The Myth and Ritual of Coffee in Mario Puzo’s The Fortunate Pilgrim
Jason Wurtsbaugh

When I arrived in Italy in May 1998, my first order of business was to sample  some Italian coffee.   Being an avid coffee drinker, and having heard that Italians brew the best in the world, I was quite eager to find a little bar that would cheerfully quench my craving.  I was not disappointed.  The cappuccino that I sipped that day was a two-layer affair, a mountain of rich foamy milk atop a modest amount of strong, hot espresso.
It was heavenly.  As I swirled the thick steaming layers together, I was fascinated by the lively Italian being spoken in the bar, the laughter, and the peace and ease in the bartender’s face.  I felt honored to be privy to the rituals that were taking place before my eyes.

Coffee is a truly a mythological treasure.  It serves the dual functions of waking one up and providing one with relaxation.  It is both acid and base, bitter and sweet, caustic and comforting.  It is used for an array of purposes: to soothe, to give energy, to lend fortitude, to bring people together.  Sometimes it is ascribed almost supernatural healing properties.  In Mario Puzo’s The Fortunate Pilgrim, coffee takes these roles and more: the drinking of coffee is an immensely important ritual that serves a myriad of social functions and responds to a wide range of human emotions.

Wine, arguably the only other substance surrounded by so much myth and ritual, also plays a part in Puzo’s novel, but it is coffee that is the drink of choice and ritual for Lucia Santa.  Early in the novel, the beverage is aptly described as “ceremonial”: “Lucia Santa served the ceremonial coffee, then said, ‘Zia Louche, I am going to see the little one.  Care for the girl and Lorenzo.  Do me this favor.’” (Puzo 36)  Coffee is the focal point of the meeting, a warming beverage to represent the warmth between two people.  It is this warmth, this caring human connection, that enables Lucia Santa to ask her friend for a favor.  At the same time, the hot coffee lends fire to her courage and conviction, giving her the requisite strength to confront Filomena. (37)

Interestingly, coffee becomes a pacifier, a salve, when Lucia Santa returns from Filomena’s house shaken and distraught with her baby Vincenzo in her arms.  Again, its warming quality is emphasized: “She entered the house feverish with cold, her coat wrapped around the sleeping infant, her sallow skin black with the blood of anger, rage, despair.  She was trembling.  Zia Louche said, ‘Come. Coffee waits.  Sit down.  Octavia, the cups.’” (39)  At first, Lucia Santa resists, even after Zia Louche gently implores, “Coffee.  Hot coffee.  Calm yourself.” (39)  The reader gets the sense that Lucia Santa knows that the drink will remedy her condition, but that she needs to feel the anger a bit longer before surrendering to the comfort of the thick black coffee.  Finally she sips, and the transformation is dramatic.  Puzo writes, “Soon enough she took coffee; soon enough  she calmed and composed herself.  There was much work to do.” (40)  Here, coffee is seen as not only comforting but regenerative and life-giving as well.

The novel displays many other instances in which coffee follows conflict, suggesting the mythological presence of soothing, healing, and mending powers in the beverage.  After Lucia Santa vehemently chastises Larry in an explosive episode at la  casa di LeCinglata, she comes home and has coffee with Octavia; the two women sit and contemplate Larry’s future. (72)  Also, Lucia Santa serves coffee after Larry gets into a fist-fight with a railroad worker, and the family shares a moment of pride and affection for the eldest son.  Their conception of coffee as a relaxant is so trusted that almost immediately after imbibing, Lucia Santa instructs Larry to go back to bed; he does, feeling “tired and at peace.” (80)

Just as smooth, rich coffee coats the mouth, the coffee ritual has a “smoothing-over” effect in social situations, coating and covering the rough edges in human contact.  When confronted with an abrupt visit from the LeCinglatas’ lawyer, Octavia’s first reaction is to bring him a cup of joe.  “Friend or enemy, a guest was offered something to drink,” Puzo writes. (72)  When Mr. and Mrs. Colucci come over, Frank Corbo seeks to actively participate in the coffee ritual, a gesture which shows his goodwill and respect for his guests: “…for the first time since their marriage she heard that note which means that the speaker will bow to the wishes and opinions of his listeners.  He was nervous, anxious to please.  For the first time, he wanted people to think well of him.  He poured the coffee himself.” (93)

There is a startling parallel scene later in the novel when the policemen come to seize the unstable Frank Corbo.  “Everyone must have coffee,” he declares.  “I’ll make it myself.” (112)  In his insanity, Frank tries to inject a dose of comfort and ease into the tense, precarious situation: he offers coffee.  But the coffee ritual “malfunctions” for Frank, as it fails to allay, or even mask, the tension in the room.  This makes him feel even more alienated and powerless, and in desperation he pushes the kitchen table and knocks over the coffee cups.  This image of coffee cups falling over, becoming unable to hold liquid and therefore useless, emphasizes the futility of his endeavor--and also the failure of his sanity.

