and I saw fewer than five decent climbing days in our two weeks on the Alaska Range. For the rest of the trip, with nowhere to go but our tent, I had plenty of time to reconsider my decision to bring only tea. After a couple of storm-bound days I realized that giving up coffee had been a fool’s choice.
Luckily Kahiltna is one of the most international places on Earth, with climbing teams from around the globe constantly arriving and departing. Several of those departing teams were willing to donate their leftover coffee to a hard-up fellow climber. I made a vow never again to question the simple joy coffee provides.
Foods with caffeine, a compound of methylxanthine, cause painful breast lumps in some women, and I am one of them. I have a family history of fatal breast cancer, so the lumps, though benign, are not worth the pain and worry.
Last year a mammogram detected a lump. Because of COVID staffing and supply-chain shortages, getting confirmation that it was benign — though a type that could become malignant — took almost six months: six months of anxiety, increased self-exams, blood tests for genetic counseling, and wondering why, in my sixties, I must continue running on this mad gerbil wheel of vigilance.
I’ve convinced my oncologist and my health insurance to approve a bilateral mastectomy, which will decrease my risk of breast cancer by 90 percent. An added benefit will be never having to undergo a mammogram again. But, honestly, my first thought when it was approved? I can finally enjoy a cup of coffee.
I came to Armenia to connect with my cultural heritage, to practice the language, and also to learn how to read coffee grounds. I’d taught myself to read palms and tarot cards, but for some reason I felt the tradition of coffee-ground reading couldn’t be self-taught.
A few days after arriving in the motherland, I pointed to my host mom’s coffee cup and tried to ask in Armenian if she knew how to read the grounds. Something must have gotten lost in translation because she thought I was offering to read her grounds, and she excitedly handed me her cup.
Not wanting to make a bad impression, I investigated the contents. Squinting at the swirling brown bits, I started seeing images: an evergreen, a mountain. With the help of Google Translate, I told her that, like the evergreen, she was rooted to her home and had survived many harsh winters, maintaining her green while other trees had not. And I said that, like a mountain, she was strong and solitary.
She was quite moved and revealed that her husband had moved to Russia, and she had stayed behind and raised her two children on her own. As she hugged me tight, I thought about the broader history of the region: the catastrophic earthquake her town had experienced in the 1980s, the end of Soviet control and the birth of the Republic of Armenia in the early 1990s, and the lingering trauma of the Armenian genocide.
I’ve read her coffee grounds many times since, as I strive to stay connected to this culture that both is and isn’t mine.
I grew up in the Folgers era, and though I preferred hot chocolate, with enough milk and sugar I could drink a cup of coffee at the age of ten. It made me feel grown-up.
In college I started doing cocaine and crystal meth and went on a five-day speed binge in my freshman year. But for late-night study sessions the poor man’s speed was the better answer. Coffee was no longer about feeling grown-up. It was all about staying awake. Carrows Restaurant was open twenty-four hours, and my leather-jacketed, spiky-haired friends and I would watch the sun rise while delivering rapid-fire critiques about the state of America.
In my last year at the University of California, Berkeley, my girlfriend took me to a cafe where she handed me a ceramic mug as big around as a grapefruit and topped with white foam. “You have to try one of these white mochas,” she said. I grasped the mug with both hands, slurped, and tasted chocolate with just a hint of coffee flavor. My childhood love of hot chocolate met my college-student need for caffeine. I quickly became a convert to the Peet’s Coffee philosophy: all coffee should be roasted dark and made with exactly two tablespoons of fresh grounds per six ounces of water.
A year after I’d graduated, multiple sclerosis began to steal my mobility. Over the next thirty years I progressed from limping, to walking with a cane, to shuffling along behind a walker, and finally to using a wheelchair most of the time. By the time I was forty-nine, I had to quit working. I needed naps every day, in addition to twelve hours of sleep at night. No amount of coffee would keep me awake.
Today, at fifty-seven, I can barely stand without holding on to something. Mornings are when I’m at my strongest. I grip the table for balance and pour water into the French-press coffee maker. The small pile of grounds unfolds like a flower blooming. I breathe in the aroma that rises on wisps of steam, and pleasure courses through my broken neural network.
I have poor bladder control, which caffeine only makes worse. I’ve had to give up walks on the beach, going to places that have stairs, sex — so many things — but I won’t give up coffee. I don’t care if it makes me pee. I don’t care if I can barely afford it. Although I haven’t shot drugs since 1986, I’m still a speed freak.
