Good to the last drop

By Marshall Knudson

[img id=”80372″ align=”alignleft”] Last week, Tom Buffenbarger, president of the machinists’ union and Hillary Clinton supporter, made a blundering attempt to portray Barack Obama voters as “latte-drinking, Prius-driving, Birkenstock-wearing, trust-fund babies.” It wasn’t very eloquent, but then again, Hillary’s campaign has never set much store by eloquence.

Now I happen to appreciate a good latte—and Obama, too—but Buffenbarger’s derisive caricature did pique my consideration. How does coffee weave together my social and political life? Is my indulgence in smooth-blended lattes a symbol of privilege?

Dunkin’ Donuts doesn’t seem to think so: “We never want any customers to ever be denied access to their specialty drinks,” said a marketing representative for the company, which on Tuesday offered 99-cent lattes and cappuccinos as Starbucks—in an unprecedented, but long overdue, move—closed all of its U.S. locations for three hours to teach its baristas how to make coffee.

With such a hullabaloo about the murky little beverage, you might think this was an object of contention fit to grace the docket of the Supreme Court. Do we have a fundamental right to drink coffee, or is it a mere privilege in the province of the rich and indulgent?

After a little introspection, I decided where I, a coffee-drinking student with neither Birkenstocks nor a trust fund, stand on this issue. I think the “life of the mind” would be much less flavorful without coffee.

In 17th-century England, when coffee houses sprouted up like Thai restaurants on 55th Street, they were often known as “Penny Universities.” Fork over a penny, and you entered a scene of perked-up people, swilling black coffee, and pining for a good discussion. One writer celebrated the coffee house as “the Citizens Academy, where he learns more wit than ever his Grannum taught him.” Here was an open space, rife with erudition and ripe for the propagation of novel ideas. In this heady atmosphere padded with sweet aromas, philosophers and scientists traded wits, founding famous organizations like the British Royal Society.

Our noble institution is no Penny University, but coffee here still retains a bond to intellectual life. When the books have got us down, it gives us a perk up. We sip it throughout our work like a metronome, or imbibe it to reward ourselves with a break. Some studies have pointed to coffee’s activation of the prefrontal lobe, associated with alertness, concentration, planning, and monitoring. What better lubricant for the mind?

Of course, it would be silly to forget the other great lubricant of college life: alcohol. People used to surmise that coffee was a “sobering” beverage, and while that may not actually be the case, we can still drink to the news that coffee may help ward off the development of cirrhosis.

Perhaps as a testament to our great spirit of intellection, coffee has become an important step on the U of C ladder of dating. As everyone knows, if you’re invited to coffee, you need to show up with the consumptive skills to show what you’re made of. Do you sip or gulp? Do you take your coffee hot, black, and bitter, or milky-sweet? Do you go for a nice cappuccino, or a mug of Mississippi mud? Choose wisely: Coffee is deeply metaphorical from first to last drop.

It hasn’t always been this way. A 1674 “Women’s Petition” against “puddle water” complained that men “come from it with nothing moist but their snotty

Noses, nothing stiffe but their Joints, nor standing but their Ears.” The Men for their part replied that it “Collects and settles the Spirits, makes the erection more Vigorous, the Ejaculation more full, [and] adds a spiritualescency to the Sperme.”

While the jury may still be out on this one, we can proudly note that men and women can now happily come together over a nice cup of coffee for good cheer or intellectual revelry, with or without salacious intent.

But if you think the intellectual trenches aren’t enough, consider our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Soldiers have etched their own coffeehouses out of

bunkers, or even under sheds.

Wherever you are, there’s nothing better to improve morale, it seems, than some good hot java.