Kathy Riordan

Kathy Riordan
Florida, United States
April 27
One woman's view of life and the universe. Follow @katriord on Twitter.


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JUNE 15, 2010 10:59AM

The Smell of Sin

Rate: 45 Flag



On a recent morning, my husband was waxing nostagic about growing up on the south side of Chicago, recalling the memory of his mother grinding fresh coffee every morning pouring beans into a built-in mechanical grinder in their kitchen.

I could conjure up that smell, put myself in that kitchen--a kitchen I'd never seen, never set foot inside, a life I'd never lived--and I could imagine the child who became my husband savoring that memory and storing it permanently to recall several decades later. 

Then it occurred to me this wasn't a memory I shared.

For those of us who grew up in a culture where drinking coffee was considered a sin, the mere smell of it conjured up thoughts of evil and sinfulness at worst and inability to exercise a life of moderation and health at best.

The only times I recall smelling it as a child were outside my own home, in one of three possible scenarios:  (1) Having an overnight sleepover at a friend's house whose parents drank coffee, (2)  Next door at my grandparents' house, or (3)  In a soapy diner somewhere, where the coffee always smelled vaguely of dishwater, those days made in a percolator.

Standing at the kitchen sink of one of those diners at the age of fourteen washing dishes didn't enhance the appeal.  To this day, I can smell the coffee grounds I rinsed down the drain with hot water and chemicals, standing there with curlers in my hair after school trying to make some extra money to help the family meet expenses.

My great-aunts on my mother's side all drank Postum, the drink of choice for those Mormon converts who'd given up coffee when it became proscribed, and it didn't entice.  My British great-grandmother drank tea, a proper tea in her home with cakes in the afternoon, and I knew that was also sin but somehow less dark than coffee, watered down, slightly more acceptable for an elderly Englishwoman who'd left her homeland as a teen and been transplanted in Wyoming sagebrush.

It was a curious thing to always associate that smell with sin.  We did the same with wine, of course, and any liquor, including the dandelion wine my grandfather made next door or the cans of beer he kept in his refrigerator to be hospitable, along with dishes of popcorn and peanuts and licorice everywhere for those who dropped in unannounced.

It made for quite a disconnect when I moved to the midwest in my twenties, into the land of Lake Wobegon's Lutherans and Andrew Greeley's Catholics who thought nothing of a good cup of coffee and still went to church on Sunday.  The first time I saw a Lutheran minister drinking alcohol I was sure I'd faint.  I'd moved from a culture where those things were considered sins to a place they weren't, except for the actions that might come from abusing them, and the only sin associated with coffee was how some people brewed it.

It was nothing to see a keg popped after a mass or under a festival tent, nothing that inspired any disconnect in anyone's mind between saint and sinner.

Coffee was simply a given.  It might as well have been fruit cocktail or potato salad.  It was considered one of those things that people associated with the bounty and richness of life, fruits of the harvest, gifts of the kitchen, the smell of hearth and home and happiness. 

I'm reminded that many religious cultures have health laws, things forbidden by tradition, considered scandalous if consumed, and that the religion of my childhood was not unique in that regard.  It could be shellfish, it could be pork, it could be alcohol, it could be any one of a number of things that others regard as perfectly benign or one of life's great pleasures.

I grew up in a place of green Jell-O and ice cream, hot chocolate and church suppers.

And the smell of sin, vanished in the ether.


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I hope you at least had the smell of bacon in the mornings. Coffee, yes, but smoky, fatty, porky fragrances came to me later in life.
definitely an article that Howard Schultz should read...
This is one of my favorites of yours. I like when you reflect. Why was coffee a sin?

This paragraph is very, very good:

