While we were in Quebec this summer, Marci learned how to pull espresso shots like a real barista. Just for fun. Since we happened to have an espresso machine in the place where we were staying. We made our own lattes and affogatos, with local dairy products — and those espresso drinks ended up being some of the best memories of that anniversary celebration.
So anyway, I told my mother about the espresso after I got back to Ohio. I thought it was just a cute story to help give her a glimpse of some of the fun stuff we did while we were away. But in telling the story and interacting with her afterwards, I learned that my Mom grew up with a negative association towards espresso. Almost, apparently, on the level of her — and her mid-20th Century, North Dakotan, Conservative Baptist family’s— negative associations towards alcoholic beverages.
My Mom’s views on both espresso and alcohol have softened with age, even though I know that she prefers to drink regular, brewed coffee (with lots of cream and sugar) and never purchases alcohol for herself. Still, I was very curious to understand why there was such a stigma towards these things. Especially the espresso, since it’s not intoxicating (thus, not subject to the Bible’s admonitions to avoid drunkenness). And even though my Mom couldn’t tell me exactly why she was taught to stay away from espresso shots and whiskey shots, continued questioning revealed some of the implicit parameters that undergirded her upbringing.
Part of the concern about espresso seemed to center on its strength. Like, it still seemed to have a powerful effect on some people, even if it was more of a stimulant than a depressant. So, there was a fear about its strength. But even more than the strength, it seems like my Mom’s family’s avoidance of espresso had to do with its foreignness. And, more specifically, its Italianness. There was a sort of sub-conscious suspicion that drinking espresso might also make one more susceptible to organized crime and Catholicism.
Really, I suspect it was an echo of American history not far removed from the 1884 controversies about “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion.” And it reminded me of the ways that the American notion of “Whiteness” has been a moving target for centuries. It was surprisingly recently that even fair-skinned peoples like the Italians and the Irish were excluded from American society. Within my mother’s living memory! Growing up in small-town North Dakota, she didn’t actually meet any Italian people or Irish people or Black people until she moved to Minneapolis for college. There were “some Indians around Devil’s Lake,” where her family sometimes vacationed. But that was about it. Lack of interaction with other people groups led to a lack of trust for other people groups. And similar assumptions are still being made about different people today.
Sometimes, the misunderstandings are laughable (like when it comes to espresso shots). Sometimes, they’re tragic. But they’re all worth examining and excavating for growth opportunities.