Jess Brown, "Hot Drinks"
I was in PM Kindergarten- it started at noon and continued through the end of the school day. I was sitting in the colorful classroom at one of the long brown tables with the big stickers that had the alphabet and the numbers up to ten across the top of it. The teacher had just made the proclamation that spit bubbles were not cool, but actually disgusting, much to my astonishment, and the class was still reeling. We were coloring grapes to learn about the color purple and the letter G, and I was sitting across from the twins. One was named Charlie, the other Ryan.
“We went to our grandpa’s house last weekend,” Charlie said. He was scribbling red in some of his grapes to add coloration. My mom was an artist, so I didn’t think it was weird, but part of me was afraid that he was going to get in trouble by the teacher because he wasn’t following the rules.
“That’s cool. I ride horses when I go to my grandpa’s house.” I asked. I accidentally scribbled outside the lines, and I furrowed my brow and concentrated harder on the small circles that made up the grapes. I pressed down hard with the crayon to get the dark purple color that I wanted.
I was concentrating so hard that I was certain I misheard when Ryan said, “We had tea.” He mentioned other things that happened to him that weekend, of course, but the ‘T’ word struck my ears, and my head snapped up to stare at him with a look of disgust on my face.
“You had what?” I said, pushing down so hard on the crayon that it snapped. I quickly hid the broken crayon in my lap so they wouldn’t notice that I had messed up.
“Tea,” Charlie replied. “It was good.” He was looking down on his paper, not at all concerned with the crisis I was having.
I was horrified. “But… but…” I sputtered. “Tea is bad for you!”
Of course, it isn’t bad for you. If they had asked me for clarification instead of just rolling their eyes, I would have continued to sputter and say that God said so, that drinking tea was against the rules, which has never been a convincing argument.
“No it’s not,” Ryan said simply.
I stopped talking to the twins; they were breaking the rules, and I was not going to get involved with their sin. I never talked to them again.
When I was in Kindergarten, I was Mormon, and so was my entire family. My family tree is so intertwined in the bubble of Mormonism within Southern Utah that my mom traced back our genealogy from England straight across the Atlantic and right into Zion, known outside the region as Southern Utah, and you don’t marry outside the bubble. I’m my own fourth cousin once removed, which is complicated but possible, especially when there’s a small concentration of people who have to intermarry until the gene lines are so crossed that the farthest away you can get is third cousins once removed, which is what my mother and biological father are.
Yeah. It’s rough. You might think that some people would break the rules and marry an outsider who isn’t Mormon just to spice up the gene pool, but that’s not how it works. The Mormon church is so self-involved that it doesn’t allow for anything but blind conformity and adherence to what the Prophet said, which they imprint on children at a very young age at the weekly church meetings that lasted three hours long. Mormonism is based on Christianity, with a few key differences. Mormons believe that Joseph Smith, a man who lived in New York state in the early nineteenth century, had a series of visions, including some from God and Jesus themselves, and was a prophet who discovered golden plates with ancient writings on them buried in a mountainside after the angel Moroni told him where to find them. Moroni also told him that no one else could see the plates, and Smith couldn’t even move them. Instead, he translated them by looking into a hat full of rocks, and the Book of Mormon was “translated.” It told the story of how Jesus, after his resurrection, hopped on over to the Americas to chill with the Native Americans, which is the plotline to the Book of Mormon. From the very beginning, the church was shrouded in secrecy, although they refer to these practices and beliefs as being “sacred,” which is one argument, I suppose.
Mormonism is like a secret club, and to get the magic underwear, the secret handshakes, the code name, and eventually one’s own planet, one must follow the rules. When I was a child, I was jealous that my parents had matching undergarments that I couldn’t get until I was older, because even though they were basically white t-shirts and boxer shorts, I was told they were sacred. I also wanted my own planet, of course, but I was taught that happens in the afterlife, so there wasn’t any sense of longing for it then. I didn’t learn about the secret handshakes and code names until years after I had given up on the church.
These rules create this false dichotomy of people who follow the very specific rules and those who don’t. Those who do always look down on those who don’t, even as they justify their own failings with what they put into their body as being a matter of course.
Growing up, I had heard endless times the story of how Emma Smith, the only wife of Joseph Smith that the Church openly acknowledges, although there were countless more, was tired of cleaning up the chewing tobacco that the male leaders would spit on the floor, and after she jokingly said that it would be nice if God sent down a proclamation to Joseph Smith about it, God conveniently sent down the Word of Wisdom that all church members had to follow. It starts with tobacco and cigarettes. That makes sense, because it was the reason the Word was “sent down from God” in the first place. The word moves on to alcohol, which also makes sense. Then, though, God gets a bit weird. “Hot drinks are not for the belly,” God says, in the Doctrine and Covenant 89:9. But… why not?
