I was turning 8 years old and my father felt it was time to introduce me to espresso. Unfortunately, nowadays you can’t even mention to someone that you’re giving your child espresso at the age of 8, but back then it was a rite of passage [wine came later]. Pan y mantequilla con cafe con leche was what my father called it. It was the traditional Spanish breakfast - which is still the essential one in many European and South American countries today - bread and butter, coffee with milk. I can still remember the smell of the espresso in the early morning before going to school and my mother frothing the scalded milk through a cheesecloth strainer to create the perfect amount of foam. This morning ritual was an important one for my family; you just wouldn’t start the day without it.
Soon after, I would go with my father to the local bodega [aka small grocery store] where every other father from the neighborhood would come to talk politics, job or family over a shot of espresso. The conversation would get heated at times, but eventually simmer down with a lit up cigar. No one ever worried about caffeine levels, skim milk or fair-trade, let alone secondhand smoke.
My mother, on the other hand, was more politically correct. As with everything she did, her approach to espresso with me was moderate. She was an elegant woman who would take me to the local cafeteria for an afternoon sip, and perhaps a churro if I was behaving well. Good manners were a must back then; please and thank you were a normal part of our vocabulary and there was no running around the cafe[teria] like some children are allowed to do now. When she took me with her to the local food shops, her interactions with the shop owners were filled with talk of slow-cooked meats and 2-day soaked beans. She usually convinced the butcher to cut the pork chops extra thick. Everything she made was from scratch, and many of the recipes and methods were born from community conversations, much like the ones that have taken place in cafes since the beginning.
Back then, drinking espresso wasn’t about running in and out of a coffee bar in a hurry, lamenting about nonfat milk or soy or asking about an internet password. It was about conversing with your neighbors and connecting with friends - un cafecito - as my parents called it. Drinking espresso was a break from the stresses of life; it was about the simplicity of the ritual.
THE CAFE WAS TRADITIONALLY USED FOR ARTISTIC AND POLITICAL CONVERSATION; A PLACE WHERE SOCIAL REVOLUTIONS BEGAN.
On a recent evening in Denver, I set out to meet a friend at a local coffee bar. As I panned the room for an empty table, I noticed glowing blue light from the sea of laptops filling the space; not conducive for a true sense of community. I quickly texted my friend [I’m aware of the irony of using technology in this instance!], asking if we could meet at a more lively place where we could talk, nosh and sip on a glass of something exciting. And as importantly, be surrounded by others engaged in conversation - whether that be dialogue or healthy debate. That evening, the experience inspired me to research the coffee bar and cafe and was quickly drawn into a world of information I never knew existed.
First popping up in early 16th century Middle East, the coffee bar and cafe idea spread throughout the Ottoman Empire and then to Venice, Italy in the early 17th century. London, Paris and Vienna soon followed. The rest is history. Literally.
In America, the coffeehouse took much longer to catch on; the closest comparison to a cafe was the diner, which started on a horse-pulled wagon and then morphed into the metal clad structures many of us - especially those of us who grew up in the Northeast - know. The first coffee bars and cafes here, were started by Italian immigrants in cities like New York, Boston and San Francisco, and then became popularized by the Beat Culture in the 1950's. In the early 1970's, the first Starbucks opened in Seattle, Washington and since then Americans have moved from a once sit-down cafe experience to a fast, grab and go coffee bar culture.
I can go on and on about the historical facts of the coffee bar and cafe, but what really interested me was what major social, political, economic and artistic movements came to fruition in these local meeting places. Unlike today's American coffee bars, that have been co-opted by the office worker or student, thankfully, most of the world has held on to this special ritual. Today’s American coffee bars have become deadened by the hum of a computer or the occasional sound of the espresso machine pulling shots. Don't get me wrong, I'm not attacking the occasional use of our wonderful tech devices, which in many cases have made our lives more convenient, but there has to come a time when we set these devices aside and have a conversation with someone or simply enjoy our surroundings.
So many new coffee bars and cafes have sprung up around Denver, where I live, and I now have my own cafe - cafe max. Exceptional coffee, espresso, food and decor enrich the community and interesting people frequent them. My intention in creating a space - as I’m sure is true for my fellows - was for conversation and excitement, along with great coffee.
We can extend the movement where new ideas and constant, meaningful conversations are brought about by the last inexpensive drug known to man - caffeine - and these spaces that have been intentionally created to encourage community.
Let the revolution begin!