On Hot Coffee and Cool Pragmatism

I don’t drink coffee. My earliest distinct memory of encountering coffee was going to what passed for the local coffee shop with my dad when I was a kid. I don’t remember how old I was, but young enough that my life at that point is largely composed of the indistinct haze of early childhood memories where everything swirls together apart from a few events of apparent significance that remain distinctly in-focus. I suppose this would be one of those. My dad would sit around with his friends, discussing grown-up things that held no appeal for me, while I wandered about, trying my best to entertain myself as children of that age are wont to do, which basically meant picking up and screwing around with anything that wasn’t nailed down until either I broke it or a grown-up would tell me to “put that down”.

This, of course, inevitably led me to the centerpiece of the morning’s ritual, which was the coffee machine. This being a much simpler time, the coffee machine consisted of nothing more than a modest, square-ish machine with a single red switch, which I was repeatedly reminded to quit screwing around with, and a large glass pot filled with an inky substance that emitted a rather soothing bubbling noise. At some level, I wanted to be part of the ritual, and I wanted to show everyone that I was a “man” (I still do, but it’s a process), so eventually I decided to pour myself a cup of coffee such as the big boys had. At this point, had my mother been there, I would have likely been reprimanded and my rite of passage would have ended there, but far from discouraging me, my dad’s friends instructed me to pour some white powder from the container next to the machine into my cup and swirl it around with a tiny brown straw, which turned it into a cloudy brownish mixture that I found somewhat less appealing. Undaunted, however, I embraced my impending ascension into manhood, took a generous swig, dropped the cup, yelled, ran to the bathroom and held my tongue under the spigot for the next several minutes, while the chorus without maintained a generous refrain of laughter. Although my food tasted like cardboard for the next week, I eventually recovered, but had little use for coffee and its ilk for the foreseeable future.

Although most clever readers would, at this point, pat themselves on the back and congratulate themselves on making an astute psychoanalytic diagnosis of my lifelong disdain for coffee, this was not, in fact, my final break with coffee. It was, however, the beginning of my general disregard for hot beverages. In general, I don’t drink hot beverages, which isn’t the result of some psychic scarring, but rather a sensible function of physics and pragmatism. In this, I consider my experience as a child less of a traumatic event, and more of a valuable life-lesson.

Some years before the grand coffee experiment, I stuck my hand into a hornet’s nest in the backyard (not knowing anything about it, other than it was something I hadn’t seen before, and I therefore needed to pick it up and screw around with it), with predictable consequences. And thus, I wisely concluded that a hornet’s nest was not to be trifled with, and moreover, that doing so would likely result in physical harm, an analogy I would later very sensibly apply to the pouring of scalding hot liquids onto sensitive tissues.

Perhaps it’s a matter of physical or mental conditioning that I haven’t yet acquired, although if I ever bothered to ask anyone the secret of consuming hot liquids, I have an overwhelming suspicion the answer would be to “sip”. I have a very utilitarian and functional perspective on consumption and if I’m consuming a beverage, it’s with the intention of sating my thirst (the obvious exceptions, notwithstanding). I have no patience or inclination to stand around entertaining a cup of hot liquid for half an hour while I strategically siphon off a few drops at a time to avoid incinerating my tongue. On the rare occasion that I do have a hot beverage, my strategy is typically to blow on it for five minutes or dump some ice in it, which either makes me feel like an idiot or obviates the alleged purpose altogether.

Naturally, my position on this matter is in direct opposition to my wife, who refuses to drink any beverage that hasn’t been very recently on the verge of vaporization, and routinely scolds me for my insistence on putting ice in everything I drink, while evangelizing the miraculous health benefits of pouring scorching liquids down my gullet. Of course, when asked to expound upon the specifics of these wondrous properties, I get the same vague, non-committal explanation I received from my parents when I asked them where babies came from when I was five years old.

Having early on established my policy on hot beverages, some years later I decided to give coffee the benefit of the doubt under more controlled conditions. As part of some otherwise forgettable marketing class in college, I was forced to participate in a group project, which necessitated I meet with my otherwise forgettable group outside of class to collaborate on our otherwise forgettable project. Despite my reasonable suggestion that meeting at the bar would be conducive to the creative process, it was decided that we would meet at a coffee shop, which is the only detail of the whole affair that I haven’t otherwise forgotten. This was, in fact, the first time I had ever been to a coffee shop, which is not entirely surprising given that I had no use for coffee and therefore, until that moment, no reason to ever patronize one. This was also some time before Starbucks had colonized the Greater American continent, or at least Middle America, so the concept of the “coffee shop” (at least one that didn’t exclusively rely on a large glass pot with the word Bunn emblazoned on the side) was actually a novelty to me.

Before I became old and deliberately cantankerous (which was approximately two or three years later), I considered myself a “when in Rome” type, and since there seemed to be a fair number of people who felt that this place was justified in existing solely for the purpose of serving coffee, I thought I might give it another shake. Shortly after the added novelty of the coffee “menu” wore off, I noticed an option for an “iced” coffee, which seemed simultaneously brilliant and absurd, in that it presented the most simple and fantastic solution to my aversion to coffee, yet somehow felt as if someone had just suggested that it would be a fine thing if I started wearing my hat on my ass from then on.

There might be some special combination of heat, water and beans that makes the whole elixir greater than the sum of its parts, but iced coffee has since become a “thing”, which ostensibly means that there are a lot of people who legitimately enjoy the taste of coffee, temperature notwithstanding. To me, it tasted like bitter ashes, and after choking down half of the drink, I tossed it away, and considered the book on coffee closed from that day forward.

Maybe it’s an acquired taste. The first time I had a beer, I thought it tasted like rancid sweat wrung from one of my gym socks. Of course, it was also an Old Milwaukee’s Best, which does legitimately taste like rancid sweat, but after the second or third, it began to taste significantly better, and coincidentally, I began to realize that I was pretty damned awesome. In fairness, it’s possible that the coffee I had in either instance was of poor quality and/or I might start to acquire a taste if I choked down enough of it. But what’s the point? If all I really need is a caffeine fix, there’s no shortage of non-coffee delivery mechanisms for that, hot, cold or otherwise, and while it might start to taste better after I’ve had ten or twelve cups, it almost certainly won’t convince me that I fucking rock!

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