Legend has it that an Ethiopian goatherd named Kaldi discovered coffee around 800 AD[i]. Kaldi had taught his goats to come to him when he played a particular tune on his flute. At the end of one day, he played the song to bring them home, but they did not come. He played it again. Still nothing. When he found the goats, they were bleating, leaping, dancing, full of a kind of energy he had never seen in them before. He watched them for a while and noticed they would interrupt their prancing to pluck small red berries off of a nearby bush. Kaldi decided to try some berries. Soon, he was as lively as his goats. He raced home to write a poem to his lover.
From Ethiopia, coffee spread around the world, bringing with it maybe not always the urge to write love poetry, but the energy to engage in some kind of creative, intellectual, or social act. Coffee houses became important centres of intellectual exchange. They were called “penny universities” because for the price of one cup of coffee (a penny), you could be educated by your peers[ii]. And coffee houses had a wonderful democratizing effect; soon, you could count members of all social classes as your peers. Coffee houses were some of the first places in history where people of different economic stations could meet and exchange ideas, writing, music and news.
Perhaps because people of all classes were meeting in coffee houses, with alert minds, to think creatively and critically, coffee was often met with opposition, mostly by authorities interested in keeping the status quo. Frederick the Great of Prussia, for example, publically denounced coffee: “It is disgusting to notice the increase in the quantity of coffee used by my subjects.” He would much rather his subjects kept consuming beer, he said, because “[m]any battles have been fought and won by soldiers nourished on beer, and the King does not believe that coffee-drinking soldiers can be relied upon to endure hardships in case of another war.” [iii] It’s a pity he never met up with French writer Honoré de Balzac, who would have assured him that coffee works wonders on the battlefield of the mind: “Ideas quick-march into motion like battalions of a grand army to its legendary fighting ground, and the battle rages.”[iv]
The list of authors, painters, musicians, philosophers, and craftspeople who drink coffee while they create is endless, and ranges centuries and continents. David and Maureen are no exception. Their pottery business is fueled by coffee. Its smell permeates the house and studio; it concludes every meal; it is a key player in business meetings; it is an organizing principle for Maureen and David’s days—activities are structured around coffee breaks, or, more recently, around coffee roasting.
Aptly, Maureen and David were inspired to start roasting their own coffee at a gathering of artists. At the annual pottery show in the Glebe—260 Fingers—of which Maureen is a part, a fellow potter told them he roasts his own coffee beans in an outdoor oven. But, he assured them, you don’t have to have a special oven; all you need is a hot air popcorn maker. Thus began their obsession with coffee roasting, an obsession that eventually led to the death from overwork of their popcorn-maker-turned-coffee-roaster. David dubbed that sad day “The Death of Sunbeam Big Pop.” Bach had his Coffee Cantata. I’m waiting for David’s Big Pop Lament.
Everywhere coffee is consumed, there is a ritual. At our house, that ritual involves roasting the beans, cooling them, grinding them, making the coffee, and finally, choosing the right coffee cup. And by now, we have quite the collection.
A cup with a handle?
What cup perfectly fits the curve of your hand? What colour is off-set by the black liquid? David and Maureen’s coffee cups are testaments to their love of coffee, and to their place within a long tradition of artists inspired by coffee. And with their coffee cups, David and Maureen have entered into another artistically-rich tradition: they do more than consume coffee while they create; they celebrate coffee in their creations.