The coffee cups again become a significant part of the imagery when Octavia tries to persuade Lucia Santa to bring Frank home.  The scene opens with the mother sipping her coffee nervously.  (182)  By this point the reader is well-acquainted with the nuances of Lucia Santa’s personality and behavior; it is easy to picture her hands trembling slightly, causing the coffee’s hot liquid surface to quiver as she takes small, deliberate sips.  Octavia, “bowing her head over her coffee,” says, “Ma, let’s give it a try, for the kids.” (184)  But Lucia Santa is opposed-- she knows what generosity can cost, and she also knows that people inevitably repeat the same behaviors.  “You will get tired of your stepfather, there will be quarrels, shrieks, curses, and you will marry the first man you meet and disappear.  And I will pay for your large, open heart.”   Then with ominous finality she declares, “He will be sick for the rest of our lives,” condemning him to life in the asylum.  Interestingly, the two women immediately wash their coffee cups (to emphasize that they are washing their hands clean of Frank Corbo?) (184)

When the welfare investigator Mr. La Fortezza starts calling upon the Angeluzzi-Corbo household, the coffee ritual becomes a means for Lucia Santa to remain in his good favor, securing future relief checks.  Thus, the ritual is modified to include light coffee (café americano), cake, white bread sandwiches, and time for Mr. La Fortezza’s complaining.  “Lucia Santa was so grateful that she served coffee with cake, though coffee alone was enough for the laws of hospitality.  And over the coffee Mr. La Fortezza told his woes.” (167)   Puzo goes on: “Gino would watch wide-eyed at the little scene to be played.  The thin pink and yellow slices laid out on a long ceremonial platter, the large mug of coffee, and Mr. La Fortezza at his ease, resting his swollen feet on another chair as he talked to Lucia Santa about his trials and tribulations, the mother shaking her head in sympathy.” (167-8)   These  one-sided conversations suggest that Mr. La Fortezza views the coffee ritual as simply a forum to air his grievances; in this way, he diminishes the possibility of establishing any real connection, making the ritual seem artificial and weak, just like his light coffee.

It is fascinating to look at the varied roles of coffee in Larry’s life.  He relaxes with coffee after his fight with the railroad worker, as mentioned; his high tolerance for caffeine allows him peaceful slumber.  It is also worth noting that at his wedding, the celebratory beverage is not wine: “They all sat down to a wedding feast of coffee and dry buns…” (146)    When he takes the job with the bakery union, his coffee consumption escalates as he is given free cups while making the rounds.  The offering of coffee is just as important as making conversation in Larry’s eyes; therefore, he views the non-offer of coffee as an insult.  He has a distaste for the German bakers who “rarely offered him coffee and buns or chatted to show their friendliness.”  He is not overly concerned about this perceived flaw, however, because “he drank too much coffee now anyway.”  It becomes apparent that his high consumption is akin to the grand mythological status that he grants coffee—it  makes him “feel like a gangster.” (193)  Yet coffee is acidic, and prolonged heavy consumption takes its toll.  Larry often wakes up in a bad humor and remains so until the coffee is coursing through his veins.  “She knew her oldest son was always at his worst in the morning…rumpled undershirt draped over with black wiry chest hair.” (247)

Sometimes the coffee ritual is severely disrupted, but it always continues again.  Lucia Santa is enjoying a cup with Teresina Coccalitti when the telegram arrives notifying her of Frank’s death, for instance.  Puzo mentions that they were engaged in their mid-morning coffee in order to create a disruption here; this sets the coffee ritual in contrast with the arrival of the telegram, and lends power to the latter.  Interestingly, Lucia Santa is more surprised by Teresina’s ability to read English than by the news of her husband’s death; this piece of information further confounds their mid-morning coffee session.  It is evidence that he has been dead in her heart for a long time already. (220-21)

When Vinnie tragically dies, Lucia Santa is devastated.  It is significant that she can no longer pour her own coffee--numb with sorrow and rage, she sits at the table while Gino pours.  Puzo includes this detail to show how paralyzed she is by this loss: she can no longer fulfill her usual role in the coffee ritual, a simple, daily, established routine.  Not surprisingly, Gino’s pouring of the coffee is rife with meaning.  It obviously signifies his new-found sense of responsibility, but it holds a different meaning for Lucia Santa: she sees it as his last-ditch effort to make amends for not attending his father’s funeral.  This causes a rage that simmers under the surface.  “Gino got the coffee pot and poured his mother’s cup full.  Doing so, he touched her body and she leaned away from him, looking up at him in such a way that he froze, stupidly holding the great brown pot high over the table.” (253)   Soon after, she verbally berates him in front of guests, and implies that his participation in the coffee ritual is hypocritical: “She paused to let an insulting forgiving contempt enter her voice.  ‘You want to show how sorry you are now?  You pour coffee, you hold my coat.  Then maybe you’re not an animal, after all.’” (255)

The sheer number of myths surrounding coffee is astounding, and The Fortunate Pilgrim brings many to light.  Coffee almost assumes the dimensions of a character in this novel: it is a part of daily life, a comforter, a healer, and a source of strength; it is a gesture of kindness, goodwill, and celebration.  The rituals in which it is consumed serve a host of psychological, social, and aesthetic functions.

Works Cited

Puzo, Mario.  The Fortunate Pilgrim.  New York: Random House, 1964.  283 p.

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March 9, 2000
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