It probably wasn’t until I was nearly a teenager that I was even aware of coffee. Sure, I had encountered it before, but I doubt I wondered what it was or received any unsolicited explanations about it.
Of course I had heard the word “coffee” throughout my childhood, but it’s unlikely I ever stopped and pondered it. On a weekly basis I attended two hours of children’s Sunday School, “Primary,” as the Mormons called it, looking at gruesome pictures of people being crucified naked and learning that we shouldn’t partake of violent media. At some point during these lessons we would have covered “The Word of Wisdom,” which the church founder issued as a set of health-related guidelines that over time became very strict rules for church members.
Well, not all of them became strict rules.
For example, the guidelines instruct Mormons to eat meat “sparingly.” That one often got laughs when referenced during church-sanctioned activities where piles upon piles of meat were served. Several Mormon men in my neighborhood opened a steakhouse when I was a teenager. The congregation was thrilled with this, and especially with their resolve to not serve alcohol of any kind in the establishment. Had these same people decided to open a bar, they would have been pariah. That’s because abstention from alcoholic beverages of all kinds is one of the strict guidelines in the code.
A sip of wine can strip a Mormon of their ability to be granted entrance into a temple until some sort of repentance has occurred and time has passed, but if Lady Gaga was a Mormon she would have been applauded for her meat dress.
Although probably not as socially reprehensible in the religious community, during my childhood the coffee ban had the same black-and-white status as alcohol. Growing up in a Mormon family with Mormon parents who heeded all of the strict parts of The Word of Wisdom without exception, a coffee bean never once passed through our house.
By the time I learned to recognize the smell of a fresh brew, I was about eleven years old. Right around then my family had taken a summer trip to Florida, where we visited a ritzy and exotic restaurant in which we were instructed by my father that no one was to order anything other than water. That wasn’t a Word of Wisdom issue. It was a “taking an entire family from Utah to Florida on vacation is expensive” issue.
When I returned to Utah from my world travels, I snootily informed my friend Brian that we had dined in an establishment I believed may have been owned by Arnold Schwarzenegger, “you know—the thespian.” “You may have heard of it,” I continued, in a forced tone of fashionable coolness. “Hard Rock Café.” I even said the last word with an accent, the way college students who live in Paris for a study abroad program do after they return and find reasons to reference croissants.
Brian’s eyebrows rose at the sounds that came from my mouth. “Does your family not even care about the church anymore?”
“OF COURSE WE DO.” I objected with all the indignity appropriate for such a moral affront.
“Then why would you go to a place like that? Drinking café is Satan’s plan.”
“Well, we didn’t drink any café,” I assured him, similarly unaware that this word was not the same as “coffee.”
“It doesn’t matter. You supported the industry and that’s just as bad. You might as well give money to murderers.”
I might as well have given money to murderers.
That was the paradigm that shaped my religious tween world. Excessive meat is bad on paper but real-life indulgence is endearing. People who own cafés are akin to murderers and supporting them by buying their food made my family accessories to the fact.
After that interaction with Brian, I knew that I couldn’t tell another soul about my family’s depravity. What was worse, I now had to wonder whether my parents were supporting Satan’s plan, and in so doing, jeopardizing our shot at eternal salvation.
It seems odd to me now that there was ever even the briefest moment of my life in which I doubted my parents’ devotion to their religion considering that they spent at least three hours at church every week, strictly observed the Sabbath by never participating in any kind of monetary transaction on the Lord’s day, donated over ten percent of their income to the church without a moment’s hesitation, paid for me to go live in Ukraine for two years for purposes of Mormon evangelism, and never complained once about any of this. From my earliest memories, they bore that burden with the upmost humility.
Sometimes when I tell people stories like the one where Brian preached hellfire and damnation because my family visited a restaurant, I’m told I only encountered that level of beehive radicalization because I grew up surrounded by “Utah Mormons,” which are apparently a different breed from the rest.
The non-Utah Mormons take great pride in their exclusion from Mormon mecca. There’s probably some merit to the distinction. Utah Mormons, saturated in their own religious culture and privileged with the blessing of rarely having to explain themselves, develop some sense of righteous indignation they couldn’t get away with nearly as much in, say, Massachusetts. But I suspect that anyone who has never significantly interacted with the Mormon world wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between the geographical Mormon groups. They all spend hours at church on Sundays. They all give more than ten percent of their income without a moment’s hesitation.
And none of them are supposed to drink coffee.
When I was 18 I moved into the dorms at Lewis-Clark State College in northern Idaho. My new home perpetually smelled like Folgers and meningitis.