James Coyote Norris
Fort Bragg, California
It didn’t matter that the coffee was free in the break room; I wasn’t going to drink it. To my mind, if I did, I’d become one of them: a career office worker. Coffee was the fuel that kept the white-collar treadmill going, and twenty-eight-year-old me was determined not to hop on.
I slumped in my chair one morning under the bright office lights. In front of me were twelve neatly stacked piles of paper. To my right, a box of paper clips. My job was to take one sheet from the top of each pile, then paper-clip the sheets together. That was it. For eight hours.
I cursed myself for having had too many beers the night before. Not only was I nursing a hangover, but I didn’t even have enough change in my pocket to buy a soda from the machine. When was I going to get my act together? It had been four years since I’d left my teaching job to write, and I had virtually nothing to show for it except a succession of mind-numbing temp jobs. My peers were pursuing graduate degrees or firmly entrenched in careers, and here I was, collating paper for minimum wage.
Not wanting to bum change from a coworker, I decided to forgo my morning Sprite. On my break I plopped down in the break room, side-eyeing the employees as they refilled their mugs. Why didn’t companies provide any other beverage for free?
I needed something.
I waited for the crowd to disperse, then picked out a mug, dumped in a bunch of cream and sugar, and poured my first-ever cup of coffee.
Back at my workspace I was surprised to find it didn’t taste half bad. Even more surprising, within twenty minutes I was sitting bolt upright. That listless, slumped-over guy was gone. My hands flashed around the table like a seasoned blackjack dealer’s.
When I asked for a new box of paper clips, my supervisor raised his eyebrows. He hadn’t expected me to be so productive. With coffee, maybe I could make it through the day after all.
My fourteen-year-old daughter, Anna, attends a private girls’ school a thirty-minute drive from our house, and each morning I rush to get her to school and myself to work on time. I hope that the all-girl environment will help her heal from her father’s abuse. My new husband, William, is a caring man who begins every morning with an hour of meditation, but Anna is distrustful of men in general and has been reluctant to accept him.
One busy morning I ask William to drive Anna to school. I worry that this will be awkward for both of them, but they find they have a lot in common. The next day Anna asks him to drive her again, and again the day after that.
William starts waking up an hour early so he’ll have time to meditate before taking Anna to school. Though he’s tired from lack of sleep, he’s happy to have found a way to get to know his stepdaughter. One chilly morning William tells me Anna asked him to feel how cold her hands were, and she reached over and placed her hand in his. They held hands in silence for the remainder of the trip. It seems that something shifts in Anna after that. She becomes less angry and depressed.
During exam week Anna stays up late to study and is tired the next morning, so she and William stop for coffee on the way to school. This becomes their regular routine, which means they must leave even earlier every day, to allow time to stop. I worry how this will affect William’s meditation practice, so I buy a coffee maker and two travel cups to help them save time. When I bring my purchases home, I see a look of desperation in Anna’s eyes. William catches it too and announces that I should return the coffee maker. Anna visibly brightens. The two of them continue to set off early each morning for the neighborhood coffee shop. My once-frightened child is growing into a confident young woman.
I ask William, an experienced father with three grown children, for his thoughts on her transformation. He responds casually, “Oh, it’s mostly the coffee.” But I know better. He offers her the constant, dependable love she needs from a man — from a father.
In 1973 I was nineteen years old and still living with my parents in a small Indiana town, working full-time and taking college courses at night. Then I read James Michener’s novel The Drifters and felt compelled to visit Costa del Sol in Spain. Maybe there I could find some of the freedom he described. Nobody I knew had been to Europe, so I mailed away for an American Express travel brochure and followed its instructions.
The flight to Madrid would leave from New York. I contacted Mike, a high-school friend who’d moved to New York City to become an artist, and he said I could stay with him the weekend before I left.
Mike lived with his girlfriend, Rose, in a warehouse loft in Hell’s Kitchen. They seemed so bohemian and exotic — like the characters in Michener’s novel. On the Sunday morning before my flight, Rose invited me to join her for coffee.
We sat in mismatched chairs on the sidewalk outside a small cafe. Rose ordered us cappuccinos and gave me part of her newspaper. We chatted and read, but mostly I watched people. I felt as if I had entered a fantastic realm, the passersby as colorful as characters in the books and movies I’d devoured as a lonely, out-of-step girl in rural Indiana. Except these people were real. I wanted to become one of them.
For years my parents, teachers, and boyfriends had asked why I always had my nose stuck in a book, or why I couldn’t be more like my sister, or when I was going to get my head out of the clouds. “I don’t know” was my only answer.
