I think it’s important to celebrate the milestones in your life, be they reasonable accomplishments, or the more understated achievements that most people probably find kind of lame. For example, recently I’ve felt very proud of myself for what some might call a pretty underwhelming development — I’ve finally started taking my coffee black. It’s useful because I’m trying to cut down on sugar where I can (and let’s be honest, I’m just not gonna start eating fewer Oreos). And it allows me to play at being sophisticated (see previous sentence about Oreos), since there’s something oh-so-chic about declining milk and sugar with a “no thanks, I take mine black.” But the reason I think I’ve fixated on this new habit is that it’s a piece of the developing puzzle of what my taste as an adult is. My relationship with coffee mirrors my general relationship with food, and shockingly, I feel as though I’m learning to embrace new discoveries beyond the walls of all-dessert-all-the-time.
I can clearly remember when Starbucks came to my hometown in the early 2000s. I had always avoided my father’s brewed coffee (smells great, tastes awful), but when it was explained to me that a mocha involved chocolate, well I just had to try. It was serviceable, but these Starbucks folks clearly had no idea that for a chocoholic tween, the emphasis should be less on the espresso and way more on the chocolate syrup and whipped cream. A few years later, another Starbucks opened up literally next to my high school. Sophomore year, I challenged the upper limits of my pancreas by opting for a Venti Hot Chocolate during every early morning free period I had. (Note: this was an early but striking lesson in nutrition, when I discovered that consuming full-fat cocoa drinks with whipped cream several days a week in fact leads to weight gain. Shocking.)
It wasn’t until I got to college that I started voluntarily consuming coffee-based drinks, and even then the term “coffee-based” is a bit of stretch. My college roommate Megan was a Pennsylvania native, and so decided in our first scant hours together that I needed to be educated about the wonder that is Wawa. For those not in the know, Wawa is pretty much 7/11, only WAY BETTER. Not only do they offer a multiplicity of brewed coffee flavors (french vanilla, hazelnut, etc), but they have one of those gross powdered-latte machines. And that miraculous machine was precisely where my true coffee journey began.
Cue a montage of my freshman year experiments with the Wawa latte machine. Just as Megan had promised, the machine was meant for dreamy artist-types, with its magical capacity for flavor combos, like Irish coffee/peppermint, or french vanilla/toffee. And note the easy learning curve afforded by the push-and-hold-to-fill buttons. You could start with a 90% hot chocolate, 10% almond latte, then slowly adjust the proportions as you became addicted to the sugar and caffeine high of these artificially flavored masterpieces. By the end of that year of trial-and-error I probably would have picked the caramel-mocha as my go-to drink, which just seems disappointingly mundane given all the possibilities.
Much like the venti hot chocolates of my high school days, I eventually realized that I was basically drilling cavities into my teeth with these drinks, and I tried to make the switch to regular coffee. Plus, Megan had moved on, and I’ve realized in chronicling this she really was the tastemaker for me when it comes to coffee. She was always one step ahead on the journey to coffee simplicity, and chose black coffee for years before I got into the game. So I grimaced and set aside the latte machine for the flavored coffee carafes right next to them, adding in a couple of packets of artificial sweetener and maybe even a flavored coffee creamer to keep up the excitement of untried flavor combos. Baby steps, to be sure.
Luckily, a semester abroad in Scotland forced my hand. I was distressed to discover that brewed coffee is relatively rare in Scottish cafes (or at least it was in 2008), and the exchange rate does not favor an American in a Scottish Starbucks. Reluctant to empty my bank account on expensive mochas (and/or add to the generally unhealthy diet of delicious Indian food and cafeteria meat pies I was surviving on), I turned to the only thing that seemed familiar — Americanos. Of course, I threw a solid amount of milk and sweetener into those, since the straight espresso flavor was a big leap for me. I grumbled about missing real coffee for 4 months, but it was heaps better than the gritty cups Taster’s Choice Instant Coffee I grimaced through each morning in my dorm.
Back in America, I had my ups and downs, at one point giving up coffee all together, then slowly falling back into the habit with decaf, and eventually returning to full-fledged addiction when I started in the working world. It’s only been in the past year or so that I’ve cut out my customary packet of Sweet-n-Low, and only in the past month that I’ve left the half-and-half in the fridge.
And you know what? I actually kind of like the bitter taste of black coffee. Maybe it’s the same effect as when you start drinking a liquor like Scotch straight-up — once the dominant flavor of the mix-ins is removed, you start to notice the subtlety of the base itself. While I would be loathe call myself a discerning coffee drinker (I like Dunkin Donuts a lot — there, I said it), I can now really tell the difference between the brews of coffee I like and those I don’t. It’s not much, but it’s a start, and gosh darn it, I’m actually proud of myself for taking the opportunity to try something different.
During the tumultuous period of my 20s, it’s kind of refreshing to discover new things about myself on the micro-scale. There’s a lot of change going on in every part of my life, but finding out I like eggplant or poached eggs or pinot noir are the kind of developments that somehow offer me a bit of stability. Silly as it may seem, accepting that my tastes are shifting lets me know that change is inevitable and can actually be rewarding. Like my fencing coach said in high school — if you focus on taking small steps, you’ll be balanced when opportunity comes to lunge. I don’t fence these days, but occasionally life throws you a tough bout, and you can damn well bet when that happens that I’ll be on the strip well-caffeinated and armed with my full cuppa joe. I’ll take it black, please.