“I don’t like the smell of coffee,” I told people. I had never tasted the stuff, and didn’t think I would even want to if the ban was ever lifted. I had a guess as to the taste, but that guess was based solely on the one time I accidentally tried coffee-flavored ice cream.
It really was an accident. I had ordered something else and was mistakenly given this instead. It was ok, though. I wouldn’t have gotten in trouble for eating it even if I had been interested. At least at that time there was something of a division among my Mormon friends regarding the wickedness of coffee ice cream. Most of my friends were of the mindset that this form of the devil’s bean was not prohibited because it wasn’t hot. The Word of Wisdom specifically calls out hot drinks, a lot of Mormons reason, so coffee-flavored desserts fall outside of the prohibition. Interestingly, this same logic does not apply to iced coffee, which is absolutely out.
Although my own family wouldn’t bat an eye at coffee ice cream, I did know some Mormons who wouldn’t have touched the stuff with a ten-foot pole. “Ultra-orthodox,” we would have called them, as we finished our family prayer in our home that had pictures of Jesus in the bathrooms.
In any event, I didn’t like the ice cream, and so assumed that any coffee drink must be at least as unsavory. I couldn’t imagine how anyone could have forced themselves to consume enough of it to actually develop an addiction.
“The Lord has commanded us not to drink coffee,” I regularly told people in Ukraine at age nineteen during my Mormon mission. “It’s addictive and not particularly good for you.”
“I understand prohibiting illegal drugs,” a man told me once as I sat in his tiny soviet-era apartment on the outskirts of Kyiv. “A prohibition on alcohol is obvious. I can even get behind the sense in cutting back on coffee. But why would the Lord want me to avoid green tea?”
The green tea was always the hardest sell. Dozens of Ukrainians had told me over the course of two years their doctor had actually advised them to drink more green tea. “I understand,” I now recall with a substantial amount of embarrassment informing them. “But would you rather listen to a physician or to a prophet of God?”
Black tea was out, too, of course. “You can drink herbal tea” I assured them each time, not really sure why there was a difference, but relatively certain that Jesus cared about what empirically-healthy substances the impoverished elderly woman fleeing domestic violence in her war-torn country put in her hot water to drink. “This is just too much to ask me to do,” I remember her saying before I started introducing the rules on tithing to her.
It wasn’t that green and black tea contained caffeine that put them on the naughty list, apparently. Statements from the Church headquarters in recent years had dispelled of the notion that caffeinated beverages outside of coffee and tea were necessarily forbidden. But that hadn’t quite resolved the lively debate among church members about whether or not Diet Coke, which is consumed in mass quantities by many devout Mormon households, is out.
This passionate division was not helped when the church president was asked in a 60 Minutes interview in the 90s whether Mormons avoid “caffeinated soft drinks” and he confirmed that this was true, much to the shock of my parents who at that exact moment had Diet Coke flowing into their veins through an IV. The 60 Minutes statement was wholly ignored by Mormons who drank caffeinated soft drinks, but cited regularly by quite unpopular people who had long ago made this their pet issue and had spent years trying to convince their Sunday School classes that the spirit of the mid-nineteenth-century law prohibited Coke in a way the letter of the law couldn’t.
The church leadership refused to issue any kind of formal statement one way or the other, probably because members of the top governing body didn’t agree on the topic themselves. There wasn’t a better representation of the divide at the time than the president of the church telling an iconic journalist on national television that Mormons don’t drink something that was at that moment being served in church-owned restaurants at the Mormon headquarters in Salt Lake City.
For a long time caffeinated soft drinks were not available anywhere on the campus of Brigham Young University. While I was a student at that school there was a large campaign to change this, but the campaign was ignored.
A few years after I graduated, the school was mocked when a representative told a newspaper that it didn’t provide caffeinated options in the school’s food court not because the drinks were religiously inappropriate but because there wasn’t a demand for them at BYU. This prompted thousands of students to take to social media to vow to purchase caffeinated Coke products in bulk if ever they made their way onto campus. Eventually the University gave up the fight and announced that Diet Coke and some other offerings would finally be sold on its sacred grounds.
Mormons rejoiced on social media for a solid week like they had just been told they could take recreational ecstasy.
“So you’re saying I shouldn’t ever have any green tea, which again, my doctor has ordered me to drink for my health, but it’s ok for me to consume enough Coke to stop my heart and give me diabetes?” A form of the question was delivered to me at least once a week in Ukraine.
“Did you not hear the thing I just said about following the prophet?”
