Saturday, February 03, 2007

One Latte, Hold the Milk

Published: February 3, 2007
The New York Times



If you believe, as I do, that darkness shrouded the Earth until someone thought to brew coffee at breakfast, at which time the stupor lifted, the neurons engaged and the Enlightenment dawned, then Robert Bohannon may be your new best friend. Dr. Bohannon is the North Carolina molecular biologist who six years ago sat down before a glass of milk and a doughnut and had the audacity to think that there was something wrong with that picture. Why not add caffeine — to the doughnut?

A normal person would stop right there and call out for a latte. Someone who had been chewing coffee beans since he was 8 would call out for a kilogram of food-grade caffeine. With the help of a local baker, Dr. Bohannon set about attempting to create what he had already named: the Buzz Donut.

The early results were disappointing; “they tasted like aluminum cans,” he says. Grainy versions followed. As of this week, perfection has been achieved and a patent filed. Dr. Bohannon is now waiting for Krispy Kreme and Dunkin’ Donuts — do trans fats somehow impair the ability to spell? — to call.

If you have a timelier idea, I’d like to hear it. Could we be where we are today without a tidal wave of caffeine? A 24-hour news cycle does not require 24-hour news. It does, however, require a 24-hour caffeine drip.

Tea is said to have fueled the Industrial Revolution; caffeine has been credited with modern physics and chemistry. “A mathematician,” the prolific, nonsleeping Paul Erdos liked to say, “is a machine for turning coffee into theorems.”

Small wonder then that the elixir of efficiency and inspiration should prove to be the blogger’s best friend, the CrackBerry’s companion, the spirit of social networking. It is difficult to believe that we could be wired without having been wired — you are to be forgiven for thinking that Howard Schultz invented the Internet. The inconvenient truth is that when Mr. Schultz founded Starbucks, he focused on the romance and ritual of a newspaper culture. So far as business history goes, this is a little like being Andrew Carnegie when the telegraph clattered to life.

In an innovative world, we congregate over coffee rather than over a beer: that’s why the “Cheers” decade gave way to that of “Friends.” The point of a bar, after all, is turning off the brain. The point of a cafe is switching it on. From an age that was arguably as taken with the sound of its own voice and as fixated on information as we are, the coffeehouse comes down to us with an illustrious intellectual heritage. It supplied Adam Smith and d’Alembert with office addresses. Coffee was Beethoven and Voltaire’s primary source of nourishment. Samuel Johnson was a 40-cup-a-day man. Balzac, the champion caffeinator, was a coffee-eater, like Dr. Bohannon.

An addiction like ours needs no excuse, as you know well. Is that your second cup already? Caffeine sparks imagination, stimulates conversation, accelerates thought, enhances mood, increases endurance and activates memory. It allows us to beat the clock; how anyone managed to build a cathedral before the advent of espresso is beyond me.

For better or worse, caffeine also accounts for the tenor of the times. Balzac was brilliant on the sparks to the brain as well as the cost to the nerves: “One wants everything to proceed with the speed of ideas; one becomes brusque and ill tempered about nothing.”

Did road rage exist before 20-ounce cup holders? I assure you that “door dwell” — that eternity required for an elevator door to close, regardless of how many times you jab the button — postdates the double espresso. Coffee makes everything crystal-clear, which makes me certain that I am right. What happens to a society in which everyone feels lucid, infallible and empowered? I believe Fox News would be your answer.

Naysayers credit coffee with a disproportionate number of marital spats, but no one has yet been able to make a sturdy case for a risk to our physical health.

This comes as a blessing and a relief — the more so as we have seriously upped the 18th-century ante. Then it was said that no seamstress as much as threaded her needle without her morning coffee. From Jeff Bezos of Amazon comes the secret of 21st-century success: “In Seattle you haven’t had enough coffee until you can thread a sewing machine while it’s running.”

Make that a cappuccino and two Buzz doughnuts, please.

Stacy Schiff is the author, most recently, of “A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France and the Birth of America.” She is a guest columnist.