In The Rape of the Lock (1712) by Alexander Pope, coffee provides the catalyst for the main action of the poem:
Coffee, (which makes the politicians wise, And see thro' all things with his half-shut Eyes) Sent up in Vapours to the Baron's Brain New Stratagems the radiant Lock to gain.
(In Eighteenth Century English Literature, eds. Geoffrey Tillotson, et al [New York: Harcourt, 1969] 573.)
Prior to these lines Pope describes the taste, smell, and visual properties of the coffee and its service, but those lines do not interest me. I prefer the location where the coffee is served. The Baron and Belinda, his intended victim, drink coffee and play cards aboard a barge on the River Thames. I have, no doubt, drunk thousands of cups of coffee in my life. Most of that experience blends, like most of the coffee Americans drink, into a homogenous memory of being a coffee drinker, where one cup hardly differentiates itself from the other.
Several of my fondest memories of drinking coffee have more to do with the location where I drank the coffee than the actual drinking of the liquid. If I take a deep drink of a good cup of coffee, like Marcel Proust with his tea and madeleines, I am usually transported to one of three separate occasions in my life when I was in a particular location drinking a cup of coffee. Place precedes the importance of the commodity in those most memorable coffee-drinking locations that include the Cafe du Monde in New Orleans, Louisiana, the Baby Cakes Muffin Company in Marquette, Michigan, and the sidewalk cafe area of La Cour Saint Germain in the Latin Quarter in Paris, France.
With only one New Orleans and one coffee venue like the Cafe du Monde, a cup of coffee with beignets at that outdoor cafe between Jackson Square and the Mississippi River remains unlike anything else in the country. I recall sitting in the Cafe du Monde, drinking coffee there, and thinking about the joy of being in New Orleans. Among the painters and sidewalk vendors who display their wares on Jackson Square, I know I can walk to one particular African-American woman's card table. She always sets up in the corner of the square nearest the old Jax Brewery, now an indoor shopping mall. From her I can purchase the best homemade pecan pralines in the world. After I finish my cup of coffee, I may very well do that. The particular coffee I drink there, however, does not engage me quite like other cups of coffee. The Cafe du Monde serves chicory coffee, and while I like chicory coffee, I more often prefer a coffee without chicory. Sitting at a table there, one gazes across the square and sees the Spanish Pontablo to the north and the St. Louis Cathedral to the east. The Pontablo and the St. Louis Cathedral reflect the Spanish influence, and the Cafe du Monde has French origins. When I think of the history of the founding of the United States and the roles the Africans, the French, and the Spanish, I like to think about drinking a cup of coffee at the Cafe Du Monde. I prefer the place to the coffee. The history, the architecture, the people, and especially of the pralines available on the square demonstrates that coffee is not as important to me as the place one enjoys while drinking it.
What remains true down South in New Orleans follows up North in Marquette, Michigan. Across Main Street from the United States Post Office stands the formidable Baby Cakes Muffin Company. The renovated brick building remains from the turn of the century, when Marquette, then a much larger town, was a center of iron shipping on Lake Superior. When standing in front of the bakery, one can view that Great Lake by looking straight north up Main Street. Beyond the green and gold letters painted on the glass windows that proclaim the name of the establishment, one notices the warm, highly-polished oak hardwood floors, the comfortable tables, a wooden bar, bakery cases full of varieties of fresh muffins, and along the side wall, huge bins of specialty coffees. I visited here for the first time in the summer with my son who lived in this town. We had taken some letters to the post office, and I thought this would be a good place for us to have a snack and a cup of coffee. Its convenience to the post office and my life-long addiction to sending and receiving letters--one must give to receive--made this one of my favorite haunts, summer or winter, every time I was in Marquette. I always get a cup of coffee, either the house blend or the daily special, which kind hardly matters. Sometimes, I sit at one of the tables near the windows when I can find one, and then read the most recent edition of The Marquette Mining Journal that the proprietors provide for their customers. Other times, I take along the novel or book of poems I am reading, and I sit there, drink coffee, read, and observe the other patrons who are doing pretty much the same thing. I know that the muffins are good, deserving of their name, and the coffee is very good too. But I like being there more than anything else. Although my home lies hundreds of miles away in Dyersburg, Tennessee, Baby Cakes seems like a place where I belong.
On the Left Bank of the Seine in Paris and near the Sorbonne, a restaurant, La Cour Saint Germain, also offers coffee served on the sidewalk. There coffee drinkers may sit, sip, and watch the parvenus parade in their midst. Nothing more perhaps conjures up the romance of Paris than sitting in a sidewalk cafe drinking a great cup of coffee. The coffee tastes better there because it is a real, full-bodied drink and better than one finds in most restaurants in the United States. University Students, models, art students, and businessmen and women pass in a continual parade that suggests all the ranges of human experience from Balzac's Comedie Humaine. One also thinks of Abelard and Eloise because the Cluny stands nearby. When one remembers all the writers who frequented these streets in the past, one also recalls those of the present who are here now perhaps, but not easily recognized in the crowd. The most popular television show in France is L'Apostrophe, a book review program, whose host determines the best- seller lists in France simply by the writers he invites as guests for his program. I never converse at length with any French citizen who does not discuss with me what they were reading.
If I write of the time that I followed the most beautiful woman I had ever seen in my life from the doors of the cafe to the gates of the Sorbonne, you might suspect that I am a perverted stalker. That, however, remains impossible in a Paris where when a man confronts a beautiful woman on the streets she never drops her eyes, like American women do. Instead, she looks deep and straight into his eyes. Once she has passed him, he remains certain she has had glimpses of his soul, and he knows he has glimpsed hers--no translation needed. But what of the coffee that grows cold on the lovely table there on the sidewalk? The coffee drinker has forgotten the coffee, because the place of the coffee drinking looms larger than the coffee itself.
Specialty coffee shops, like Starbuck's, seem the fashion now in the United States. What these coffee franchises offer is, of course, good coffee, but what they do not offer is any ambiance. They are all so much alike, and they suffer in their sameness. Even the most upscale, franchise coffee shops that offer the best of high-end, interior design remain hardly more than fast-food places that differ only from McDonald's and Burger King in offering coffee instead of burgers. All fast-service, business strategies support getting the customer in and out as soon as possible. Nothing about these places promotes staying. Realtors often claim that the success of any business relies in the two points of location and location. "Location" is place, and places can be made to accommodate humans for a variety of reasons. If a coffee drinker is in a hurry, then the fast coffee franchises properly accommodates him. But, as a coffee drinker, and coffee drinking may just be my excuse for being someplace any way, I usually want more. Pope may blame coffee for the Baron's outrage, but I suspect the company and the cards on that beautiful barge on the Thames, the place, if you will, provides just the right setting for which coffee can only provide the excuse for the encounter. If I can better understand the history of my country in a coffee establishment like Cafe du Monde, then give me understanding. If I can read an interesting book and just feel good about myself and how I fit into the world, find me reading and feeling good at a coffee shop like Baby Cakes. If I can perhaps fall in love at a sidewalk cafe, seat me at a table at La Cour Saint Germain. The place, not the commodity, determines the experience.