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.