Friday, July 26, 2013

Coffee! Coffee! Coffee!

Okay, let's get this out right away: Today's blog is about drugs.  Well, a drug, anyway. Got a problem with that? Then move on.

That drug is coffee. Would the world as we know it even exist without it?  Some historians have argued "no" claiming that the  entire push towards freedom and universal rights got its start when thinkers couldn't keep their mouths shut because of what really amounted to coffee jitters. Wrote historian Mark Pendergrast...

"Coffee... makes people think. It sort of creates egalitarian places — coffeehouses where people can come together — and so the French Revolution and the American Revolution were planned in coffeehouses."
 "Coffee has a tendency to loosen people's imaginations ... and mouths."

To which I can only add "Yup."

This blog is, in part at least, a product of coffee.  

My own coffee ritual is quite simple really. I awake with the sun or slightly before, open my eyes, get out of bed and turn on the espresso machine.  Then I get back into bed and twenty minutes later I am ready to start my day. My Gaggia is by then hot and ready to go!

Fresh beans are added to the coffee grinder's hopper as needed, ground extra fine, dosed into the Gaggia's portafilter, tamped with a carefully practiced 30 lbs pressure, inserted into the machine, then a button is pressed and the music begins. The mind awakens.

Ah, life! Ah, bliss!

As it is for most people, coffee, for me, was an acquired taste. For that I thank a certain Mrs. Collins, my teacher of art history back in my freshman year at SVA. 

Twice a week I and some hundred or so other students filed into an archaic 19th century style amphitheater where for about an hour and a half we had to sit on hard wooden seats in a stifling environment viewing slides of the world's great art.

Its not that the lectures were boring mind you. They were certainly not! Mrs Collins knew her stuff and shared it with all the passion the subject deserved. But that room was heated to what felt to be about 99 degrees -- hotter still if you arrived a bit late and found yourself in one of the the upper rows of amphitheater seats.

What to do? How could I/we stay awake and give dear Mrs. Collins and her lovely slides the attention they so much deserved?  The answer was... coffee.

This was not the stuff I, or anyone (I hope!), drinks today. No, it was dark, bitter, stuff conjured up, as coffee often was back then in the U.S.A., in a device called a "perculator." Truly dreadful stuff. But it did have one thing going for it: It contained caffeine. Lots and lots of caffeine.

Five big spoonfuls of sugar and a heavy dose of cream made it barely tolerable. A cup or two of this stuff and I/we were ready for class.

* * * * *

Europeans even back then knew better. To them coffee making had become an art.  Beans were carefully aged and roasted, then ground fresh.  Brewing methods varied country by country, but whatever the method used it was never, ever, boiled as it was in a perculator. 

It was, I suppose not unexpectedly, in Italy that the art of coffee making reached its absolute zenith.

Back around the turn of the last century one Luigi Bezzera invented a machine that forced hot water through very fine-ground coffee beans under pressure. This, according to coffee historian
Mark Pendergrast, produced a “dark, rich, complex, concentrated, satiny” coffee with a "rich hazel-colored crema on top and an
overwhelming aroma.”

A short time later Achille Gaggia developed a spring-powered machine that pushed the hot water through the coffee by means of a piston positioned over a “portafilter."  Espresso, as we know it today, had been born.

My Gaggia Classic, like most modern espresso machines, works on this same principle. And
that “dark, rich, complex, concentrated, satiny” coffee with a "rich hazel-colored crema and an overwhelming aroma" is just what I look forward to each morning.  Grazie Italia!

* * * * *

Yes, coffee is a drug. And as such it must be used with care. Coffee addiction, as so many of us learn the hard way, is no pleasure. Nor are "the jitters" that come with a caffeine overdose.

But caffeine, the "drug" in coffee, like many "drugs," can actually be beneficial when used wisely and with moderation. Among its benefits, along with the societal ones mentioned earlier, are genuine, measurable, decreases in what statisticians call "all-cause mortality."  No, it doesn't prevent you from dieing -- overall mortality remains at 100% -- but it does make it a bit less likely you'll 'shuffle off this mortal coil' at any given age.

Several studies have found that those who drink three or more cups of coffee a day are significantly less likely to develop Alzheimer's disease later in life. That's a good thing. Coffee drinkers, too, have been found to be statistically less likely to develop Parkinson's disease or suffer from gall stones.
Coffee can also reduce the incidence of cirrhosis of the liver, reduce one's risk of type 2 diabetes, and lessen the risk of oral, esophageal, pharyngeal and liver cancer. 

No small advantages the above. But the biggest benefit of coffee is to the mind. For coffee, when drunk in moderation, stimulates thought. And to me at least thinking is what life is really all about.

Well that's it for this morning's blog.  I think it is time for my 2nd cup. The Gaggia is calling! :)

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