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Published: Tuesday, 9/4/2012

Coffee has never tickled my fancy

BY DANIEL NEMAN
BLADE FOOD EDITOR

My wife and I always laughed at one scene in Steve Martin's hilarious satire L.A. Story, when the hipster Angelenos try to outdo each other ordering coffee. One of them finally orders it "half double decaffeinated half-caf, with a twist of lemon."

That was 1991. This is now.

Now my wife has turned into one of Those People. Nearly every day she goes to the neighborhood Starbucks and without irony orders a grande cappuccino skinny full-caf, extra hot. Sometimes it's half-caf, and in the summer it usually isn't extra hot.

The whole experience of going to the coffee shop, seeing the same smiling workers and spending a few minutes with her fellow coffee drinkers, she explained to me, "has made me feel at home."

She said she first felt like she belonged, like she was part of the community, when she was cramming for an exam for one of her occasional theology classes at the University of Toledo. She headed to the coffee shop, naturally, to study along with all of the other students. She may have been older than they were, but at last she felt like she was one of them.

I do not, myself, belong to the cult of Starbucks -- or Biggby or Seattle's Best or any other caffeine shack. I don't spend five bucks for hot water that has dripped briefly through ground-up plant parts. I don't justify the five-dollar price tag by referring to the underpaid coffee pourers as "baristas."

But I can see the appeal. The stores are attractive, with muddy colors offset by wood accents. They play nice music. The coffee pourers and customers alike are uniformly pleasant and friendly. Everyone is in a good mood. If you go there enough, as my wife apparently does, the workers sometimes know how you like your coffee before you even order it.

It is as if the bar from Cheers has moved to a coffee shop with wood accents. It's where everybody knows your name.

My avoidance of the coffee-house cult has nothing to do with the coffee houses themselves. They are clean, well-lighted places, nothing at all like the grungy joints from my youth that seemed to be held together with dust and henna. What I don't like is the coffee.

It is not that I have a moral objection to caffeine. I drink iced tea by the gallon. I am just not a fan of coffee.

Does that make me unusual? Absolutely. Weird? Probably. UnAmerican? Perhaps.

I trace my dislike of coffee back to family vacations taken when I was a child. We would stop in a motel in Marshall, Mich., on our way up to my grandparents' cottage near Petoskey. The motel room came with a coffee maker -- an unusual amenity back then -- and in the morning before my parents woke up, my brother and I would make a couple of cups of coffee. We both felt very grown up. My brother liked it, but to me it had the taste of what I now recognize as battery acid.

Ever since then, I have not been able to develop a taste for it. I appreciate how wonderful it smells. And coffee ice cream is still one of my all-time favorites (though coffee ice cream with chocolate chips is even better). But even when I try a frappuccino -- essentially a melted coffee ice cream in a glass, served with a straw -- it still tastes unbearably bitter to me.

I even made it all the way through college without coffee, which may make me the only non-Mormon in America to accomplish such a feat. When I needed to stay awake while studying or writing a paper, I usually headed to the coffee shop in the library and had a cup of hot tea, all too often accompanied by a jelly doughnut.

It was the tea, not the doughnuts, that became a problem. It was served very hot, and in Styrofoam cups. As a result, the drink tasted mostly like tea, but partly like Styrofoam. After four years of that, I developed a distaste for hot tea that I carry with me to this day.

Which explains my longstanding fondness for iced tea. It's so simple, pure, clean, delicious.

Sometimes I buy a glass at Starbucks.

Contact Daniel Neman at dneman@theblade.com or 419-724-6155.



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