The church has interpreted “Hot drinks are not for the body or the belly” to mean “no coffee or tea.” This can be confusing, though, because iced coffee and iced tea are also not allowed, but herbal tea in either hot or iced form is acceptable, and hot chocolate and soup are also fine. Different church websites all come to this same conclusion, though it does not seem to follow any sort of meaningful logic. Now that I have been out of the church for the better part of a decade, I look in as an outsider with confusion. Why doesn’t anyone ever question this logic? Or better yet, why doesn’t the church come out with a cohesive doctrine about what is acceptable in the modern age?
In the beginning of church history they didn’t allow hot chocolate, but now my aunt has a cupboard full of different flavors of Stephen’s. Chocolate raspberry, Mint truffle, orange creme, and packages upon packages of regular milk chocolate. I’m not sure when it changed, or why, but as my mother stated when she was tipsy one evening and I asked her about it, “Omnipotence didn’t account for Swiss Miss.”
“Okay, sure, but then why is iced coffee not allowed?” I asked, trying to iron out this logic in my brain, because I didn’t understand. “Is it about caffeine?”
“No, of course not. It’s about control,” Mom said, and then she took a long drink of her margarita, a drink that she was over thirty before she tried the first time.
“But you don’t drink coffee when we visit Grandma and Grandpa in the summers, either,” I pointed out.
“I don’t rock the boat,” Mom said, shaking her head. “My dad knows that I drink coffee, but it drives him nuts. He tells me that he raised me better than that.”
She didn’t have to talk about how much he hates that she’s now remarried outside of the Bubble, and to a Catholic no less. Her divorce and remarriage caused quite the scandal. I chose to not say that by not drinking the coffee that she loves she’s letting herself be controlled by these white men who decide what is and isn’t okay for her to put in her body.
This was not the first time we had had this discussion, nor would it be the last. The first time I asked about it was when I was eleven, and every year after as I became more integrated with the larger US culture and became more confused. My mom had been a member of the Latter-Day Saints for almost thirty years before she made her daring escape from the church in a minivan with the aforementioned Catholic, her five children, myself included, and her dog. When my mom made the decision to move east, she and the Catholic were not married, and living with someone of the opposite sex that you weren’t married to was definitely worse than breaking the Word of Wisdom, although that didn’t help.
The first time Mom visited the Catholic in Indiana, he took her to a Victoria’s Secret and bought her a proper bra. She cast aside her magic underwear and embraced her apostasy head on, or at least, that’s how it appeared to her parents and siblings. They told her that, while the Catholic seemed very nice, she was making a mistake. I know that she struggled with finding her own identity inside the church after she received no support during her first marriage, in which she was being gaslighted and abused by her husband, or support after it ended. She struggled so long that she eventually found her identity outside the religion.
She understands better than anyone in my life how difficult it is to suddenly question every core belief that you have ever had, but she was always careful to not force the revelation that our childhood beliefs had been a lie onto us. If we wanted to go to church, then she would take us, regardless of how she felt on the matter. We decided that church was lame, and I imagine that she was relieved.
The argument for the Word is that God knows best, and that you can’t possibly try to reason with God. Sorry, I meant that you can’t possible understand the reasoning of God. He is all knowing and all powerful, so it’s best to just follow his word. After all, your body is a temple. Once the church member acknowledges this to be true, then they’re under complete control of church leadership. This is especially true for women who are disconnected from God- they have to go through their Priesthood Leaders, the male head of the house, typically a father or spouse but sometimes can be a younger brother or son depending on family dynamics. This can lead to many problems.
The Word of Wisdom is a way to root out the believers from the apostates, the heretics, those who think for themselves. The only way the Mormon church can continue to exist is because they brainwash kids from the moment they enter the church, and they send missionaries to vulnerable people and give them something, anything, to believe in, and then slap them with the crazy later.
Practicing Mormons are only advised to follow the Word of Wisdom, and in everyday life there aren’t any ramifications if you choose to smoke a spare cigarette or have a beer with your buddies. Everyone at church would judge you for it, and the bishop might stop you to have a word about your faith, but you wouldn’t be excommunicated. You just wouldn’t get to visit the temple, because in order to qualify for a temple recommend, which you have to get from your bishop, there is no lenience. Visiting the Temple is the height of the Mormon experience, and also the height of secrecy, and to be kept from it because one likes a beverage above room temperature seems ludicrous, and yet. And yet, there is no question that this doctrine is bulletproof.
