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PAMPHLET NUMBER SIX: COFFEE

The most important beverage in my life is one that I am also very addicted to. I get cranky headaches if I don’t have it. I’m grumpy before I drink it. I’m drinking it right now (I just took a sip). It’s a cultural artifact of American life that we can’t live without: coffee.


THE EXTEMPORANEUM

a thoughtful exploration of interesting topics enhanced by personal experience and opinion; topics begin at the Theme and, like growing trees, sprout branches into unpredictable areas Africa: Cradle of Civilization

We can trace coffee’s origins go back to Ethiopia, where the legend of the goats-eating-berries was born. The crux of that legend is that a Christian monk got the idea to make a drink for humans out of the berries that made a bunch of goats jump around like lunatics. The drink propagated throughout Africa and the Middle East and it became a staple of the Arab diet long before it got to Europe. Coffee: invented by Christians, perfected by Arabs. In all the controversy and dispute between the west and the Middle East, it’s good to remind ourselves of the times we worked together to make the world a beautiful place, and there are fewer things more beautiful than a steaming mug of black coffee.



Aristocratic Performance Rituals

Coffee was the dominant hot-and-stimulating drink of England, until tea came along in the 17th century and wealthy aristocrats made it a more desirable beverage to the lower classes who wanted to be fancy, too. A common trend in European history is this: fancy aristocrats invent elaborate social performances and then measure each other based on how fancy their peers’ performances are. The finicky and elaborate nature of making a good pot of tea provided the perfect opportunity to create one of those rituals. The poor wanted to be fancy, too. Thanks to the evergreen laws of supply and demand, higher demand led to higher supply, which led to lower prices. Suddenly, poor people could drink tea, too. I used the word “fancy” four times in the above paragraph, but I’m not sure it’s enough.

The aristos weren’t happy about that, but at least they had their fancy and extraordinarily expensive vessels! You can’t just grow more teapots — those had to be made, by hand, and the best stuff cost around $600 for just one tea cup. Good luck affording a so-white-it’s-translucent ceramic tea cup from China, plebs!

English “china”

Proper English tea has milk in it. Adding milk after you’ve poured the tea is the English way, at least for high-nosed toffs. Working class people put the milk in first. The reason for this, so the story goes, is because the clunky, cheap porcelain made in England would shatter at contact with boiling water. Chinese porcelain didn’t do that. It was the good stuff. It was strong, lightweight, translucent and durable. The European knock-offs weren’t.


Chinese porcelain was so expensive that the introduction of tea sparked a porcelain arms race all over Europe. Alchemists, potters, sculptors, and artisans worked together from France to Germany to England in little skunkworks to crack the Chinese recipe. They churned out a lot of almost-theres with varying levels of success.

This allegedly changed when a man with the extremely working-class British name Ben Lund added “Cornish soapstone” to the mixture. The humble powder of talc was all it took to keep his recipe for porcelain from shattering. His factory was bought by what is now Royal Worcester, the oldest (or maybe second-oldest) operating porcelain manufacturer in England.

Eventually, the cost of Chinese porcelain came down, too (supply and demand, baby), but not before England had flooded the market with bad copies and had the audacity to call the stuff “china.”


“Coffee – the favorite drink of the civilized world.” – Thomas Jefferson



Tea

Tea is the most versatile word in the English language (except, maybe, that word). It can refer to

⁃ a plant, Camellia sinensis
⁃ a small meal between lunch and supper
⁃ a drink, drunk at tea time, but not necessarily made of the plant called tea
⁃ gossip, as in “the tea,” the telling of which is called “spilling”
⁃ a river in Brazil

Revolution

Americans don’t drink tea the same way our English friends do because, well, they’re English. We’re Americans. We share a lot of cultural DNA with our English founders, but the big divergence put an end to that (the American Revolution, you might have heard of it). We rejected tea as our National Hot Drink and embraced the hardscrabble, hard-hitting, tar-black working man’s drink. We didn’t have to go without the meal called tea, though, because it didn’t exist yet — that didn’t come about until, you guessed it, a rich English Duchess invented it in 1850, because English aristocratic women had two jobs: socialize with other aristocrats and, most importantly, make male babies. If you’re like me, you can’t even mention making male babies without thinking of the most famous Male Baby Wanter in history, the irascible Henry Tudor.

