Kant’s coffee

At the beginning of the last year of his life, he fell into a custom of taking, immediately after dinner, a cup of coffee, especially on those days when it happened that I was of his party. And such was the importance that he attached to his little pleasure that he would even make a memorandum beforehand, in the blank paper book that I had given him, that on the next day I was to dine with him, and consequently “that there was to be coffee.” Sometimes in the interest of conversation, the coffee was forgotten, but not for long. He would remember and with the querulousness of old age and infirm health would demand that coffee be brought “upon the spot.” Arrangements had always been made in advance, however; the coffee was ground, and the water was boiling: and in the very moment the word was given, the servant shot in like an arrow and plunged the coffee into the water. All that remained, therefore, was to give it time to boil up. But this trifling delay seemed unendurable to Kant. If it were said, “Dear Professor, the coffee will be brought up in a moment,” he would say, “Will be! There’s the rub, that it only will be.” Then he would quiet himself with a stoical air, and say, “Well, one can die after all; it is but dying; and in the next world, thank God, there is no drinking of coffee and consequently no waiting for it.”

When at length the servant’s steps were heard upon the stairs, he would turn round to us, and joyfully call out: “Land, land! my dear friends, I see land.”

This anecdote of Thomas de Quincey’s is from William H. Ukers’s All About Coffee (1922). Ukers introduces the quote: “In his old age, Immanuel Kant, the great metaphysician, became extremely fond of coffee; and Thomas de Quincey relates a little incident showing Kant’s great eagerness for the after-dinner cup.”

Taking Tea with Gordon Lish

Ready? I take my tea bag (or you take your teaspoon), one bag or one spoon for each five ounces of water, which is cold when I start and boiling up a rumpus before I pour, which I do, into a teapot that’s already hot, which condition of temperature is crucial.

 

So I pour furiously boiling water into good and hot teapot over bags or over loose tea or over bags or over tea bomb, slam top down, wrap entire business in dish towel, which is what I saw my mother do during the blizzard of ’46 and it made a tremendous impression on me, she being my mother and all. I understand some people are willing to buy a tea cosy—but, so far as I’m concerned, you’ve got to draw the line somewhere.

 

Anyhow, it sits for five minutes—you know, it steeps. If the waiting makes you edgy, go fold some paper bags. The next step is the last step, which is to hurry up and divide the product from its makings. Well, truth to tell, there is one more step—but that’s drinking it, drinking tea—which is a step I’m going to get around to, all in good time. When coffee scoots up over a sawbuck a can.

From Gordon Lish’s 1977 piece in The New York Times, “A Teaser on Tea, with a Footnote on Bags.” By way of context for that last line: the price of coffee soared in 1977 after a harsh freeze killed Brazilian crops. High coffee prices led to a coffee boycott. And tea drinking.

Coffee or tea? (Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon)

Mason is trying to wake up. The nearest coffee is in the cook-tent. “Pray you,” he whispers, “try not to be so damn’d,— did I say damn’d? I meant so fucking chirpy all the time, good chap, good chap,” stumbling out of the Tent trying to get his Hair into some kind of Queue. The Coffee is brew’d with the aid of a Fahrenheit’s Thermometer, unmark’d save at one place, exactly halfway between freezing and boiling, at 122°, where upon the Wood a small Arrow is inscrib’d, pointing at a Scratch across the glass Tube. ’Tis at this Temperature that the water receives the ground Coffee, the brew being stirr’d once or twice, the Pot remov’d from the fire, its Decoction then proceeding. Tho’ clarifying may make sense in London, out here ’tis a luxury, nor are there always Egg-shells to hand. If tasted early, Dixon has found, the fine suspended matter in the coffee lends it an undeniable rustick piquance. Later in the Pot, the Liquid charring itself toward Vileness appeals more to those looking for bodily stimuli,— like Dixon, who is able to sip the most degradedly awful pot’s-end poison and yet beam like an Idiot, “Mm-m m! Best Jamoke west o’ the Alleghenies!”— a phrase Overseer Barnes utters often, tho’ neither Surveyor quite understands it, especially as the Party are yet east of the Alleghenies. Howbeit, at this point in a Pot’s life-cycle, Mason prefers to switch over to Tea, when it is Dixon’s turn to begin shaking his head.

