The First Time I Drank Coffee
I can still remember the first time I drank coffee. I was in high school, maybe the 10th grade, and my friends and I went out to a diner. It was late at night, so of course we ordered breakfast. As the waitress went around the table, I noticed everyone ordered coffee to go along with their food, and for probably the first time in my short life, the idea of coffee with buttered toast sounded good. Call it peer pressure, call it curiosity, but I ordered coffee too.
When the waitress returned, she did so with two full pots of coffee for the table, which she left. This act alone was enough to excite me about the prospect of drinking coffee. You mean they just give you as much as you want? And there’s no extra charge? While this discovery should have been a warning sign, I took it as amazing luck, as I had only a few dollars to my name.
I poured the black liquid into my thick, white mug (that still had some old coffee stains on the outside, another warning sign) and sniffed it. I wrinkled my nose and glanced around the table. I’d smelled coffee before, but this mug of mud had a sour, acrid odor to it.
I decided to ignore this (third, if you’re counting) warning sign, and sipped.
I smiled, mostly to mask the supreme disgust coursing through me. I wanted to spit it out, as swallowing the nasty stuff seemed an incredible impossibility. But I managed to swallow. Somehow. Again, I looked around the table, this time expecting to see similar reactions. Instead I witnessed the perpetuation of a ritual wherein everyone took turns pouring teaspoons of sugar and large quantities of milk into their coffee, until the liquid resembled watered down hot chocolate. Ohhh, I thought. I was doing it wrong! I followed suit until my own drink tasted like a coffee-flavored milkshake. It still was mostly unpleasant, but at least I didn’t feel the need to spit it out when I drank it. Maybe I was supposed to eat something sweet while I drank it, I thought.
For the next decade, I thought that’s what coffee was supposed to taste like. I had often wondered why anyone with half a brain would consume something that required tons of milk and sugar to be drinkable, but of course I too continued to guzzle the stuff, so I didn’t dwell long on it.
This unfortunate story plays out daily for new initiates in the coffee world. They are brought up believing that coffee is supposed to be bitter, sour, and acidic. When confronted with this gross beverage, most people simply retreat.
Many years later, after having a small family reunion, my cousin and his wife sent me a French Press and some coffee beans (from Brooklyn if I remember correctly) as a thank you. At the time I didn’t have any other fancy equipment, so I ground the beans in a small spice grinder I had on hand. I looked up a couple videos on YouTube to figure out how much coffee to add to the pot (again, I had no scale, so scoopfuls had to do, however inexact), and how long to steep the coffee.
I remember feeling inadequately prepared, which is strange when doing something as commonplace as brewing coffee. But there it was. I was worried. The videos I had watched, they sounded so serious. They talked of exact weights and grind consistency. They spoke of water temperature and over-extraction. It reminded me of science textbooks I had read in high school.
Still, I forged ahead. It wasn’t perfect, and I certainly didn’t follow the directions to the letter, but you know what? That coffee was fantastic. It was transcendent. It was mind-blowing!
I had no idea coffee could be smooth. There was not one iota of my being that could have ever considered tasting hints of chocolate and hazelnut in a cup of coffee without that coffee having been flavored with those things.
My eyes were open. After decades of drinking the stuff, I had finally discovered coffee.