It must be poetic that the first time I ever actually tried coffee was in Ukraine, ten years after I lived there as a missionary. I had returned with my friend, Brandt, for my thirtieth birthday. Since I turned twenty in Ukraine it made sense that I should enter my new decade in that country as well.
Brandt and I had both relatively recently started stepping back from our shared religion for a handful of reasons, most of those gay. Although we were now dating men and not attending church, neither of us had yet dared to venture outside of any of the Word of Wisdom limits.
Then we stumbled upon an underground coffee shop in L’viv Ukraine. It was an old hideout converted into a hip hangout under a sleek store that sold coffee grinders and beans from all over the world. The coffee was expensive for a town in western Ukraine, so we assumed it must have been good coffee. “What if we tried some?” Brandt's guilty whisper sounded how one might while proposing to rob a bank.
Images of my disappointed pioneer ancestors flashed through my mind until I was able to shut them down. I was on board. The only problem was that we did not know anything about coffee so we weren’t familiar with the lingo. “Do you just order a ‘coffee’” I asked him, “or is that like telling a waiter that you would like to have some ‘food?’” Brandt didn’t know either. “We better do some research first,” he suggested.
We typed into an internet search bar “how to order a coffee drink.” We found a helpful website that provided some advice for beginners, including crude descriptions of the most common options, like “latte: a hot coffee drink made with steamed milk.” That sounded half familiar to us, and so we ordered two of them, which we mixed with enough sugar that in the end it was basically just melted coffee-flavored ice cream.
We sat across from each other, taking nervous sips of our dessert drinks, occasionally asking one another “do you feel anything yet?” like we were trying heroin for the first time. An hour later we rode an energy high like none we had ever known before. This was probably more the result of the sugar than of the caffeine, but in any event, that day began my long and beautiful relationship with the devil’s drink.
I started with sugary lattes, often pumpkin spiced or vanilla flavored. I ventured to plain lattes when I was feeling saucy. Eventually I made my way to Americanos and then to drip coffee with lots of cream and sugar. Then with just cream. Then without. Now I order tar from Starbucks and ask them to spit into my mouth and then I complain if it isn’t bitter enough.
It’s funny to me now to recall how nervous I was for my parents to find out that I had started drinking coffee. This is mostly because the devil’s drink disclosure came months after I informed them that I was dating men and no longer attending church, and both of these announcements should have far eclipsed the one about how I was now ingesting my caffeine through a hotter but less sugary vehicle than they were.
I just assumed this seemingly-innocuous confession would be harder to swallow than the others. I suppose this was because living as an openly gay man was a logical step in my emotional survival; I was gay, and it was unreasonable for some straight people to expect me to make sacrifices that they had never even had to contemplate, but drinking coffee? Well that seemed superfluous. “Now you’re just trying to be disagreeable,” I imagined my Mormon friends and family sighing, even if none of them ever acted as though they thought this.
My parents didn’t say anything the first time I drank coffee in their presence. Maybe it’s because we were at Disneyland and no one really wants to cause a scene at Disneyland. It felt very brave of me to order it from a man in a candy-striped suit right in front of them, but I knew if I was going to make it through the day, I would need to get high with a little help from that friend. I wondered if they’d bring it up later, but months went by without a word about this new lifestyle choice. Then one day my father handed me a box. “It’s a Keurig,” he told me. “It will have more use at your house than at ours.”
Someone gave it to my parents as a gift, presumably because it makes hot chocolate drinks, but it had only been collecting dust at their house. My parents are not wasteful. If they found out I snorted cocaine they would pass any they encountered on to me as well, even while pursing their lips in subtle disappointment, so the regifting was not necessarily a sign of enthusiastic acceptance. It was, however, an indication that my newest addiction was at least not a taboo topic.
He was right; the Keurig was put to use, immediately and often. Every time I use it I try to remember that my father made this all possible. I imagine that he wouldn’t welcome the credit, but he has to give me points for being grateful. It’s a very confusing time to be a Mormon father to a loudmouth heathen homosexual, but I would be unappreciative if I didn’t acknowledge that he has navigated it better than most and substantially better than some.
Several years after sipping my first latte in a Ukrainian dungeon, I still feel a bit of panic as I step up to the counter at any coffee shop with the possibility that a snooty barista will exploit my ignorance by asking me a question I don’t understand.
I don’t know why I still feel insecure in those settings. Nothing like that ever happens.
I order my black coffee in the largest size they have available.
I give them my name so they can scribble “Ellie” onto the side of a cup.
And then I hand a little money over to those murderers.
~It Just Gets Stranger
Art by Christopher Patty