Coffee Milk

My Rouses Everyday, May/June 2017

In South Louisiana, coffee culture often starts with the toddlers.

Ask any native of Acadiana or New Orleans when they had their first cup of coffee, and the answer will likely be closer to kindergarten than all-nighter maintenance during college freshman exams, when most Americans first encounter coffee.

In the days before the modern “espresso everywhere” movement, a kid’s first cup of coffee would be more of a family thing — a little rite of passage served in a tiny porcelain cup.

That’s the way it happened in my grandmother’s house, anyway. Once a child expressed interest in adult daybreak rituals (reading the morning paper, sprinkling hot sauce on scrambled eggs), they’d invariably answer the general question (“What do you need, baby?”) with a not-unexpected request (“May I have some coffee, please?”).

There are, of course, different parental approaches to this particular teaching moment. The first is to give them exactly what they asked for: a fully caffeinated, weapons-grade cup of steaming joe that’s dark as night, thick as tar and bitter as can be. No sugar, no cream, poured straight from the French drip pot on the stovetop. One sip of this adult stuff and that child will likely steer clear of coffee (and most other adult enterprises) for 20 years, minimum.

But for children raised in Louisiana’s au lait tradition, there’s another approach that’s keeping the coffee culture thriving — an appropriately made cup of “coffee milk.”

To a child, the “coffee milk” process looks nearly identical to the grown-up ritual. First, Mama would take down from the cabinet one of her demitasse cups (a bit fancy, but just the right size for little hands), pour a whisper of French drip coffee from the well-worn aluminum pot, and fill the cup the rest of the way with scalded milk from the tiny dented pot on the stovetop’s back burner. She’d walk it over to you and gently place the cup, saucer and tiny spoon on your placemat.

The whole ceremony only took a few seconds, but for a first grader, it felt like a whole new world opening up. Once the little porcelain cup hit the kitchen table, you felt like you’d stepped through Alice’s looking glass, where you had your first taste of adult life. You could do all the things you watched the Tall Folks do your whole life. Stir tiny spoons of sugar into the frothed milk, wait a few minutes for the cup to cool. Look around to your aunts and uncles as they sipped their coffee. And feel like it’s a whole new world.

For the adults, it’s another thing altogether — a little magic trick that gives a kid credit for attentiveness. It acknowledges the passage of time, with minimal downside. Since Mama controls the pour, the first forays tend to be composed of way more milk than coffee — the better to keep ambient caffeine at micro-dose levels — that would grow stronger over time.

By the time high-school rolls around, the kids have joined the ranks of full-fledged coffee drinkers, downing a quick morning cup on the way out the door. Eventually, they ease into adulthood with a solid routine based on a meditative morning cup and an occasional mid-afternoon espresso drink at a sidewalk café. And when they sip their caffè latte, they might giggle at the fact that it’s just coffee milk by another name, without the tiny porcelain cup.

And if those kids have kids, they’ll get to pass the tradition and memories along with their own personal twist on the ritual.

Years ago, I watched the family custom jump a generation as my 4-year-old nephew, not long out of his high-chair days, looked up from his breakfast and shouted at my sister: “Mama. Mama. Mama!”

“What do you need, sweetie?” she asked.

Baby coffee…” he said with a little smile.

My sister, now the mama, looked at him and said, “Okay, baby…”

And I watched her do the trick — a quick, pantomimed pour of imaginary coffee, a cup of warm milk and a little gift of maturity.

He took a long sip from the tiny cup and beamed, feeling like a teeny-tiny grown-up.