Now, in the anonymous bustle of the big city, I felt quiet inside. When the waiter brought our foamy cappuccinos, I watched Rose drink hers to see how to do it. Then I lifted my cup with both hands and took my first-ever sip. It was just coffee with steamed milk, but to me it was the portal to a new life.
Marie Lail Blackburn
Lake Forest Park, Washington
Living in Hawaii, I developed a preference for Hawaiian weed. Once, before I would be traveling home for Christmas, I mailed some ahead of me. I buried it in a bag of coffee to fool any dope-sniffing dogs and addressed it to myself — care of Nana.
My sister was there when it arrived. “Look what Chris sent!” exclaimed poor Nana. Then she opened the box, the bag, and the weed.
Nana forgave me, but my mother didn’t. I was written out of her quite significant will — a punishment I richly deserved.
That may have been the most expensive bag of weed in history.
I began to drink coffee when I was eleven years old, in what I like to call my honeymoon phase, the espresso masked by sugary caramel and whipped cream. I thought I was a fan of coffee, not realizing how bitter it could be.
That same year I developed an eating disorder and started to avoid whipped cream: 150 empty calories sitting atop my beloved drink. I began ordering my lattes skinny: with skim milk, hold the whipped cream.
Then I learned that unsweetened almond milk contains a mere thirty-five calories, compared to ninety in skim milk. And who needed sweet syrup either? Might as well cut out flavoring, too. I was about seventeen by this time and convinced I’d recovered from my disorder. I was proud that I could drink my coffee almost black, not realizing I was doing it for all the wrong reasons.
At twenty I’m learning to live in the middle, balancing the bitter and the sweet.
I grew up in a religious tradition that considers drinking coffee a sin, or something close to it. While I was working in a restaurant in my twenties, my coworkers discovered I had never tasted coffee and good-naturedly prodded me to try a cup. Eventually I succumbed. I took it black; it tasted bitter and chemical. I decided to treat it like medicine and quickly drained the cup.
A few minutes later I felt a nervous energy. My fingers started to tap. All the warnings I’d heard about coffee had been wrong. It didn’t feel bad at all. Soon I was dancing around the kitchen, enjoying my coworkers’ amusement. I was halfway through an impromptu performance of “Master of the House” from Les Misérables when one of them pulled me aside and whispered something in my ear. Miraculously my symptoms vanished.
I’ve had many cups of coffee since then, but none has affected me as much as that first cup — of decaf.
My husband lost his battle with esophageal cancer in 2020. Between his death and the funeral, I had to endure a week of drama from his family. When the country went into pandemic lockdown seven days later, it wasn’t entirely unwelcome.
I found myself waking every morning before dawn, hours earlier than I ever had in my life. There was no choice but to get up. I fed the dog, boiled the water, ground the beans, and waited for the timer to tell me the French press was ready. By then, the morning light had usually started to creep toward the windows, but the cold remained untouched by the old heating system in the drafty house.
The coffee, hot and infused with cardamom, warmed my hands as it raced toward my broken heart. I curled up on the couch across from the worn chair where my husband had spent his last weeks, unable to lie on the hospice bed because he’d lost so much weight that his coccyx protruded uncomfortably. His rest had been stolen, too.
Nestled in an afghan knitted in the colors of the northern lights, a gift meant to inspire hope, I opened a small, handmade journal where each day I would list things I was grateful for. My rule was three things, every morning, don’t overthink it. Coffee was always one.
I grew up dirt-poor atop a mountain in Puerto Rico. My family’s go-to drink was coffee, so much so that my mother mixed it with milk and sugar and put it in my baby brother’s bottle. When salesmen or city workers stopped by, my father would invite them inside for a cup, which often irritated my mother because she had to drop whatever she was doing to make the coffee.
My father grew his own coffee, picked it, then performed the tedious process of removing the outer skin, cleaning it, drying it in the sun, and removing the hull until all that was left was the beans. My mother roasted them in an outdoor firepit, and my sisters and I ground them with a manual grinder; we had to take turns. Either my mother or my older sisters brewed the coffee. I can still smell the rich aroma.
A few yards behind our house, under a breadfruit tree, was a huge rock that served as a pretend kitchen. My sisters and I would make “salad” out of guava leaves, and “coffee” by mixing water and dirt, stirring it into a liquid mush.
