Illustration for article titled Pride, prejudice, and black coffee: How I overcame my fear of cream and sugar
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As of March 2019, after 20 years of taking my coffee black, I now drink it with two Stevias and minimal cream. This is the story of how I made this enormous life change and overcame a lifetime of coffee snobbery.

I grew up in a blue-collar black-coffee family whose qualifications for a good cup of joe were its strength and its heat. The large cans of Folgers in our pantry were exhibit A that we were not gourmands on the lookout for the next Panama Geisha.

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My first coffee drinking experience happened in a Lutheran church lounge when I was still a preteen. My friends and I would experiment with different ratios of condiments with coffee to amuse ourselves between the church service and Sunday school. These were horrible concoctions whose sole purpose was to test when a mixture of coffee, powdered creamer, and sugar would transform from liquid to slurry.

I didn’t become a habitual coffee drinker, though, until the second semester of my freshman year of college, during a Friday morning meteorology discussion section. I took it black because that was my only frame of reference. Wisconsin winters are cold, and hot, strong, bold black coffee cut through it like a bowie knife. I was tired and needed the boost. Furthermore, I was an adult on my own now, and I saw it as my duty to start drinking coffee. Before long I got my own big plastic mug and joined a punch card club. Eventually, once I had the means to do so, I started brewing canned ground coffee.

Aside from medically imposed hiatuses, coffee was part of every single morning of my life. I judged anyone that didn’t take theirs the same way I took mine: straight black and dangerously hot. “That’s not coffee!” I would think. Or “You’re just drinking a dessert!” Even though I’d never drank a real cup of coffee with cream and sugar, I’d decided that the sweetness interfered with the thumping coffee-ness. Looking back, it’s easily one of the dumbest opinions I’ve taken as an adult and one I would eventually regret.

Fast forward to last March. It was a weekend morning, after my second cup. I can’t explain why, but at that moment my body both wanted more coffee and craved something mellower than my usual strong black brew. Initially I was puzzled how to accomplish this. But slowly it occurred to me that I could add the faintest hint of half and half. (It never occurred to me that this was how many other people drink their coffee.) I brewed, mixed, and drank it in a controlled environment, with loved ones nearby (namely, my wife, who had been on the receiving end of many of my inane black coffee diatribes).

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My first reaction was it didn’t taste outstanding with cream alone. My wife suggested adding a packet of Splenda, which elevated it from “not great” to tolerable. I drank the rest of the slightly sweeter coffee, and shrugged off the experience as a one-time fling. My only frame of reference for how this should taste was the supersweet church-basement concoctions of my youth, so I still couldn’t rationalize this as a new way to take my coffee.

The next morning, after the first black cup, the mellowness urges reemerged. I tried the cream and sugar route, but this time I adjusted: two packets of Splenda and just a splash of cream, more of a milk chocolate color than khaki. It was too sweet. A third cup included the cream and two milder Stevia packets. This tweak took me past tolerable and into “enjoyable” territory.

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On day three I remembered what I liked about that last cup from the previous day and decided to have cup number one with the two Stevia and half and half. The additions made a noticeable difference: They really took the edge off the boldness of the coffee. My taste for the stronger, acidic black coffee punch was fading fast. Could it be that this way was more appetizing than what I was preaching for 20 years?

I was ashamed. Not because I was drinking something that I enjoyed more, but because I’d considered black coffee part of my identity. I’d talked so much smack about cream and sugar, and now I was drinking it every day. Did this make me inauthentic? What would people say about me if they knew I’d changed my coffee habits?

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After a few days, I realized no one actually cared how I took my coffee besides me. The only things that kept my from truly embracing cream and Stevia were my own stubbornness and self-centeredness. Within a week, the 20-year black coffee habit had died.

I can still drink it black if I choose to, and if given no alternatives I will, but I don’t see myself going back to my old ways. And that’s okay.

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Evolving past dogmatic opinions like only drinking black coffee is how you come to appreciate new foods. Had I never bothered to try new things, I’d have the same diet I had as a picky grade schooler.

I want to officially apologize to everyone I have mocked, teased, or criticized about their coffee drinking habits. Want six creams and sugars? Go for it! I’ll shut up about it. Take it black? Great! You do you. One person’s ruining is another person’s improving. Unless you drink iced coffee. That’s still disgusting.

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Nick Leggin is a technology professional, writer, potato chip enthusiast, and former game show contestant.

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