I go out every June to Utah to visit my grandparents, aunts, and uncles. They love me, but that doesn’t make it any easier to know that I am a disappoint to them. When I was freshly eighteen, my uncle by marriage approached my mom’s twin and told her to tell me that I needed to wear a bra so that his sons, who were six and eight at the time, did not see the actual shape of breasts. I spent the day in the tent bawling my eyes out, but I refused to let him dictate my fashion choices.
They don’t lecture me anymore, but when I was thirteen my aunt, the one who married the aforementioned uncle, took it upon herself to give me all the education she thought my mother wasn’t giving me. She gave me a sex talk, which was focused wholly on marriage between a man and a woman, and later fell into the speech about the Word of Wisdom.
We were driving to pick my mother up from the airport, which was a two hour drive from my grandparent’s house, and she had me cornered.
“You know, they say that drinking a glass of wine a day is good for your heart, but I just don’t buy it,” she said. She glanced at me, waiting for my reaction. I was not new to this game, and so I just looked at her and waited for the lecture to be over.
“Do you really think that if you really follow the Word of Wisdom to the letter, if you exercise regularly and get eight hours of sleep, and eat healthily-” notice she did not broach the subject of coffee or tea - “that you would need that alcohol to help your heart?”
“I dunno,” I mumbled. “I mean, I don’t drink, so…” I trailed off and stared out the window. She put on the soundtrack for the musical Chess to fill the awkward silence, and then explained the plot gaps between songs. I didn’t tell her that I had stolen sips of my mom’s wine and quite liked it, actually.
Two years later when I was fifteen, I thought back to the conversation with my aunt as I opened cans and bottles and poured them into the oversized serving bowl. It will never cease to amaze me that tea isn’t okay to drink, and the Nectar of the Gods, a drink made with Rockstar, Monster, Redbull, and Orange soda all mixed together in a punch bowl, is not forbidden. I drank several glasses of this terrible concoction, and my heart was beating wildly in my chest, and I wondered if I was going to have a heart attack. It is not unheard of or even shocking to hear that someone has died from consuming too many energy drinks, and yet nowhere in the Word of Wisdom does it prohibit caffeine. Confused yet?
For most of my adolescence, I quietly opposed the church’s teachings, as well as the church itself, without thinking too much about it. Thinking about it led me back to my family, specifically to my younger cousins who looked up to me. I knew I was a role model but that I was also doing a crappy job.
When I was nineteen years old, I gritted my teeth and tried to understand why all of my family on my mother’s side ridicule her for drinking coffee. I wanted there to be a logical reason for their beliefs, because my family is not stupid. I wanted to understand why they judged me and my mom using rules that weren’t based on much. Unsatisfied with my latest conversation with my mother, I decided to reach out to someone who believed in this nonsense. Then, I chickened out of calling my family.
I was scared that they would not have a logical reason for buying into the Word of Wisdom, and I was scared of their judgement on me for breaking those rules. More than anything, I didn’t want to be a disappointment. So instead I watched videos on YouTube.
There was one video with three college aged students, one man of color, one white woman, and one white man, discussing their beliefs. “It’s not about caffeine. It’s about addiction,” the white woman said, tossing her chestnut brown hair over her shoulder, as if this untrue statement cleared everything up. I wonder if she knows that the main reason people drink coffee is because of the caffeine, and that caffeine is what makes the drink addictive, not the fact that it is a hot drink. I don’t think she understood how caffeine works.
I wondered, as I watched this video, if my neighbors could hear my loud bursts of laughter through the walls. It was a laugh that came from my gut and exploded out of my mouth, not because what these young people my age had to say was funny, but rather because they truly believed what they were saying and could not see the irony.
She truly couldn’t see the irony, as it turned out, because later in the video she says nonchalantly, “I’ve actually been accidentally drinking green tea for awhile.”
The look on the face of the young man on her right was one of absolute horror. It was the look of a man whose pet just died, who had just been dumped, who had realized that he was in a church organization that refused to give men with his skin color positions of power until “in 1978 God changed his mind about Black people,” as the Book of Mormon musical so factually states. The video was edited to make sure that you focused on this confession and his reaction. The video slows down to black and white and zooms in on his face, sad piano music begins to play and the voice over of the young woman says, “When they ask you how you are, and you just have to say that you’re fine when you’re not really fine, and you just can’t get into it because they would never understand,” because she had a smoothie drink that included chilled green tea.
