Anthropologist Underground

Anthropologist Underground
October 13
I'm Terrie Torgersen Peterson. I hold a BA in Anthropology from the University of Wyoming. I've done archeological field work at Haluzta in Israel, San Juan River cliff dwellings in the American Southwest, and in the Big Horn Canyon in Wyoming. I'm currently a writer and stay-home mom to two gorgeous, laughing children. I enjoy exploring the intersection of science and culture and my own life as ethnography. I also write for and You can email me: anthropologistunderground [at] gmail [dot] com.


JULY 12, 2010 8:41AM

Sacred Cow: Caffeine (not that I'm an addict or anything...)

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Sacred Cow (Wikipedia): “The term sacred cow has passed into the English language to mean an object or practice which is considered immune from criticism, especially unreasonably so.[32][33] The term is based on the popular understanding of the place of cows in Indian religions as objects that have to be treated with respect, no matter how inconvenient.”

I mentioned in my last post that I harbor sacred cows of my own--beliefs that I can’t seem to abandon even though I have found strong, credible evidence against my beliefs.  One of these is the idea that my recreational drug of choice, caffeine, is a harmless and effective stimulant.  
coffee poster
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I Still Remember My First Time
I have heard the siren call of caffeine since I was a child. One powerful signifier of status in my received religious tradition is avoidance of caffeine.  It’s not as serious as the prohibition against alcohol, but the social stigma against consuming caffeine is a strong deterrent.  As a child, soda was a special treat limited to root beer or Sprite.  Kids drank hot Ovaltine, and the more liberal adults in my family drank Postum.

As I got older I challenged my palate with an occasional caffeinated soft drink. I think I first tried caffeinated coffee when I was well into high school, around the time I began questioning some of the tenants of my religion.  Although it was exciting to boldly reject a powerful cultural taboo, I was not impressed.

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After that I drank coffee occasionally, like when I was rebelling against The Man with the other angsty, artsy, angry teens who couldn’t buy beer.  We hung out at hipster restaurants like Perkins.
A Superior Vector
Espresso bars started opening in my town when I was in college, and I began actually enjoying coffee.  It was orders of magnitude better than Folgers instant.  I loved the culture of coffee shops: the complicated Italian equipment and exotic global-origin beans; the enticing drinks with foreign-sounding names; and especially the clientele who all seemed learned and austere.  
Other patrons sat quietly reading articles in the New York Times and The Atlantic, and I imagined they were poets or artists momentarily taking a short break from their esoteric work. (Who else could afford to sit around a coffee shop mid-morning on a weekday?) It was also an absolute revelation that I was not the only person in my small community interested in global politics and cultural diversity. I loved the scene.

The first coffee shop I visited regularly provided a weekly indulgence--a special treat I could take with me on my Friday commute.  Plus, I loved entering the sacred halls of the new culture and engaging with cool artsy people.  I drank in the sights, sounds, smells, and the decadence of the experience.

One bright spring morning as I was mentally mulling over some new bit of birth order research, I was outed as a clumsy neophyte. I had been passing as a member of this elite club, but no longer.

My usual drink was an Americano.  On my last visit, a barista I had never seen before grilled me about my order.  The regulars watched, bemused, from behind their reading.  I was disproportionally embarrassed. I felt as if I had just been caught defecating on the door mat.  (I’m paraphrasing from memory.)

Barista: “Why don’t you just order a regular drip coffee?”

Me: “Because I prefer the flavor of the Americano.”

Barista: (exasperated) “It’s the exact same thing as drip!”

Me: “I think it tastes better, and doesn’t the Americano have more caffeine?”

Barista: “No.”

Me: “Why is it on your menu?”

Barsita: silence

Me: (exasperated) “Well, what do you recommend?”

Fifteen years later, and I still regret not walking out when she first opened her mouth. The episode does illustrate the exclusivity and snottiness of some early coffee bars. Only wealthy people who had a solid practical knowledge of espresso pressures and roasting methods (and endless leisure time to pursue such hobbies) were qualified to really appreciate these singular beverages-as-art.  Back then, you could identify the uninitiated by whether they said “espresso,” or “expresso.”  Back then, nobody was talking about fair trade. Today Starbucks is the new McDonald’s, similarly accessible to the unwashed masses and almost as affordable.  Today fair trade is (hopefully) becoming standard for all suppliers.

Method and Culture
After the cool kids stopped letting me sit at their coffee table, I went through a period of studiously avoiding espresso bars. I began using good beans at home and learned to make really great coffee just the way I like it.  Today I do occasionally visit coffee shops.  There’s a great upscale local roaster’s shop where even I am welcome to order whatever I like. My Awesome Girlfriend and her husband make wonderful lattes at their house, and I do occasionally purchase espresso drinks from Starbucks.  

My Trophy Husband makes great coffee at home by using really good beans, grinding them fairly fine, and brewing strong coffee in an insulated stainless-steel press. I prefer to add cream and sugar, but the coffee is also lovely on its own.  I typically drink two normal-sized cups in the morning, or I fill a 12-oz thermos if I don’t have time to enjoy it at home.
I enjoy the ritual of beginning my day this way, sharing the experience with my Trophy Husband, and I love how coffee dissolves the mental cobwebs. In winter I might have a cup of tea in the afternoon. I rarely drink soft drinks.  I really love the ritual of preparing a hot drink and enjoying that in a moment of leisure. I'm sure I need the caffeine to wake up.  

Coffee is an integral and symbolic part of the culture of our lives. Even the Tiniest Anthropologist is becoming enculturated: (yelling and dancing around indecently early in the morning)  “Mama!  Mama!  Sip-a you foffee!  Mama, foffee!  Hot?  Mine foffee?  Mine cocoa-mook?  Mama foffee, mine cocoa-mook?”