“Can’t understand how anyone abides that stuff.”

“How so?” Mason unable not to react.

“Well, it’s disgusting, isn’t it? Half-rotted Leaves, scalded with boiling Water and then left to lie, and soak, and bloat?”

“Disgusting? this is Tea, Friend, Cha,— what all tasteful London drinks,— that,” pollicating the Coffee-Pot, is what’s disgusting.”

“Au contraire,” Dixon replies, “Coffee is an art, where precision is all,— Water-Temperature, mean particle diameter, ratio of Coffee to Water or as we say, CTW, and dozens more Variables I’d mention, were they not so clearly out of thy technical Grasp,— ”

“How is it,” Mason pretending amiable curiosity, “that of each Pot of Coffee, only the first Cup is ever worth drinking,— and that, by the time I get to it, someone else has already drunk it?”

Dixon shrugs. “You must improve your Speed . . . ? As to the other, why aye, only the first Cup’s any good, owing to Coffee’s Sacramental nature, the Sacrament being Penance, entirely absent from thy sunlit World of Tay,— whereby the remainder of the Pot, often dozens of cups deep, represents the Price for enjoying that first perfect Cup.”

“Folly,” gapes Mason. “Why, ev’ry cup of Tea is perfect . . . ?”

“For what? curing hides?”

From chapter 48 of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Mason & Dixon.

A Coffee Thesaurus

A COFFEE THESAURUS — From William H. Ukers’s All About Coffee (1922)

Encomiums and descriptive phrases applied to the plant, the berry, and the beverage

The Plant

The precious plant
This friendly plant
Mocha’s happy tree
The gift of Heaven
The plant with the jessamine-like flowers
The most exquisite perfume of Araby the blest
Given to the human race by the gift of the Gods

The Berry

The magic bean
The divine fruit
Fragrant berries
Rich, royal berry
Voluptuous berry
The precious berry
The healthful bean
The Heavenly berry
The marvelous berry
This all-healing berry
Yemen’s fragrant berry
The little aromatic berry
Little brown Arabian berry
Thought-inspiring bean of Arabia
The smoking, ardent beans Aleppo sends
That wild fruit which gives so beloved a drink

The Beverage

Nepenthe
Festive cup
Juice divine
Nectar divine
Ruddy mocha
A man’s drink
Lovable liquor
Delicious mocha
The magic drink
This rich cordial
Its stream divine
The family drink
The festive drink
Coffee is our gold
Nectar of all men
The golden mocha
This sweet nectar
Celestial ambrosia
The friendly drink
The cheerful drink
The essential drink
The sweet draught
The divine draught
The grateful liquor
The universal drink
The American drink
The amber beverage
The convivial drink
The universal thrill
King of all perfumes
The cup of happiness
The soothing draught
Ambrosia of the Gods
The intellectual drink
The aromatic draught
The salutary beverage
The good-fellow drink
The drink of democracy
The drink ever glorious
Wakeful and civil drink
The beverage of sobriety
A psychological necessity
The fighting man’s drink
Loved and favored drink
The symbol of hospitality
This rare Arabian cordial
Inspirer of men of letters
The revolutionary beverage
Triumphant stream of sable
Grave and wholesome liquor
The drink of the intellectuals
A restorative of sparkling wit
Its color is the seal of its purity
The sober and wholesome drink
Lovelier than a thousand kisses
This honest and cheering beverage
A wine which no sorrow can resist
The symbol of human brotherhood
At once a pleasure and a medicine
The beverage of the friends of God
The fire which consumes our griefs
Gentle panacea of domestic troubles
The autocrat of the breakfast table
The beverage of the children of God
King of the American breakfast table
Soothes you softly out of dull sobriety
The cup that cheers but not inebriates
Coffee, which makes the politician wise
Its aroma is the pleasantest in all nature
The sovereign drink of pleasure and health
The indispensable beverage of strong nations
The stream in which we wash away our sorrows
The enchanting perfume that a zephyr has brought
Favored liquid which fills all my soul with delight
The delicious libation we pour on the altar of friendship
This invigorating drink which drives sad care from the heart

 

Reader — Francine Van Hove

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Coffee — Mernet Larsen

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Woman with a Cup of Coffee — Edouard Vuillard