My very Hispanic step-mother from Bogota, Colombia, whom I endearingly called by her first name Edith, survived on coffee. The first thing she did after waking up was prepare coffee. She drank coffee in times of great happiness, and great sadness. She drank coffee to help her raise my two younger brothers Mateo and Santiago, who were never short of energy. She even somehow drank coffee at night, prior to going to sleep. She and coffee were one and the same. After my many visits to Bogota, I quickly learned that, for her and her family, coffee wasn’t just an energizing refreshment, but rather, a way of life.
Edith had these three red, ceramic, air-tight jars that she kept in the cabinet above the oven. Each one was a different size, and within each, she kept coffee beans, sugar, and rice, respectively. Every morning on the weekends, I would like to treat myself to a big bowl of oatmeal that I could eat while I watched cartoons in my pajamas. Of course, as a sweet toothed teenager, nothing went better with my big bowl of oatmeal than a generous tablespoon, or two, of sugar. Well, of course, I could never get the jar size right. “Last time, I tried the middle one, and it was coffee…so it has to be the big one,” I would think to myself. And every weekend, without fail, I would open the wrong one before finally getting to the sugar. Well, each time I guessed incorrectly, and opened the jar with the coffee beans, I would spend a good minute with my nose in the jar, taking in the smell of the beans and its entire aroma. At the time, I thought coffee was just coffee, I had no idea where the beans came from, that there were levels of roast, or even that there were different kind of beans. All I knew was that I was in love with that smell and everything it reminded me of.
Flash forward ten years and I’m on a U.S. Naval Warship, having just graduated from the Naval Academy. It’s three in the morning, pitch black, and I’m standing my first duty night-watch, guarding the ship. To say that I was struggling to stay awake is a gross understatement. The person I was standing watch with, HM2 Deane, a young medic originally from Guyana, asks me in his heavy Guyanese accent, “Sir, would you like some coffee to help you get through this watch?” Growing up, I had never really had coffee. Edith would offer me a sip from time to time, but my father was worried my growth would be stunted had I enjoyed too much coffee. I carried this mentality with me to the Naval Academy, and I never really drank coffee, always desiring to be in top physical and mental condition. I told HM2 Deane that I was appreciative for the offer, but that I didn’t really drink coffee. Again, in thick Guyanese English, “Sir, you’ll be able to breeze through this night watch, without the pain of your brain trying to fall asleep.” “What the hell,” I thought. I was no longer at the Naval Academy, competing against my peers. It was the first time in my life that I was awake at three in the morning, with the expectation that I would have to stay awake, guarding the ship, until seven in the morning. “Sure, why not,” I thought, “It couldn’t hurt.” My eyes were so heavy. All I could think about was placing my heavy head on a pillow and sleeping the night away. HM2 went to get the ship’s coffee for me.
By the time he returned, I was barely clasping to consciousness, praying for any situation that would give my eyes just a fifteen minute break to rest. As soon as he handed me the Navy Coffee Mug, I got a whiff of the smell, which looking back, I’m sure was terrible, and my entire childhood flashed before me. I saw Edith in the kitchen preparing coffee as Mateo and Santiago got ready for school. I remembered the weekend morning cartoon session with my big bowl of oatmeal and three, maybe four tablespoons of sugar. I even remembered my step-mother yelling at my brothers and I for using all the milk before she could have her morning coffee, and my Father in the living room chuckling. I was instantly awake and I did in fact, breeze through the rest of the night-watch. I spent the remaining four hours, reminiscing on the fortunate childhood I had, my loving step-mother and father, and the best younger brothers a former only child could have asked for. All of these memories, brought about, by the unforgettable and enticing smell of coffee.
I’ve been drinking coffee ever since. Fortunately, I’ve been able to get my hands on better quality coffee. I can’t imagine that the Navy’s twenty year old, instant coffee machine, filled with 3 week old coffee grounds, was anything taste-worthy. Since that first cup, I’ve become fascinated with coffee culture. I’ve always considered myself a man of science, and the coffee bean is nothing short of that. The variables on altitude, bean selection, processing methods, roasting level, and exposure time all fascinate me beyond belief.