Believing seems to be a human necessity used in supporting our dealings with things we do not understand, as we yearn for security and completeness. This need is of individually existential nature, but equally socially and culturally supportive. Once we pair it with our ever evolving creative impulse and our love for poetic expression, it results in our whole existence being explained, embedded in myths and legends.
Legends could include individuals that indeed existed and historically factual events, but they are mixed constructions with possibilities that can neither be accurately proven, nor resolutely doubted. The core truth is enhanced with exaggeration to increase value and suggest immortality. Myths provide symbolic value and do not deal with facts. Such story telling has guided all the civilizations before us that have in turn created and inspired the legends and myths in which we find spiritual and intellectual refuge today. However, these forms of enhancing the past could also be seen as our arrogant cry for knowing it all.
Several events depicting the beginnings of our coffee culture are legends. Kaldi might have never seen the world as it was in the Abyssinian highlands around 850 AD, but a goat herder with his name is known to have observed his goats dancing like never before. Surprised by their energetic jumping he searched for a reason and found that they had been eating the fruits of an adjacent shrub. Still uncertain about the reason for this behaviour, he consulted a monk from a nearby monastery. The monk harvested some ripe fruits from the bush and shared them with his brothers. That night they were alert many hours for divine inspiration. Another version of the same legend claims that the monk strongly disapproved of the fruit and threw the berries with the pits in the fire. Once the smoke revealed the hypnotizing aroma of the roasted seeds, he changed his mind. Shortly after, the first coffee was brewed.
Jerzy Franciszek Kulczycki (1640-1694) – or Franz Georg Kolschitzky, as the Austrians knew him – was an Orthodox Polish nobleman born in today’s Ukraine. He was multi-lingual interpreter, soldier, merchant, diplomat and spy. While working as a translator for a branch of the Austrian Oriental Company in Belgrade, the Turks began incarcerating foreign traders, but with his Polish citizenship he was able to escape to Vienna, where he started his own company. As the Ottoman Turks sieged Vienna in 1683, he volunteered to leave the city to seek military help. Dressed as a Turk and singing Ottoman songs, he left Vienna, crossed the enemy lines, reported to the Duke in charge and returned to Vienna, informing that the reserve army was on its way and they needed not to surrender. Shortly afterwards the siege was broken and he was celebrated as a hero. As the Turks fled, they left large amounts of coffee behind them. These were given to Kulczycki in gratitude and with them he opened the first Coffeehouse in Vienna in the borough of Leopoldstadt and named it ‘Hof zur Blauen Flasche’ – the Courtyard of the Blue Bottle. It is said that in its beginnings the Viennese had great difficulties accepting the new drink, until Kulczycki mixed it with milk.
In his “Mythology of the Menomini Indians” of 1890, W. J. Hoffman depicts much of what we like to use as explanation for the origin of our beloved tobacco. An old woman by the name of Nokomis had an unmarried daughter that gave birth to twin boys. The mother and one of the boys died during birth. The other boy – who was also a rabbit – was named Manabush. At a young age he was already considered to be a great spirit and grew up teaching many things to the Menominee Indians.
One day Manabush was walking near a high mountain and perceived a wonderful aroma. He climbed the mountain looking for the source and found it in a cavern, where a Giant, the keeper of tobacco lived. The Giant claimed, the spirits had been already there for their annual smoke and asked Manabush to return in a year. As Manabush saw bags full of tobacco everywhere he looked, he chose to simply grab a bag and run. The Giant followed him and as Manabush reached a cliff, he fell down and the Giant after him. Fallen to the ground, the Giant was badly bruised and as he climbed back up and hung on the cliff with torn fingernails, Manabush grabbed him by the back and threw him to the ground. He cursed him for his stinginess into a life as a grasshopper that would forever torment all those who try to grow tobacco.
As much as we have created legends and myths for thousands of years, creatively and critically we have developed and progressed further, with an increasingly finer attention to detail in matter and spirit. This is exemplified in two present day centers for the individual development and the interactive progress as society: the lounges where we gather to smoke and the houses where coffee is brewed. Here we experience concretely what coffee and tobacco are and, in the proper setting, this allows us to understand who we are, irrelevant of any reference to the origins of the product. The joys I have experienced in Berlin, Boston, Hamburg, London, Madrid, New York, Rome, Seattle, Tokyo, Venice and Vienna need no legends and myths. Coffeehouses have served as fertile soil to various types of cultural developments amongst humans for well over five-hundred years. And if I wish to find spaces where I could nurture my palate, while expanding my mind, I visit one of my many favorite smoke lounges.
In small cozy spaces and in elegant townhouses, in tiny allies and monumental buildings, everywhere we find individuals and concepts catering to an audience that demands the best available quality of coffee drinks and comfortable couches on which to smoke a cigar for one or three hours. Here we gather daily to have a break, to be home away from home, to meet socially or for business transactions, to share our simplest and most intellectual views on life. In all these gathering places we are celebrating coffee and tobacco to celebrate life in a very concrete manner.