I could conjure up that smell, put myself in that kitchen--a kitchen I'd never seen, never set foot inside, a life I'd never lived--and I could imagine the child who became my husband savoring that memory and storing it permanently to recall several decades later.
Never been a big fan of drinking coffee, but I can appreciate the smell of it. My husband and I stiull talk about the sip of wine we had at our wedding. I was expecting regular wine. It was like drinking moonshine. We both turned red. 21 years later we still remember Monsignor's 'wine'. R
Growing up in Turkey, I wasn't allowed to drink Turkish coffee, which was the only coffee available at the time. It was considered a rite of passage to consume one's first cup at age 16. Tea, on the other hand is a national drink and even at age 7 it was part of my breakfast.
Enjoyable piece, Kathy. R
I prefer my Sin dark and bold, with a touch of real cream. I'd totally forgotten about those times when coffee was verboten. I think I'll grab a cup now, just to be devilish.
Yes, amazing what become 'sins' isn't it? A group around here always thought dancing was a complete sin, which always made me shake my head. The smell of coffee is part of the background of my life. I never considered anyone would think of that common drink as sinful. By the way, Postum IS a sin. I drank that stuff when I was a hippie and it blows.
How I love this._r
I thought coffee was some kind of exotic wonder until I got pregnant the first time and the smell ... oh my GOD .. .the smell ... made me sooooooooooooooooooooo sick. Haven't touched it since.
Like Caroline, I'd like to know more abt coffee-sin.
I am a SINNER, big time. Coffee is my favorite VICE. Ha. Thanks for the great post. R
For those unfamiliar with the prohibition of coffee in Mormonism, I have hyperlinked to the Wikipedia article on the Word of Wisdom within the body of the post above, and will link it here: Word of Wisdom
What's left of my family is from around Bridgeport in South Chicago, so I can empathize with your hubby.

I haven't been back there for years (queer chicks aren't big favorites in Sicilian households), but I still remember the smell of coffee and all the "gumbas" sitting around drinking espresso.

Your post does help explain why there aren't many Sicilian Mormons, though! :~)
I can understand why alcohol might be considered a sin, making you do bad things you could blame on it. Coffee just makes you want a piece of pie. Or a pastry. Or cake. A slippery slope, I guess.
I wouldn't have thought of it, but yeah . . . that makes sense . . .
All this rings so true. Our olfactory senses are so closely connected with memory. Of course us Catholics drank wine as a sacrament. How scandalous! I loved this ... "the only sin associated with coffee was how some people brewed it."

True enough did the strength of the coffee, increase the sin, I wonder?
Why is coffee a sin in Mormon circles?

Well, as with nearly all things Mormon, you've got to go back to that charismatic, creative and copycat founder of the faith, Joseph Smith.

Smith had a proclivity for both capitalizing and plagiarizing whatever trend was the du jour favorite of the time. The idea that Indians were the descendents of the lost tribes of Israel? Check. Terrible penalties visited upon anyone revealing the secrets of the group, ala Masons? Check. Lifting the name Church of Christ and the essentiality of baptism in conversion from Alexander Campbell acolyte turned Smith advisor Sidney Rigdon? Check.

Another trend of the day was avoiding anything that smacked of being a stimulant. Like mustard, temporarily frowned upon by famous minister Charles Finney (of Oberlin College). Finney's followers soon saw this as, well, ridiculous, and would return to the only suitable topping for a hot dog.

Smith, being inveterately curious, caught the spirit of the day and "banned" coffee, tea and alcohol. He soon grew tired of it, and drank wine pretty regularly until his death. His biographer Fawn Brodie makes a compelling case that this was a phase Smith was growing through rather than some theological revelation, and that he never intended it to become canon law.

Such is the power of the prophet in Mormonism.

Had the U.S. government not been serious about shutting the LDS Church down and seizing their assets at the close of the 19th century, Mormons would still be practicing polygamy.
It's funny how smells and the memories of them either forbidden or nostaligic or in this case both, can conjure up such emotions.
Coffee is a sin, Kathy, that's why I love it--never more so than this morning, when jetlagged I dragged myself down to the local Starbucks for what we call "high test" in my house. Rated.
the caffine is a chemical stimulant that alters how you are thinking. At least that is what a Pentacost told me.

I never wanted to be a Mormon and now I have a reason to not want to be one.

No coffee or beer? There are no Irish Mormons either.
Sometimes I make coffee just for the smell of it. Great post, something I've never thought about.
Thank you Kathy for your memories. This was beautiful. I grew up Catholic, not Mormon, so coffee wasn't forbidden. But meat on Fridays during lent was straight out, and those endless Holy Days of Obligation when we trotted off to mass on a Tuesday or a Saturday or whatever... they all have their traditions. Thanks for the memories.
Oh, the things we must relinquish to attain spiritual purity! And nowdays, we have standins for those "religious cultures" you speak of, Kathy. Michael Pollan and Jonathan Foer surely are the new culinary Calvinists, and then there are the states that propose to tax sugared beverages. Got their marching orders maybe from 19th century Presbyterian minister Sylvester Graham, who, convinced spicy food invites lust, invented the whole-grained, sugarless graham cracker. Wonder what he'd make of the wantonly innutritious confection his invention has become today.
Well needless to say, when I read the title I was NOT expecting coffee to be the subject but this was great. Personally, my whole family seemed to live on coffee. Mom kept a fresh pot brewed almost all day long.
That's why religion is so crazy.
I like this :)

