The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

Opinion

July 11, 2014

On common grounds

ENID, Okla. — It’s something almost as common to Americans as water, air, food or a cold beer on a hot August day.

We take it for granted — like all good Americans do — and yet without it, a whole bunch of us can’t even function or get through a workday.

We partake of it in the morning, at noon and during those cold afternoons in the dead of winter when that sluggish feeling overcomes us at work, and the need for awakened brain cells is at its zenith.

The simple cup of coffee may be as important to many of us — perhaps most of us — as the air we breath or the fast food we consume. Well, maybe not air — or french fries.

I sat down at my computer Thursday morning without a shred of an idea of what to write about, when I took a long slug of the black brew — in this case Starbucks French roast, but it could just as well have been Folgers or Maxwell House — and realized there would be no column this week without coffee.

Coffee and history are intertwined, as much as spices salt and pepper are to history.

The first cups of java — it was grown on the Indonesian island of Java as part of the Dutch East Indies — go way, way back.

East Africa, and specifically Ethiopia, generally is considered the first place it was cultivated in the 13th century. The drinking of coffee and cultivation of the coffee tree appeared in the 15th century in Yemen.

After that, coffee spread like wildfire throughout the Middle East, Persia, North Africa and the Byzantine Empire, on into the Balkans, Italy and throughout Europe.

From there, it made its way to Java and eventually to the New World — that’s us for those who didn’t pay attention in history class.

As much as some people may hate to admit it, coffee mainly was discovered and cultivated first in the Islamic world of Africa, and was very directly related to their religion.

Early writers in the Arab world noted that coffee had a tremendous property to drive away fatigue and lethargy (see the News & Eagle newsroom, mid-afternoon), and that its consumption brought to the body a “certain sprightliness and vigour.”

As coffee spread through North Africa, it made its way into the Middle East to Mecca and Medina, both places holy to Islam, and from there to Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad and into the great city of Constantinople, where the first coffee houses opened in 1554. However, as early as 1511, coffee was forbidden by conservative, orthodox imams of the Islamic faith for its stimulating effect

Other bans were placed on it in other countries, but the lure of the strong brew and its effects on people were too much for even the strongest of religious leaders to overcome.

The British East India Co. and the Dutch East India Co. helped spread coffee throughout Europe and to England by the 16th century.

Coffee got crossways with Christianity as well. When coffeehouses sprang up by the thousands in England, Charles II made an attempt to close them in 1675. During the enlightenment in Europe, religious and political discussion became common at these coffeehouses. This, of course, threatened kings and nobility and leaders of the church, who all wanted to keep down any discourse and the gaining of knowledge, since knowledge threatened their hold on the common people.

Many believed coffee had medicinal properties, and there is truth to that idea, since caffeine is a powerful stimulant and can help mitigate — if temporarily — aches and pains and foggy thoughts in the head.

This is one of the more humorous of the perceived benefits, from Merry Old England: “Tis extolled for drying up the crudities of the stomack, and for expelling fumes out of the head. Excellent berry, which can cleanse the Englishman’s stomack and flegm, and expel giddinesse out of the head.”

Much of our coffee today comes from South America, but it wasn’t introduced to Brazil until 1727.

And it’s very much a part of the American Revolution.

After the Boston Tea Party in 1773, large numbers of Americans switched to drinking coffee, because drinking tea at that time in our nation’s history was deemed to be unpatriotic.

In the 1770s, tea was a taxed item, which was imported from England and brought into Boston Harbor on sailing ships. So, in effect, if not for Parliament and tea taxes, Americans today might well be more fond of tea than of their morning brew.

So, the next time you have crudities of the stomack, or fumes in your head, just reach for the coffee pot, or buzz down to Starbucks for a little of the black brew. And continue coffee grounds’ march through history.

Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle. Go to his column blog at enid news.com/historicallyspeaking.

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