Coffee or Tea for C.S. Lewis and Me

Screenshot 2014-02-03 22.27.31The older I grow, the more important coffee becomes. Spending the last past two weekends ensconced in the doctoral program of a Midwestern seminary near the polar vortex has merely reinforced that fact.

Coffee versus tea. It is the perennial international battle between caffeinated beverages. C.S. Lewis, famously, weighed in on the side of tea. (That’s no surprise, given the historic hold Camellia sinensis’ on British taste buds.)

One of Lewis’ most frequently quoted aphorisms is, after all: “You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.”

In Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature Lewis alludes to this cultural preference. In a passage discussing different ways of experiencing foreign customs, he describes the quintessential “bad tourist.”

One man carries his Englishry abroad with him and brings it home unchanged. Wherever he goes he consorts with the other English tourists. By a good hotel he means one that is like an English hotel. He complains of the bad tea where he might have had excellent coffee.

Despite their preference for tea, as the quotation above reveals that many Brits enjoy a good cup of coffee. Lewis himself loved a good cup at appropriate moments. In a 1939 letter to his brother Warnie, he mentions his need for a caffeine jolt prior to proctoring examinations.

My colleague Bone asked me to lunch with him at St John’s prior to an afternoon’s invigilation. I’ve known him quite good company: on this occasion, however, he spoke in almost a whisper and very seldom, and while other people were eating all round us (this was in John’s) nothing arrived for us till I was ‘nearly sick’ with hunger and embarrassment.

When at last we’d had some chicken another pause ensued, during which, almost in desperation for something to say, I asked him for the cheese, only to be told in sepulchral tones that there was a sweet coming. It came. Another pause.

Desperate for my coffee, I said presently that I supposed I’d better be getting along: my host, after pondering this for a minute or two, replied yes, he supposed I had. On our way out he stopped at the other end of the table and introduced me to a jolly old man as his father Sir Muirhead Bone. Now can it be that the mere paternal presence explains the whole business? One can imagine such things! Anyway I went off to my 3 hours’ invigilating without any coffee.

While we’re considering the role of coffee in the life of the Oxford don, I thought it might be an interesting exercise to search the Chronicles of Narnia to see if the drink is mentioned there. I uncovered several, the last of which is particularly delightful.

From The Horse and His Boy.

By the time Shasta had finished his porridge, the Dwarf’s two brothers (whose names were Rogin and Bricklethumb) were putting the dish of bacon and eggs and mushrooms, and the coffee pot and the hot milk, and the toast, on the table. It was all new and wonderful to Shasta for Calormene food is quite different. He didn’t even know what the slices of brown stuff were, for he had never seen toast before. He didn’t know what the yellow soft thing they smeared on the toast was, because in Calormen you nearly always get oil instead of butter.

And the house itself was quite different from the dark, frowsty, fish-smelling hut of Arsheesh and from the pillared and carpeted halls in the palaces of Tashbaan. The roof was very low, and everything was made of wood, and there was a cuckoo-clock and a red-and -white checked tablecloth and a bowl of wild flowers and little curtains on the thick-paned windows. It was also rather troublesome having to use dwarf cups and plates and knives and forks.

This meant that helpings were very small, but then there were a great many helpings, so that Shasta’s plate or cup was being filled every moment, and every moment the Dwarfs themselves were saying, “Butter please ,” or “Another cup of coffee ,” or “I’d like a few more mushrooms,” or “What about frying another egg or so?” And when at last they had all eaten as much as they possibly could the three Dwarfs drew lots for who would do the washing-up, and Rogin was the unlucky one.

From Prince Caspian.

They breakfasted at last in another of the dark cellars of Aslan’s How. It was not such a breakfast as they would have chosen, for Caspian and Cornelius were thinking of venison pasties, and Peter and Edmund of buttered eggs and hot coffee, but what everyone got was a little bit of cold bear-meat (out of the boys’ pockets), a lump of hard cheese, an onion, and a mug of water. But, from the way they fell to, anyone would have supposed it was delicious.

From The Silver Chair.

Breakfast was scrambled eggs and toast and Eustace tackled it just as if he had not had a very large supper in the middle of the night. “I say, Son of Adam,” said the Faun, looking with a certain awe at Eustace’s mouthfuls. “There’s no need to hurry quite so dreadfully as that. I don’t think the Centaurs have quite finished their breakfasts yet.”