How in the world is this controversial?
I was nine when we hopped in that minivan and moved away from the church and in with the Catholic, who drank coffee, which was a shock. The first time I smelled the coffee brewing on the counter, I thought the smell was disgusting. I watched my soon to be step-dad walk around the house drinking his sinful drink, and I wanted to judge him for it. I wanted to narrow my eyes and never speak to him again, except that I loved him and thought he was simply the coolest person, and he was a good person. I realized that him drinking coffee did not make him any different. My mom picked up the habit, and she became perkier in the mornings. She was more productive, and she stopped drinking so much damn coke, and once I started drawing on my skin and going outside in tank tops without the judgement of literally everyone around me, the rules of the church stopped being so important to me.
I was twelve before I began to drink coffee. Pouring myself a mug and dumping in the creamer was an act of rebellion. I felt like I had bright blue eyeshadow and a mini skirt on, and that I was going to sneak out of the house at midnight to cigarettes with my secret boyfriend. The taste was bitter, and I didn’t particularly like it, but knowing that it was outlawed kept me drinking it every day. I was seventeen before I shook off the last throes of the judgement that came with the Word of Wisdom and people who did not follow it, including people who smoke and drank, before it stopped being an act of rebellion to drink tea.
The more coffee and tea I drank, the more I realized that my health was not declining, but in fact, improving. Taking the five minutes to pour water into the kettle, boil the water, pour the water over the tea bag with one hand and setting the timer with another to make sure that the tea does not oversteep and become bitter, removing the tea bag and adding lemon and honey, or milk and sugar, or any combination thereof depending on the day, and then sitting down and holding the warm liquid in my hands… Taking those five minutes for myself puts me in an almost meditative state of relaxation and refocusing on whatever task is at hand, whether that’s my whole day or writing an essay that is emotionally exhausting, tea has my back.
I rewatched the video of those three young Mormons with a cup of tea in my hands. They have spent their entire lives thinking that avoiding tea because it is a hot drink will actually make them healthier because it’s what God proclaimed. That’s why it’s so controversial. They spent so much time avoiding things banned from the Word of Wisdom that they don’t have time to question why they’re banned, or why they have to wear special underwear, or why on Earth they consent to three hours of church on Sundays. The Word of Wisdom was a carefully constructed piece of doctrine that church leaders force down people’s throats in order to make them compliant by making them feel a part of something greater than themselves, even if that something greater is based on following the rules and judging those who don’t.
My family went on a road trip when I was seventeen: Mom, my brothers, my grandma, aunts, uncles, ten or so of my first cousins, we all got in our vans and drove to as many National Parks as we could hit in five days. Three days into this adventure, and I was collapsing under the strain of not having had coffee for the trip. Normally I could walk the half mile to the grocery store from my grandparents’ house and pick up some coffee, but with three days of close concentration of people, I hadn’t risked it. I filled up a disposable cup with hot chocolate, and I picked up the french vanilla liquid creamer packets to add to my hot chocolate to make it creamier and add a nice vanilla flavor to round out the drink.
My nine-year-old cousin, Amy, stared at me, and then down at my cup, and then back at me. “What’s in your cup?” she barked. She wasn’t asking, but demanding that I tell her.
“It’s hot chocolate,” I snapped back, bristling in defense. “Would you like to try it?”
She dropped the aggressive expression on her face and had the decency to look a tad bit embarrassed. “No, thanks,” she muttered, and went back to picking at her food.
She looked just like I did when I was nine, and she was was wearing my hand me down clothing, and so it was not difficult to see myself in her face. I felt guilty for being defensive, because there would have been nothing wrong if I was actually drinking coffee. I wanted to tell her that it’s okay to drink coffee and tea, that they are delicious and no worse for you than hot chocolate. I wanted to say that she’s allowed to make her own decisions about what she wants to do with her life, that she doesn’t have to believe in this garbage piece of doctrine that had no basis in reality and was only meant to control her.
I didn’t say any of those things, because I didn’t think she would have believed me if I had said them. Even if I did, she would have gone back to church on Sunday, and they would have corrected her thinking faster than she could blink. I didn’t stand a chance to change her mind, and I wasn’t going to risk being evicted from her life by being labeled a rule breaker because I thought it wise to tell her that I didn’t believe in her religion anymore.
Instead, I took a drink of my hot chocolate, and despite the above average temperature of the water, my belly was fine.