Coffee and the Skinny Glutton

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It’s fairly easy for me to identify my favorite sins.

I’m currently teaching the ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ to both a group of eleventh-graders and a group of faculty. Each capital vice is extremely nuanced in its manifestations and subtle in its habit-forming encroachment upon the soul. And each sin is a fountain from which flows a variety of discrete patterns of transgression. The most fascinating to me are, somewhat startlingly, the that are a little too close to home. Which ones? If you know me, you guessed it: sloth and gluttony.

Sloth will have to wait for another post. For now, gluttony has grabbed my attention like the mention of a cheeseburger around quitting time.

Happily, gluttony doesn’t simply effect people who would vote for pizza for president if they could. It’s satisfying to learn that gluttony embeds itself in the habits of the prissy waif just as it grips the hot dog eating champion.

According to Rebecca DeYoung, a professor of philosophy at Calvin College, gluttony not only involves how you eat (ravenously, hastily, excessively, for example), but also what you eat. One type of glutton, of course, eats sumptuously–that is, she eats things that make her feel full. But the other type of glutton fixates on another type of food: exquisitely delicious food.

This fastidious glutton is fixated on taste. Rather than being enslaved by the demands of the belly, the food snob only lets the most delicious things, prepared to her precise specifications, come near her lips.

In Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, the demon Screwtape teaches his pupil Wormwood how to tempt eaters who are not prone to overeating with this alternative pattern of gluttony. The key, Wormwood learns, is to cultivate an increasing fastidiousness with respect to food and drink. When successfully tempted, the ‘patient’ habitually sends perfectly good sandwiches back to the kitchen with exasperated instructions like “Listen, all I want is …”.

You can see the pride and elitism in this sort of approach toward food. The high-brow glutton says, for all intents and purposes, “All I want is for everything to be precisely according to my tastes. Is that too much to ask?”

Is it too much to ask for a world in which all the nutritional, social, economic, and agricultural dimensions of eating–in which even the humanness of the persons making and serving your food–are bracketed out? Well, yes. It is too much to ask. It’s not difficult to see the fundamentally antisocial nature of this sin, and the god-sized pride in assuming that such a relationship to food and drink is “not too much to ask.”

And so I wonder: is it possible to be a connoisseur, an aficionado, of anything, without becoming a glutton?

I am all the other kinds of glutton in my relationship to all other kinds of food and drink. But I am decidedly high-brow in my coffee tastes. Am I an elitist?

Some have noticed that in the gospels of the New Testament, Jesus is always on his way to a meal, at a meal, or leaving a meal. He eats his way through Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Given that almost everything I do is either done with coffee in hand, or done in the strength of a post-coffee caffeinated state, or done on the way to my next coffee break, coffee is part of the warp and woof of my life in a way that almost no other person, place, or thing is.

The same is true of James Freeman, founder of the esteemed Blue Bottle Coffee–a name revered by baristas here in Seoul, even though most of them have never been in a Blue Bottle cafe. Freeman described his obsession with  coffee to a group of Stanford entrepreneurs recently. One thing that stands out from his talk, apart from his touchy-feely language about coffee culture and his against-the-grain principles of entrepreneurship:

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Freeman is obsessed, not just with coffee, but with control. Control over everything that happens from the purchase of beans to the roasting to the brewing to the tasting experience of the customer.

My friend Sooin, whose sheer knowledge of coffee is astounding (she attended a coffee college for two years), is similarly exacting in her approach to making a great cup of coffee. To watch her work is to watch a careful artist demanding the best of herself.

What’s the difference between these coffee professionals and myself? Sooin and Freeman approach their work as craft and as calling. They are professionals. When I make coffee, I’m an amateur.

I am also a consumer. And here, I think, is the heart of the matter:

What is my attitude when someone makes a cup of coffee for me? What is going on in my head and my heart when Sooin makes me an $8 pour over from a rare bean? When my wife brings me a cup of coffee in bed that she’s not super proud of? When my parents pop a K-cup in the Keurig and bring it to me in their living room? When a tea-drinker serves me instant coffee after they’ve served me a home-cooked meal?

Sooin has actually helped me think soberly about all this. Whenever we’re around her, I find myself peppering her with questions, looking for tips that will improve my coffee-making, and my coffee drinking, game. I ask about coffee origins, and what notes I should be tasting in different coffees. And usually I end up saying , in a disappointed tone, something like: “I wish I could taste the difference between a good cup of coffee and an excellent cup of coffee.”

And then she sets me straight. She reminds me that I am not a coffee professional. I have not been to coffee school. I don’t make my living trying to give people incredible coffee experiences. My relationship to coffee ought to be one of enjoyment. Especially when someone is serving it to me. For her, the professional, that’s the source of joy: when she meticulously controls as many variables as possible to yield a great cup of coffee, and people like me take our first satisfying sips.

It’s true that I am enhancing my enjoyment of coffee as I learn to distinguish and appreciate more and more nuances and subtleties from cup to cup.

But if I approach a cup of coffee, made with care and given to me in hospitality, with a critical spirit, with an air of elitism, and with a readiness to reject it if it’s not to my standards, then I have indeed become a glutton. Even when my experience of someone else’s coffee is dampened by my preoccupation with my own lack of discerning taste buds and faltering tasting-note vocabulary, I teeter on the edge of gluttony.

The vice of gluttony, whether manifested in a ravenous eater or a skinny, self-appointed food critic, consists in an antisocial, self-centered approach to what is consumed. Instead of being received with gratitude, the coffee, the food, or the wine is devoured in a stingy spirit or rejected with a stuck-up lack of gratitude. When one eats and drinks in a way that fails to acknowledge how food and drink is connected to the social act of eating and drinking , one commits gluttony.

I was raised on the slogan “food is love.” Indeed, it is. And coffee, too. May we all reject the self-love of gluttony and receive our food and drink with glad and generous hearts.

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