We live in a fairly Mormon-dense area, and all my (practicing, temple-sealed) Mormon friends will grab the occasional Dr. Pepper or Coke, or take a sip of a friend's Ice Blended Mocha. I wonder if it's more lenient around here.
I had no idea about this. Thanks!
I just looked at the link you added and all of a sudden, I am with a friend I met in grad school who was trying to come to terms with her feelings about being a Mormon. I had completely forgotten her trying to make sense of avoiding warm drinks. She was trying to reconcile what she could accept and what she could not.

I love the moment when you are enjoying your husband's memory and then suddenly realize it is one you do not share. What a way of setting up what follows.
On Friday nights, for me, it was the smell of Burger King hamburgers the babysitter brought with her for dinner. We "enjoyed" tuna salad, sort of. Luckily by Saturday lunch BK sliders weren't so sinful...
Lance, your point is well taken about Smith's syncretization of various belief systems and widely acknowledged. There's an anecdote regarding how the Mormon health law known as the Word of Wisdom, which faithful Latter-day Saints believe is inspired revelation, came about at the hands of Joseph Smith. The story goes that Emma, in the early days of Joseph's new church, was quite unhappy with the men spitting into spittoons, not only in her home, but in church meetings and in the temple, and pressed on her husband to do something about it. Now, Emma and her friends enjoyed tea and coffee, so it is said that when Joseph put the axe to tobacco use, he swept Emma and her friends up at the same time.

Use of all of those items, coffee, tea, tobacco, and alcohol, continued in the church for some time and in the twentieth century became more strictly forbidden for active participation in the ecclesial community. It is my understanding that many Mormon fundamentalists still drink coffee because of the time period when they separated from the larger body of the Salt Lake branch of Smith/restorationist churches.

The issue of whether or not it has to do with caffeine has been hotly debated. When I attended college in the 1970's at BYU, it was strictly forbidden to consume Coke, Pepsi or other caffeinated beverages (including Dr. Pepper) as a student or faculty member, and doing so could result in expulsion. They do now sell Coke and Pepsi products on campus, but only the caffeine free varieties. At that time, herbal tea was also considered an infraction of the Honor Code and a reason to withhold a temple recommend. "Hot drinks" has never been strictly observed, since hot chocolate/cocoa tends to be the drink of choice, and the way we made it, not particularly healthy.
On reading your post I realized I might be setting up my kids for an adulthood where they write about how everyone eats green Jell-o without a care while they quake in their boots at the sin....
"Moderation in all things, especially moderation" is how my Lutheran-raised preacher's kid husband puts it...
Sin for me comes with chocolate, whipped cream and cinnamon sprinkled on top.

Yes...I know.

Great read!
I like my coffee as black and strong as the darkest sin. I didn't grow up with the smell of coffee in the morning either. My mom (who doesn't drink coffee) made it so weak there was no smell.
Great imagery, Kathy! This reminds me of when my family lived in souther Idaho as a child, my die-hard coffee drinking father complaining that no restaurant in town knew how to make a decent cup of coffee.

Rated, with cream and sugar!
So interesting, Kathy. I'll never think of coffee in the same way again. :)
Count me in as a sinner! I didn't learn to like coffee til I was thirty - but have had a love affair with it ever since. So, like you, coffee isn't a childhood memory - but I'm making up for it now....
I once heard of a guy who, when he felt like sharing his beer, would take his Mormon friend fishing. If he didn't feel like sharing, he wold take two Mormon friends fishing.
Well done and evocative. Someof us do need to wake up and small the coffee!
This is your very best, Kathy.....xoxoxox
That's something we share. Sin had nothing to do with it: I was raised in an English household, and for me, what I remember is the sound of the kettle boiling, or being told, "Put the kettle on, Luv."
The only coffee in our house was instant, because occasionally, my father would enjoy a cup after dinner.
I discovered coffee on my own, and began my love affair with it as a teenager. Now, I drink coffee and tea, but you're right: if smell is the biggest trigger of the limbic system, (and thus access to our writing) those of us who grew up without coffee in the house are missing a place from which to start writing.
Now I need a cup of tea.
One my of treasured memories is getting my first cup of coffee from my parents (well, OK, my Daddy) at age 13. I felt so grown up! This was a great piece, Kathy.
Nice, I forget sometimes those "forbidden" fruits of our early church going...Ours was cigarettes and dancing, DANCING, who can live without dancing! I get this..
Loved this! Time for a cup of coffee!

