Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Culture Of Coffee: A Short History

The mythology and culture of coffee drinking as we know it began in the bazaars of Turkey and the front stoops of Yemen and quickly spread throughout the Middle East, Europe via Vienna, and to the English colonies in the 1600s.

An Ethiopian goatherd is credited with the discovery of coffee's stimulant effects, thanks to an especially frisky goat that piqued his curiosity. Romantic and unverifiable, the story is befitting of a subject steeped, as it were, in mythos. Coffee drinking had to start somewhere, and since all of civilization begins in Africa, it seems right that coffee drinking should have begun there, too.

The development of European coffeehouses as gathering places for people of all classes is credited with being the source of the French Enlightenment, as well as the French and American Revolutions. No longer drinking themselves into stupors from nonstop consumption of fermented grains and fruits, the only safe liquids to drink in those particular good old days, they needed something to do with their excess mental energies. Hence, the Revolutions.

Not to be overlooked in this short treatise on coffee are the coffee-loving Italians, who gave us espresso and coffee houses in Greenwich Village and San Francisco's North Beach, which spawned the still-influential Beat Generation. This revolution in thought moved up the western flank of the U.S. to Portland and Seattle, seats of the Pacific Northwest's counterculture of the 60s.

Our contemporary reputation for great coffee and avid coffee drinkers is well known. Portland, as many may remember, had a thriving coffeehouse, folk music, and visual arts scene in the 50s and 60s. Too young for most of it, I recall longing to be part of it as an adolescent and have intense recollections of its effects on American culture: folk music, Zen meditation, Jazz, obscure free-form poetry, Abstract Expressionism, and funky jug bands. (Does anyone remember The Holy Model Rounders?)

Today, aside from the staunchly independent purveyors of caffeine and culture that Portland is home to, we're stuck with the non-culture of a certain nameless coffee chain on nearly every corner. Pity.

An antidote to this numbing conformity that has recently made its appearance is Cloud Seven Cafe, a European-style coffeehouse located in Portland's Pearl District at 901 NW 10th on Jamison Square. They've invited Print Arts Northwest|PAN to show with them in September in a show titled Café Culture, featuring works of caffeinated themes from around the world.

Cafe Culture runs through the month of September, with an opening reception on First Thursday, 9|2, 6 - 9:00 pm.

Untiled etching by Helen Trayle

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