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Arbitrary Coffee: What 'Just Cuz' Drinks Teach Us about Desire


Arbitrary Coffee: What 'Just Cuz' Drinks Teach Us about Desire

Riproariously Wonderful Pleasure

A few days ago, I reached out to a local coffee roaster about the possibility of apprenticing with them. I haven't heard back yet, and per my modus operandi, I've had many an imaginary conversation with them in my head, explaining why I love coffee, and what I hope to contribute to the roastery and gain from the experience.

"What do you love about coffee?" the imaginary roasters query.

I smile, a bit sheepishly, almost blushing. The answer is embarrassing, really. I'm not sure I even know why I love coffee, only that I get a ridiculous amount of pleasure from grinding, pouring, and drinking craft coffee.

The experience of delight makes you vulnerable, and so you avert your eyes, and perhaps shrug with a grin, when someone discovers your unmitigated pleasure. The wild and abashing fact is that there is no "reason." Pleasure really is "just cuz." 

You might be able to describe certain features of an experience that you think make it pleasurable. And of course I do this in my whimsical conversation with the roasters. 

I wax eloquent about the beauty of coffee pouring as a centering, grounding ritual, and how the act of taking the time to measure and moderate the temperature and make a slow cup creates an atmosphere of peace. I talk about the aromas and tastes of various coffees, and how they make me calm and comforted and attentive to the space or task before me. I talk about how each cup evokes memories of shared coffees past, of social bonds formed over coffee, or the enjoyment of cups in sweet solitude.

These are all things I love about coffee, but these are aspects, descriptors. They are features I enjoy, and these change from person to person according to each person's distinct characteristics and experiences. We may even venture to call these causes, elements that lead to the experience of pleasure.

But the pleasure itself is utterly reasonless, arbitrary. This kind of enjoyment is excessive, luxurious. Not utilitarian. Why should I receive pleasure from coffee? I can't think of why. I can only inhale with wonder and laugh at the revelation: "Damn. I do. I do love it and it's glorious and fantastically unnecessary, but riproariously wonderful all the same."  I might even say that it's glorious and fantastical because it's unnecessary.

Just Cuz Drinks

When pressed by my chimerical interlocutors to say what I love about coffee, I tell them that I love what coffee teaches us about human desire.

Unlike food and water, which are physical necessities for survival, beverages like coffee and tea are almost always consumed for pleasure or as a social convention, something apart from their nutritional value for the body. Yes, you can get things that benefit your body from certain drinks (teas especially: hydration, antioxidants and others good things), but these are distinct from the social currency and emotional value of coffee and tea, and even from the pleasure factor.

I like to think of these as Just Cuz beverages because you don't need them to survive. They are for pleasure and/or the creating or strengthening of a social bond. What I find fascinating about Just Cuz beverages is that we find them across the economic spectrum. Just Cuz drinks may vary in quality, kind, and expense, but everyone drinks them if they are able, whether it's a cheap cup made with a scoop of instant coffee or the most expensive cup of aeropress made from the rarest beans. 

What might this tell us about human desire? I think, at a minimum, it tells us that humans need more than just the bare necessities of physical survival. We all need a measure of luxury, the delight of excess. 

I don't remember much from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn from high school literature class (sorry, mom!), but I do remember that Francie Nolan's mother always let her children pour their leftover tea down the sink if they wanted. They were very poor and couldn't afford to waste food, but the reason the mother gave for letting her kids pour their beverage leftovers down the drain was this: she wanted them to feel like they had one thing they had the luxury of wasting.

The disposability of the tea was important. Francie's freedom to be able to drink as much as she desired and throw away any excess meant she had the dignity (that everyone deserves) of being more than her basic survival needs. I think of that tea swirling down the drain as an act of protest against the Nolan's poverty, and perhaps even an indictment against the over-excesses of the wealthy.

Daily Bread and Cuppa Joe

The fact that we pursue enjoyment of coffee and other useless beverages tell us that we're embarrassingly delighted, hedonistic animals.

I like to think, too, that the fact that we like to share useless beverages together suggests that we're at our best when we're not being stingy with our luxuries, but always sharing our excess.  Luxuries are a human necessity, but hoarding our own luxuries (be they small or great) creates scarcity for others and ends up subverting our own hedonistic impulses.

We can't enjoy luxuries when we're too focused on gathering our excesses and possessing them. They become crutches that keep us worrying about future security and future pleasures instead of focusing our attention on the glory of the present Just Cuz pleasure before us right now.

They also make us insular and distract us from the plight of the poor who, just like everyone else, not only need their basic physical needs me, but also the dignity of luxuries. Food and drink often function as status symbols, and we do injury to ourselves and our neighbors when we treat luxuries as if we own them or are more deserving of them than anyone else, as if having luxuries somehow makes us more important than those with less. We rob ourselves and our neighbors of joy when we cannot share what we have.

So, drink on, friends! Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may die. But remember that today your neighbor, like you, is in need of both daily bread and the arbitrary delight of a cuppa joe, so share what you have and enjoy it to the full.