In early June, Dr. Steven Novella rocked my little caffeinated world with this blasphemy:

While many people feel that caffeine is a performance enhancing substance, the evidence has been largely against this notion, if somewhat mixed. But a recent large study strongly supports the evidence against any true cognitive or alertness benefit for caffeine.

WTF?!  Panicky, I kept reading--like watching a train wreck, I couldn’t turn away.  He lays out a solid case for health risks of caffeine.  He also claims that regular coffee drinkers don’t get the stimulating effect--their use just brings them back to a baseline level of alertness.  Was this some sort of joke? Were my ancestors actually right about the caffeine-avoidance thing?

Thankfully, Dr. Novella closed with this:

But if you do not have any specific medical condition that caffeine can exacerbate, regular moderate caffeine use appears to be safe. Just don’t fool yourself into thinking it is helping you stay alert or function better.

Whew!!!!11111!!! Other unfortunate people might have one of the specific medical conditions that contraindicate caffeine use, but not me! Now I could relax comfortably back into denying the risks and fooling myself into thinking it helps me stay alert and function better! I tried to do just that, but the research haunted me.  Was it possible that the ritual of making and drinking coffee was responsible for my increased alertness?  Was it merely--gasp--a type of placebo effect?  

I recalled that when I was pregnant I was too queasy to drink much coffee, and when I did it was either decaf of half-caff. Maybe I should at least go back to half-caff, given the health risks?  If it’s more about the ritual of preparation and the act of drinking, maybe I could achieve this with really good decaf beans?  This might provide insight into the placebo hypothesis.  Is the phrase “really good decaf beans” an oxymoron?  I was procrastinating my own decision when PalMD announced that he was quitting caffeine on the advice of his doctor:

Stop caffeine. Ugh. He said, "Stopping caffeine often solves the problem you're having. You know, it's a drug. You don't need it. It's like speed. Stop it, and I'll see you in a month."

Caffeine is my friend. In college I always wrote my papers in one, long sitting, drinking tea the whole time. I started drinking coffee just after college. My life doesn't always include enough sleep, and my good friend caffeine lets me pretend I living a normal, healthy life.
Except when it doesn't.

Recent literature suggests that much like other addictive drugs, once one is tolerant of caffeine, the boost one feels is really just the mitigation of the withdrawal syndrome. Caffeine, taken occasionally, increases alertness. Taken chronically, it simply helps prevent withdrawal.

Like me, Pal isn’t really addicted.  He poignantly describes his relationship with coffee:

When you walk into a good coffee shop, you can smell it. It's a smell nothing like the smell of the old, sour coffee sitting in a carafe at the office. It's the smell of dark, dark beans, cracked open, releasing complex odors of fruit and of heat. And as much as I enjoy sitting in a coffee shop reading and writing, I don't get much time for that these days. But I can bring it home.

I love opening a new bag of beans. They have that shine to them, a shine that is lost very quickly. And when you pour those fresh beans with their volatile sheen into the grinder, they jostle and release just a bit of their aroma. That intensifies the moment the grinder blades cuts into the beans.

It’s like reading coffee porn.  

Cautious Dose Reduction
My in-laws traveled to Columbia earlier this year and brought back a bag of really fantastic dark roast blended beans. I haven’t found anything like it locally, so I looked all over the Internet. I finally settled on a Columbian blend called Mesa De Los Santos from a wholesale roaster.  Coffee fit for saints.  I gave it a try. It’s really wonderful.  It’s rich and very dark, oily, full-bodied, chocolatey, and carries a depth of flavor that focuses your attention on the drink.  There were no Quakers in the five-pound bag.  Not one.  And there is no hint of bitterness to the brew.  It might be my all-time favorite coffee--competing with a nice Nut Brown that I get from the local roaster.  Mesa De Los Santos is what I was drinking (literally...) when I first read Dr. Novella’s alarming article.  

After reading PalMD’s coffee porn, I decided to give half-caff another try. I hated to mess with the saints’ coffee (not available in decaf), but thought I could mix in small batches until I got the ratios just right. I was really worried about completely ruining the Mesa De Los Santos, so I went back to that same roaster.  I found a Mexican Swiss Water Process decaf that had promise.  

The Mexican SWP beans are dull and matte, and they look pale next to the Mesa De Los Santos. It does smell good, and I haven’t found a Quaker yet. Mesa De Los Santos is a decadent, chocolate-scented complex and feral indulgence that echos its jungle origins. The Mexican SWP beans are far more moderate and domesticated. One might even describe Mexican SWP as reliably good but somewhat pedestrian. Civilized.

I mixed the first batch 50/50, and it was disappointing.  Not bad, but average. The Mesa De Los Santos flavor was too diluted.  

Now we’re drinking a blend of about 60% Mesa De Los Santos, and it’s much better.  Just enough more of the really good stuff to impart the memory of its ancestral splendor.  This is probably about where we’ll settle.  Less caffeine yet still really good coffee.

I’m making a conscious effort not to double my coffee intake now that it has 40% less caffeine. Not that I’m an addict....


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AU, I loved this. In SF we have Blue Bottle, and their decaf is so good, the same as their fabulous regular beans. Maybe you can order? There is also Seattle's Stumptown, and they deliver. My husband is the addict in our family, and he is also the coffee maker- French press as well.
Stellaa: Thanks! I really like the idea of charging for extra adjectives.
Thanks Linda! I'll give Blue Bottle and/or Stumptown a try. Thanks for the recommendations!
Junkie. I've yet to rid my early afternoon tremors since Silk's Coffeesoylatte was taken from the midwest market of US. Going on seven years now.
Julie: Thanks for stopping by!
Norman: What is this awesome sounding caffeinated beverage you speak of?! I'm going to look around for it here in the American West!