Roy Lichtenstein, Cup of Coffee, 1961, oil on canvas,19 7/8 x 16 inches
by Daryl White
Whenever I grocery shop I’m pulled toward the coffee section where I spend quality time near the grinder. I inhale deeply, hold my breath—and float—suspended in the aroma of freshly ground coffee. I must be addicted to the smell. As a child shopping with my mother and ignoring her urgings to stay at her side, I would often stray off, following my nose to the coffee grinder where I waited patiently for someone to come by and wake up the noisy scent machine. Years later I would encounter the aroma in a very different place.
Vincent Van Gogh, Old Man Drinking Coffee, 1881-1882, Pencil on paper,
49.4 cm x 28.6 cm, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)
Escaping the heat of dry summers, my family, friends or fellow boy scouts enjoyed camping in the breezy cool of the high Utah mountains. Come morning, emerging from the warmth of my sleeping bag into the frigid morning air, ice-cold breezes would slap my face. Equally bracing were the scents of musky pine and mellow sage mixed with the aroma of brewing coffee wafting from a distant campsite. Cold dawn. Dry mountain air. Gurgling of a nearby brook. Campfire smoke. Shivering pungent pine trees. Whispering breeze. Coffee. What a heavenly immersive scent. What indelible memories! In my youth I kept to myself the thought that someday I would drink that stuff.
In the grocery store of my childhood, I once asked my mother what coffee was. “People drink it,” she said. I urged her to buy some to which she simply replied, collective pronoun receiving the emphasis: “We don’t drink coffee.” That phrase planted a seed within me, my first inkling of other social worlds and cultures, like a seed from one of those tropical flowers that blooms but thrice in a hundred years, a bud that would eventually open, a breeze carrying its scent away, me along with it.
Edgar Degas, After the Bath,1883, Pastel, 47.6 x 36.2 inches, Collection Sammlung Durand-Ruel
At that young age I didn’t know who the emphatic “we” were. Did mother mean our household, our neighborhood, our huge extended family? Was it everybody we saw at church throughout the week? Of course, saying “we” implied a “they.” For every us there’s a them, whoever they are? And then an afterthought: Who is different, we or they? I would later realize it was the latter. For we “Latter-Day Saints”, we Mormons, distinguish ourselves—and crucially also our bodies—from everyone else by what we don’t inhale and what we don’t drink: tobacco, alcohol, tea and coffee (which today some “orthodox” Mormons have interpreted to mean all caffeinated drinks).
As I got older I realized I had relatives who drank coffee. What beyond culinary taste did this reveal? After my mother started purchasing it—“for low blood pressure,” she said—and safely storing it deep in the back of a low cupboard, my uncle (whose work installing windows and mirrors took him around town in what I thought was the neatest-looking delivery truck) often stopped by our house mid-mornings or late afternoons for a coffee break with my mother. What did this tell me? My identity lessons were getting complicated.
Elizabeth Murray, Wake Up, 1981, oil on canvas, 111 1/8 x 105 5/8". © The Murray-Holman Family Trust/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Let’s briefly consider coffee itself. It’s a plant product, a mere seed, an obviously essential part of coffee tree reproduction. Yet the coffee I drink is not simply a “part of nature.” In its current and future forms, coffee is a human product, making it as much a part of culture as our own bodies are. Even the coffee tree’s reproduction depends on humans. We have created coffee—not out of thin air, of course. So coffee is as much a part of human culture and history as it is a part of nature.
As with so many things we eat and drink, coffee has it own unique origin story. There’s a coffee shop in Midtown Atlanta called “Dancing Goats.” It takes its unusual name from coffee’s origin in the highlands of Ethiopia where (as the story goes) some shepherds tending their goat herd noticed that after the goats ate from a particular type of tree the goats became super-frisky, dancing around to their own and the shepherds’ pleasure. Several millennia later, coffee has virtually become a national drink in many countries. Ethiopia remains the area where coffee consumption is highly ritualized. The opposite of picking up a coffee at a McDonald’s drive through.
Pierre Bonnard, Le Café (Coffee), 1915, oil on canvas, 73 x 106.4 cm, The Tate Gallery (Presented by Sir Michael Sadler through the Art Fund 1941)
London. Photographic Rights © Tate 2018
The aroma of coffee tells me that culture is a whole-body experience, and that understanding and knowing does not reside just in my brain, even though the neural pathways of scent recognition are pretty well known. My mother’s “We don’t drink it!” instructs me that my body is also our collective body—in ways both subtle and complex. For if our social identities are whole body experiences then identities simply cannot be reduced to any particular feature—not merely to the mental, neural and physiological, not linguistic and aesthetic, not historical, social or psychological, nor even personal.
It wasn’t ‘til college that I took to coffee myself both to satiate an undergraduate stomach and keep me awake as I studied. But coffee had more to teach me. I soon discovered breaking this simple Mormon food taboo in public served to unobtrusively let those who knew me from church gatherings, our neighborhood and family reunions know that other invisible changes were likely also taking place.
Tom Wesselmann, Still Life #12,1962 - Acrylic and collage of fabric, photogravure, metal, etc. on fiberboard
(122 x 122.1 cm) © Smithsonian American Art Museum
My career as denizen of coffee shops also began in college. Our circle of close friends virtually owned a table at the campus snack bar at which we studied together interrupted only when each headed out for a class. To this day the old habit stays with me, I still drink coffee (though my doctors have decaffeinated it), and coffee shops remain my office of choice. There’s something about the busy-ness, the low-grade cacophony, the parade of people—and, of course, the beckoning, hypnotic aroma—that affords concentration on the task at hand. Or so I’ve convinced myself and trained myself. And I still take detours in grocery stores.
Henri Matisse, Laurette with a Cup of Coffee,1916, Oil on canvas, Estate of Marguerita S. Ritman; Marian and Samuel Klasstorner Endowment; through prior gifts of Philip D. Armour; through prior bequests of Dorothy C. Morris and Marguerita S. Ritman,© 2018 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York,
Collection: The Art institute of Chicago
As a child shopping for groceries with my mother, little did I realize construction of my social identities was well underway. I now realize the process will never end. I have also learned how guarded yet permeable, profoundly protected yet vulnerable, blatant but ephemeral, subtle and in your face social boundaries can be.
Begun: San Francisco Coffee shop, Saturday, January 18, 2014
Revised: Midtown Starbucks Tuesday, August 19, 2014
Revised yet again, at home, a coffee cup at my side, August 14, 2018
And again, Dancing Goats Coffee Shop, August 1, 2019
Daryl White is retired Professor of Anthropology emeritus at Spelman College where he has taught since 1985. He continues to teach two courses he created, Ritual & Performance and Food & Culture. He helped create and continues to work with Spelman’s Food Studies program. Daryl White is also a printmaker with the Atlanta Printmakers Studio.