Anne Boleyn

The only wife Henry truly loved was Jane Seymour, because she gave him a son. There’s no reason to doubt that his love was real, because he was a petulant bully who only really cared about himself and his legacy, and the Queen who eventually gave him a male heir was a dream come true. In case you doubt his true love for her, he had himself buried next to her at Windsor, which is the highest honor any dead king can give to a dead queen. Henry Tudor is known for executing his wives, but he didn’t have time to get bored with and subsequently get rid of Jane — she died two weeks after giving birth to Edward, an unremarkable monarch whose only laudable act was to die young and hasten the ascension of his half sister, Queen Elizabeth I.

The Queen right before Jane was the most famous of Henry’s wives, Anne Boleyn, who was executed on largely fictional charges of treason and incest. The method of her execution is just as noteworthy as the rest of her life — the executioner used a sword to do it (most people got the axe, as it were). This is often cited as a sudden and uncharacteristic honor on behalf of Anne’s royal mien and upbringing in France (where all executed monarchs get a sword).

But count me among the Anne Apologists, because I say that Henry decided to have a sword swing end her life because of his obsession with the British monarchy that he was so desperately trying to continue in his own image. More specifically, he was really, really into the Arthurian legends and chivalry and all that (French is the language of chivalry, and he wrote some embarrassing love letters to Anne in that language). He even had a big replica of the Round Table with himself in Arthur’s seat. The prime symbol of Arthuriana is the sword, and a monarch executing a traitorous queen with a sword was the ultimate act of Proper English Retribution. Like everything else in Henry’s life, Anne’s execution was about Henry.



While on the subject of Anne, she’s just about as close as we can get to a feminist icon in Tudor England. She knew what she wanted, and maneuvered herself and the people around her to get it. She was also an intellectual who argued with Henry and won. She refused to have sex with Henry until he made her Queen, which Horny Henry respected. She’s almost certainly innocent of the crimes she was executed for, not only because Henry wanted her out of his life and was capable of doing anything in order to make that happen, but because of what she did while waiting for her death in the Tower — she summoned the Archbishop of Canterbury to her cell and confessed everything to him.

Confession

During this confessional with the Archbishop, Anne Boleyn doubled-down on her innocence. For an observant Catholic, this is the Ultimate Truth Zone. If you lie during a confession, you’re heading straight to Hell when you die. You gotta hand it to Catholicism — there is no better way to keep tabs on a the politics of a parish than by a) forcing everybody to tell you every bad thing they did and b) damning them to hell if they don’t. This not only gave a priest leverage and protection (even if the implied, icky bad juju of doing social or physical harm to clergy weren’t enough), it put a lot of power in the hands of a powerful, educated minority. If you’re suspicious of large, pervasive organizations having too much power, maybe you would have been one of those guys throwing tea into Boston Harbor, too.



Recommendatae

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How To Make a Proper Cup of Tea

Boil water. Put a tea bag in a cup. Pour the boiling water into the cup. Let it steep for as long as you like. Remove the bag, add whatever you like to it (milk, honey, lemon, whiskey). There are a lot of fussy rules, if you want to be fussy (Americans are notoriously non-fussy). I suggest you look elsewhere for those. Like here, for example: http://www.vogue.com/article/english-teatime-etiquette-how-to

The Hot Jimmy

One of my favorite fall/winter drinks is a variation of a hot toddy that I’m calling the Hot Jimmy. (I didn’t know what a hot toddy was until after I had invented my version – thanks, Lisa!). I make a cup of herbal tea (which has no tea in it) — lemon ginger is my favorite — add a bit of honey and throw in a shot of Wigle hopped whiskey (which you can’t buy right now). It’s perfect for a damp, dark autumn evening.


ADDENDUM APPROPRIATUS


Catherine of Aragon

I said Anne Boleyn was a feminist icon, but I don’t want to ignore her predecessor, Catherine. She was probably Henry’s true love, despite the way he treated her (annulment, banishment, forced estrangement from her daughter). He left her in charge while he went to fight the French, during which time she fought off an attempted invasion by the King of Scotland. She rallied her troops while in full armor and extremely pregnant, and got super pissed when the English military, fearing for her delicate nature, brought his clothes as proof of King James’s death rather than his actual dead body.


COLOPHON

Composed on a computer, distributed to the internet via wifi at a coffee shop. The typesetting always gets extremely wonky with TinyLetter, so if parts of it look weird, it’s the platform’s fault.

keep the coffee comin’

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