Coffee, Catechism and a Black Apron


Our oldest son, Ian, works as a Starbucks barista and trained as a Coffee Master.

“Coffee Master?” you ask. “What’s that?”

Coffee Masters are the Starbucks equivalent of the geniuses in the Apple Stores.  They’re the ones who know exactly what makes a blonde roast different from a dark roast and why sun dried Sumatra tastes so much better than it’s more mundane cousins.  They’re distinguished from other Starbucks partners with a black apron.  The Starbucks Melody blog explains it this way:

If you are a customer, and you have a question about coffee, look for the Starbucks baristas in black aprons:  They can talk to you about the four fundamentals of great coffee (water, proportion, grind, freshness), or if you want a low acidity coffee, a black apron Starbucks barista might steer you in the direction of Italian Roast, or if you want to try something fun and new as an espresso shot, again the barista can help answer those questions.  (The new Yirgacheffe works beautifully as a shot of espresso!).

Earning the apron was no easy task and, along the way, Ian taught me a lot about coffee.  I learned (for example) that coffee is the world’s second most traded commodity.  (Oil takes the top spot.)  I also learned to identify the various component flavors of individual blends and to articulate what I like and dislike about each.

P2020471As part of the training, Ian hosted a series of coffee tastings in his store.  These involved selecting and pairing different coffees with different foods to explore the ways in which flavors interact and strengthen one another.  In one surprising match, Ian paired a blonde roast (which I find a bit bitter) with some smoked gouda.  To my delighted, the cheese smoothed out the coffee and improved the flavor of both.

I’ve also learned to sound a bit snobbish when I say (in all sincerity) that the new Ethiopia blend has a smooth flavor that lingers on the back of the the tongue and has a chocolaty aftertaste.

I bring all of this up for three reasons;

1) I’m proud of Ian and how hard he worked to earn this distinction

2) It reminds me that the created world is good and God meant for us to enjoy it

3) There’s a link between this and the importance of catechesis


I’ve been a fan of coffee for since I took up the habit in college more than a quarter century ago.  And, for most of that time, I drank whatever was available.  I’d occasionally say something like, “That was a good cup of coffee.”  Except, I only said that because it tasted good to me.

I had no real understanding of coffee.  No appreciation for what it took to go from raw coffee cherries (they’re not really beans, I learned) to the dark liquid in my cup.  The language to describe the coffee in any meaningful way — to be able to communicate with others what I was experiencing — was beyond me.

Once I started to learn, though, a whole new universe of appreciation opened up for me.  The coffee hadn’t changed, I had.

I think the same is true for catechesis.  Cathy and I have been taking a catechist preparation course this year based on the Echoes of Faith series.  At the start, I assumed that teaching religious education was more-or-less like teaching any other subject.  It was about getting the students to understand the content.  They needed to be able to answer the questions appropriately and demonstrate some knowledge of the material.

As the class goes on, I’m rethinking that.  Certainly the knowledge is important.  Understanding is the basis of appreciation.  More importantly, though, my students need to have the experience that comes of out that knowledge.  If Ian had simply described different roast profiles to me, I’d still be stuck at the “Gee, that’s good coffee” stage of development.  By coupling the knowledge with the experience of tasting and giving me the opportunity to articulate what I was experiencing, Ian helped me to expand my appreciation of coffee.

That’s not to say that the knowledge is unimportant, but it’s too shallow a way to share the Faith.  The Catholic church isn’t a series of rules or historical anecdotes.  It is a living faith which should be experienced and integrated into daily life.  It is a way of being which fundamentally alters the believer.  Perhaps we’ve overlooked that in the past.

My “coffee formation” (if I can use that phrase respectfully) has brought me to a place of deeper understanding of and appreciation for coffee.  Bad coffee (which is sadly abundant in Utah) has become nearly intolerable and I’m willing to expend time, energy and money to get good coffee.  Imagine what would happen if our catechism programs made people turn away from lukewarm faith and made them willing to work hard at what they believe.

— Dad


Foodie Priests

Photo Credit: Creative Commons courtesy of Alpha by way of Wikimedia CommonsThe website has a nice article about the “Paulist Plunge” retreat for this year.  The article does a gives a peek into the experience, but it doesn’t mention the amazing dinner that Fr. Larry cooked for the men participating in the retreat.

Evan reported that it was an amazing meal featuring grilled salmon and some sort of risotto and (to be honest) I sort of lost track after that as I was very hungry at the time and Evan’s description of the entrée briefly sidelined my ability to process new information.

Fr. Steven Bell, who also participated in the retreat, is a cohost on the Busted Halo podcast and a foodie as well.  At various times on the podcast he’s reported on meals he cooked and I had the same mouth-watering-brain-derailing reaction.  He has also been heard to say that Jesus was a foodie.

The whole idea of foodie priests might seem strange.  A lot of people think of priests as severe ascetics who go out of their way to avoid worldly joys.  These same people tend perceive Catholics as dour, pinch-faced individuals.  I think they’re confusing us with Puritans.

One of the fundamental teachings of Catholicism (and, as a convert it took me a long time to understand this) is that the world is good.  Fallen and corrupt, but good in its very creation.  If God — who is all good and loving — created the world, how could it be otherwise?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church asserts this truth in the very beginning.

339 Each creature possesses its own particular goodness and perfection. For each one of the works of the “six days” it is said: “And God saw that it was good.” “By the very nature of creation, material being is endowed with its own stability, truth and excellence, its own order and laws.” Each of the various creatures, willed in its own being, reflects in its own way a ray of God’s infinite wisdom and goodness. Man must therefore respect the particular goodness of every creature, to avoid any disordered use of things which would be in contempt of the Creator and would bring disastrous consequences for human beings and their environment.

341 The beauty of the universe: The order and harmony of the created world results from the diversity of beings and from the relationships which exist among them. Man discovers them progressively as the laws of nature. They call forth the admiration of scholars. The beauty of creation reflects the infinite beauty of the Creator and ought to inspire the respect and submission of man’s intellect and will.

In a similar vein, the Bishops of Mississippi and Alabama wrote a pastoral letter to their congregations in 1989 asserting:

For Catholics, Biblical teaching has always maintained that our world is good and has been entrusted to our care by God. We do not see it as something evil to escape, rather we embrace our world without embracing the sin within it.

In practical terms, this means that the we are not only free to enjoy the world — we are actively encouraged to engage with God’s creation.  The world is ours to enjoy.  Beauty, good food, and and all the delights of the senses reveal parts of God’s love for his creation to us.  Our God is an awesome God and it’s okay to acknowledge that and embrace his creation.

And that includes good food.

The link between food and faith is particularly strong.  Jesus practiced what is known as “open table fellowship” and is often shown dining with people from a variety of social classes.  The Last Supper is one of the pivotal moments in the New Testament — so important that we reenact it at every Mass and given it special prominence during Holy Week at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper.

The folks at know this.  Their website and podcast explore the relationship of food and faith.  Plus they have some great recipes.

So, strange as it might seem to some, the idea of a “foodie priest” makes perfect sense.  Enjoying good food (but not to excess) is an act of embracing the gifts that God has given us.

Over the years, Evan has shown himself to be an outstanding cook.  This past summer he and his roommate make a massive batch of incredible pork tamales.  As an undergraduate, he regularly hosted dinners for his friends — calling home to ask advice on food pairings and preparation.

He comes by his talent naturally.  His mother is an awesome cook who learned the craft by working in the kitchen at her parent’s restaurant.  And I think he might get a bit of his talent from my side of the family too.  And, given what I know about the Paulist community and its relationship to food, I think Evan is going to fit right in.