“Then they must have got up very late,” said Eustace. “I bet it’s after ten o’clock.”

“Oh no,” said Orruns. “They got up before it was light.”

“Then they must have waited the dickens of a time for breakfast,” said Eustace.

“No, they didn’t,” said Orruns. “They began eating the minute they awoke.”

“Golly!” said Eustace. “Do they eat a very big breakfast?”

“Why, Son of Adam, don’t you understand? A Centaur has a man-stomach and a horse-stomach . And of course both want breakfast. So first of all he has porridge and pavenders and kidneys and bacon and omelette and cold ham and toast and marmalade and coffee and beer.

“And after that he attends to the horse part of himself by grazing for an hour or so and finishing up with a hot mash, some oats, and a bag of sugar. That’s why it’s such a serious thing to ask a Centaur to stay for the weekend. A very serious thing indeed.”

I occasionally wonder what it would have been like to have shared a pint with Lewis at the Eagle and Child. Magnificent, to be sure.

But perhaps better still would have been to share a conversation in his study or home over a simple cup of coffee (or tea). After all, just as a good meal establishes the mood for jovial discussion, so too can a soothing warm “brew” whet one’s desire to share an intimate conversation.

20 thoughts on “Coffee or Tea for C.S. Lewis and Me

  1. Coffee for me, except when I’m sick, then coffee tastes bad and I only want tea. Last winter I was sick for 8 weeks with bronchitis, etc. and I knew I was finally on the mend when I smelled the morning coffee and wanted some. But no coffee after noon or I can’t sleep at night. If I want something hot in the afternoon, it’s tea or herbal tea. For some reason the théine (that’s what they call it in France since it is different from caffeine–and the French are very particular about anything gastronomic) doesn’t seem to keep me awake.

    We were in Kenya for a month once, and they have a lovely tradition there called “chai.” It’s strong tea with milk and sugar, not the spiced tea of India. They have it every morning at 10 and every afternoon (I forget the exact time). It’s like the American coffee break or gathering around the water cooler, a pick-me-up social time.

    1. I drank tea for years myself, but now that they have all of these “sugar free” coffee flavors… well, what can I say. A dash of chocolate flavor and a splash of milk and every cup is like a dessert.

    1. I was just talking about that with a pastor from Ghana today, in the seminary refectory. While we were eating, it began snowing–something he’s never seen in his homeland. It came down rapidly, and St. Louis was thoroughly blanketed in just a couple of hours.

      As we ate I mentioned just how important our fireplace is since our power can go out and leave us snowbound for days at a time. (That’s back home in the forests of the Pacific Northwest.)

      1. Those that live with it, forget the magic of snow. How wonderful he saw that.
        Fireplaces are critical. Ours has saved us in the past 2 houses during ice storms and extreme winters without power…good sleeping bags aren’t just for camping anymore?

      2. I went to seminary in St. Louis, but probably not the one where you are doing doctoral studies.

        As for coffee or tea, I prefer soda. Although if I needed a nice warm drink on a cold day or if I’m sick, it would be tea.

  2. Coming from the South, there’s a love & call for both. Coffee time at breakfast before working in the garden; coffee in their thermos’ when they go hunting at 4:00 a.m. in the morning. Coffee after supper was an absolute MUST! However, tea is referred to as “The house wine of the South” Whereas most southerners drink tea in the form of “Iced Tea” with lots & lots of sugar, ice cubes & a lemon hanging on the side. I prefer mine hot with sugar & half & half. Don’t get me wrong, nothing hits the spot on a hot summer day like a fresh glass of iced tea with lemon. But both Inion & Mathair must give the vote to coffee. Even though Southern rule dictates to stay true to our House-wine of the South. The writer issue will always win out & any writer worth their salt must be addicted to coffee! lmao ;) Fantastic post on the battle of caffeine’s. Sharing this now~

    1. It’s actually a Doctor of Ministry program, the “terminal” professional degree for clergy… equivalent to an M.D., J.D. or Ed.D. I’m doing it through Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, which has a degree emphasis for military chaplains (which is the field in which I spent most of my previous ministry).

  3. Pingback: C.S. Lewis and Digital Books « Mere Inkling

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