Once, my uncle offered my sister, my cousin, and me fifty cents per bushel (roughly sixty pounds) of coffee that we picked. It was hard work in the summer heat, but I remember how much fun we had: three prepubescent girls away from our parents’ strict discipline, singing popular songs and teasing each other about boys.
On the island we always drank sweetened café con leche. Later, when I met my future husband, he drank his coffee black, and though I corrupted him for a time, he eventually went back to taking it black. Now I do, too. We have a cup together at an outdoor cafe once in a while, but mostly we buy ground espresso and make it at home. One of our favorite brands is sold at the dollar store. Perhaps we’re influenced by what’s on the label: a picture of the watchtower of the iconic fort in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
King George, Virginia
Just out of nursing school, I got a job at a hospital near Seattle. The patients on my floor were mostly in long-term care and awaiting placement in a skilled-nursing facility or adult family home. They often required assistance eating, drinking, and bathing. Their families weren’t allowed to visit due to the COVID pandemic, and many felt very alone.
In my first two weeks I realized I would learn the most from the certified nursing assistants (CNAs). My job was nearly impossible without their help. These women — many of them from Nigeria, Gambia, and Kenya — taught me how to change the linens of a bed with a patient still lying in it, how to care for a rash on a patient who is incontinent, and how to lovingly redirect a patient with dementia who can’t remember where they are. They were able to preserve people’s dignity at their most vulnerable moments.
One morning, after we had finished cleaning up a patient who had soiled herself, one of the CNAs brought in a filter of freshly ground coffee and placed it on the counter in the patient’s room. The coffee’s aroma masked the smell and made it easier for us to finish our work. It also uplifted the patient.
I work in a different hospital now, but sometimes the smell of fresh coffee will remind me of those CNAs and the light they brought to their patients’ lives.
I was having a lively discussion with a diverse group of high-school seniors — many of them new coffee drinkers — when one asked me what the most expensive coffee in the world was. They’d been studying the relationship of poor countries to cash crops and were eager to learn about the economics and politics of coffee.
When I guessed it was Jamaican Blue Mountain, my students wanted to know why I thought this. I told them I had tasted it once, when my favorite coffee shop had some. They’d given out samples in small cups. It made you want to eat the beans, it was so good.
I could see the class was intrigued, so I suggested that if everyone pitched in a quarter, I’d make up the difference and see if I could get some before the end of the term. I went home with a pile of quarters and even a few dollar bills.
When I went to the coffee shop, however, I was told that Japanese buyers had purchased the entire crop of Jamaican Blue Mountain that year. I settled for Arabian Mocha Java and presented it to my students as the most expensive coffee available to us. On the Friday before break, two students brought in coffee makers, I provided the cups, and we all tasted it. They were disappointed that it wasn’t Jamaican Blue Mountain, but they accepted the situation.
Ten years later, on the final day of school before winter break, a former student appeared at my classroom door. It was Sophia, from the class that had done the coffee experiment, smiling and looking more mature. I invited her in, but she explained she was in a hurry. “I just wanted you to have these,” she said, handing me a plate of Christmas cookies. Then she excused herself.
Packing up papers to grade later that day, I decided to treat myself to one of Sophia’s cookies. When I removed the plastic wrap, I noticed the plate was sitting on a small parcel: a pound of Jamaican Blue Mountain.
Four weeks after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, I accompanied my friend Audrey there to check on her home. At the Homeland Security checkpoint, an officer warned us that if we spent the night, we’d be on our own. “There’s no 911,” he said. The city appeared postapocalyptic: no electricity or street signs; felled trees, deserted boats, and abandoned cars littering the landscape; a Coast Guard helicopter belly-up on a grassy median. Even so, we stayed.
That night humming generators, screaming sirens, and sporadic gunshots kept me up.
My first priority the following morning was coffee. Audrey rummaged through her truck for bottled water, Sterno, and a saucepan. I found mugs and half a bag of coffee in a kitchen cabinet, then ripped an old T-shirt into two squares and draped one over each mug as a filter. We sat on Audrey’s front stoop and waited for the Sterno to heat the water. When, after twenty minutes, the water still hadn’t boiled, we decided almost-hot water was good enough.
I held the cloth while Audrey filled each makeshift filter with coffee and dribbled water over the grinds. The neighbors wandered over to share their evacuation stories, exchange contractor recommendations, and drink what we offered. No one complained about the wait for a cup.
Drinking coffee was a moment of normalcy amid the chaos, an ordinary habit elevated to something elemental, another way of saying, We’re home.
Baton Rouge, Louisiana