I grew up Seventh-day Adventist and boy does this bring back the memories. I thought SDA's invented Postum. Discovered beer while in college, wine and coffee a little later. When I was married, our limo driver didn't realize champagne was verboten for us and produced a bottle for the happy couple, which we had to hastily push aside. It still irks me that I let a perfectly good bottle of bubbly go unappreciated. I'm not a big drinker of coffee or alcohol, but sometimes those are the only things that really fit the bill. Great post. Rated.
In my life, being deprived of coffee is a sin. This is an excellent post, Kathy.
I grew up in a non-coffee household, unless you count the Sanka-like swill my Dad drank. I live for my morning cuppa. Nice writing, Kathy.
My favorite coffee memory(ies) are of sitting at my neighborhood outdoor cafe on a crisp Autumn morning in NYC with various coffee smells intermingling with the smell of clove from the clove cigarettes the owner smoked. I don't smoke but clove cigarettes smell wonderful. Hot coffee, cool crisp air, clove aroma, a good book or newspaper I may or may not open, while sitting across from a woman I'd just fallen out of bed after enjoying relaxing morning sex with...now that was heavenly.
it is interesting to see how one's habit could be another's vice.
I like it when you recall aspects of your childhood, Kathy. Thank you for sharing those wonderful (and maybe not so wonderful) memories.
I often forget about the strong restrictions in the Mormon church, especially against coffee.

I generally didn't like coffee until I moved from Utah to New Jersey. I was offered some on the airplane and it smelled so good, I said, "Yes." After adding just creamer, I was in love!

My dad loved his coffee. But he put in two teaspoons of sugar per cup and no milk or creamer, so it didn't taste that good to me. It wasn't until I discovered coffee's bitter side enhanced with cream that I fell in love. Great post!
I had to tink pick this even though it got Ed's attention.

I worked for a Utah company that was primarily Mormon. While up in the Land of the Great Salt Lake, they would prescribe to that "No icky stuff in the holy temple which is your body...." but when they came up to Butte, Montana to say "Hi! We missed you!" they would partake of the evil thangs, a lot of Mountain Dew was consumed, a trip across the street to the best coffee shop I have ever found(if you think Starbuck's is the best ---- people, you haven't had coffee then!!!!) and consume triple and quad shots expressos and mochas!!!

:D It was awesome. If I had known I would have found this site those many years ago, I would have kept better notes and pictures of them "making a mess of the holy temple!!" :D
Coffee as a sin. Suddenly I'm craving another cup!
Kathy: I grew up Catholic also. Religion strikes again. How someone can relate coffee to sin, still befuddles me. Then again, so do suicide bombers. R
Great post, enjoyable, well written.

I skimmed the Word of Wisdom wikipedia entry you linked to and after digesting a bit, have come to the not-very-informed conclusion that God as perceived by Catholicism and God as perceived by the LDS Church have one thing in common: both are micromanagers!

Funny, I don't think Jesus in the Gospels was so hung up on dietary and other specifics...
I can't imagine life without coffee. It's breakfast here, even for little kids. This was very interesting to learn about.
"Sin" is a moving notion, what you can use to claim to be better than others, and separate the good from the bad. Schulze makes Lucy declare "Happiness is having natural curly hair", and I am certain that Charlie Brown would say that "Happiness is a good warm cup of coffee - with good friends".
I love they way you write. Simple story with unknown depth that tickles my mind: To sin is to violate the rules in our religion, and should not move over time as the Bible remains the same. Or should it?
"Sin" is a moving notion, what you can use to claim to be better than others, and separate the good from the bad. Schulze makes Lucy declare "Happiness is having natural curly hair", and I am certain that Charlie Brown would say that "Happiness is a good warm cup of coffee - with good friends".
I love they way you write. Simple story with unknown depth that tickles my mind: To sin is to violate the rules in our religion, and should not move over time as the Bible remains the same. Or should it?