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Dale Cooper’s Damn Good Coffee Means a Lot More Than You Think

An Eater investigation into what’s in the “Twin Peaks” detective’s cup

Photo: ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images

Dale Cooper — yes, the fictional detective from David Lynch's cultishly beloved 1989 series Twin Peaks — was apparently 15 when he had his first cup of coffee. He was hitchhiking home from a Boy Scout Jamboree when he stopped into a restaurant on Pennsylvania Route 487. He had cherry pie and two cups of coffee. As the legend goes — according to The Autobiography of F.B.I. Special Agent Dale Cooper by Scott Frost, published in 1991 — Cooper said “I believe I will consider this my first experience,” into the reel-to-reel tape recorder he’d been dragging around. Dale Cooper was a weird kid.

Dale Cooper is no less weird as a man, essentially a Brylcreem ad in a mint copy of Amazing Stories weird-scienced to life, Clark Kent in a Fritz Lang movie written by Herman Hesse. It’s as if series creator David Lynch wrote his personality on a legal pad with glitter pens and invisible ink. As much as Cooper is a true blue Company Man, his core of vigilance and keen efficiency has thick veins of spirituality and philosophy running through it, straight to his heart. He is a Jungian Sherlock Holmes in a show full of archetypal characters that bend to the surreal. In Twin Peaks, the A+B=C simplicity of an investigation — Cooper, of course, is the head of the investigation into the murder of Laura Palmer, a student at Twin Peaks High School — is so rife with symbolism and duality that you need a system of linear equations just to figure out what A is.

But Cooper is a man who seems to see everything possible yet continues to look for more, even if he has to look on different planes to find it. This is also a man who likes to give an earnest thumbs up. And a man who loves a great cup of coffee.

Because coffee and Dale Cooper are so inextricably linked, I had this idea to A Beautiful Mind my way to the answer of what type of coffee he liked, what he famously viewed as “a damn fine cup.” I would base my reasoning on his life as a child of the civil rights era, born in 1954 in Pennsylvania and raised in Philadelphia before enrolling in the FBI Academy in 1977.

I’d look into what life would have been like in San Francisco, where he was assigned to a field office and enjoyed coffee with Chinese donuts before — in the tie-in books released during the show’s second season, at least — he took on the Teresa Banks murder in Deer Meadow, a small town in southwestern Washington.

I’d look into Cooper’s investigations as they took him up the western seaboard and into Twin Peaks, where he had “damn good food” and a “damn fine cup of coffee” at the Lamplighter Inn and the Great Northern Hotel. I’d look at coffee sold in roadside diners, inns, and hotels. I’d factor in what coffees were widely distributed throughout the northwestern United States in the late 1980s and early ’90s. I’d see what blends would have been found aging in the rows of carafes on the warmers that ran along the counters at Wawa coffee bars in his home state of Pennsylvania and then filter all of that information through the matrix of his singular personality.

Oh, the formulas I could have written, the chalkboards I could have scrawled on in my self-cast role as Damn Good Coffee Will Hunting. But emails stopped getting replies, calls went unanswered. It turns out nobody wants to look at sales data from the dot matrix printing era. Also, I’ve never seen Good Will Hunting.

Photo: ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images

Here’s the thing, though: The way that the world of coffee was in flux when Twin Peaks aired seems now, if not like kismet, at least like a really great coincidence to use as the foundation for a case file.

In the years leading up to Dale Cooper’s career in the FBI, the price and world supply of coffee had been pretty stable. It had been so since 1963, when the International Coffee Organization was established to oversee the International Coffee Agreement, which dictated export quotas from the world’s coffee growing countries. The first iteration of what became that agreement had been developed during World War II, to not only stabilize prices but to stabilize economic relationships between the U.S. and Latin American countries.

When those countries were effectively cut off from exporting to Europe, the resulting economic strain could have let them tempted by sympathies towards Communism or, worse, Nazis. So the U.S. shored up their relationships. And it worked. Through that midcentury period, coffee was generally affordable and plentiful, according to the United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. Supply easily met demand, and demand remained high. People fucking loved coffee!

And then, boom! 1975 hit, and soft drinks began to take over. Not to say that coffee was totally over: In the 1980s, the average amount people drank had dropped from three cups a day to two. But soda competition was actually a prime motivation behind the dawn of second-wave coffee, a push for consumer awareness and appreciation of higher-quality beans — expanding beyond the tin can market, highlighting the more delicate arabica over the hearty robusta.

But Reaganomics also meant a push for a free market. In 1989, the year that Twin Peaks started filming, things really changed: The political landscape had shifted and the U.S. no longer felt the need to protect past economic relationships, leading the International Coffee Agreement to fall apart. Supply was outpacing demand, and the price of coffee took a savage hit. More countries exporting more coffee led to a falling share of the market for Brazil, who refused to lower their quotas as their share in the world’s coffee sales fell. By the time Twin Peaks was off the air in 1991, Colombia managed to surpass Brazil as the world’s top earning coffee exporter.

Most Americans weren’t devotedly drinking coffee like Dale Cooper in the early ’90s. As coffee exports were bottoming out, soda became the most popular drink at restaurants and diners. By 1990, average coffee consumption among regular drinkers was less than two cups per day.

That makes Dale Cooper a coffee-swilling anachronism, a well-groomed glimpse into the simplicity and stillness of the past as the steam of people’s love of coffee evaporated. This cultural change actually plays beautifully into Cooper’s throwback character. With roots in film noir, Twin Peaks tweaked the timeworn formula by exchanging cigarettes for coffee, shadowy alleys for moonlit forests, and seedy detectives for the unwavering, incorruptible goodness of FBI Agent Dale Cooper. It was basically a soda-pop noir.

That said, coffee was by no means out of the picture in the early 1990s: Folgers and Maxwell House were absolutely an everyday part of life. By the time Cooper was in Twin Peaks, Folgers claimed it was the “best part of waking up.” Maxwell House continued on the track of catchy pop culture tyranny they unleashed with their “hugga mugga” slogan. Taster’s Choice had Anthony Stewart Head and Sharon Maughan playing out a slow burn romance.

The one variable I very realistically felt I could make a guess at in my construct of Dale Cooper’s coffee preferences was the bean. I’d originally reasoned that he would like robusta, guessing that he would appreciate the sturdiness and hardiness of the plant. I also thought he might enjoy the lower acidity and nuttiness of that bean, but then, I reconsidered, not fully able to count out the soft fruity roundness of the arabica. I can’t imagine Cooper caring about being able to taste notes of Pop Rocks or dirt or whatever third-wave coffee sommelier bullshit we’re being sold these days with some of the milk-curdling light roasts I’ve had. But he also has a poet’s soul, so I definitely can’t see him wanting the flatness of a dark roast.

“What coffee would taste best if it was as black as moonless night?” I asked myself. And the answer finally came. But the answer has undercut all of the fun of those exhaustively built constructs, based on nothing but internalized fanfic. It has taken my theories, wrapped them in plastic, and dropped them at the bottom of a lake.

Here is what I now completely believe to be true: Dale Cooper doesn’t care about the coffee.

Because damn good coffee — that “damn fine cup of coffee” that Dale Cooper is talking about — is not about the coffee at all. It’s about the experience. It’s an encounter. It’s chance and enlightenment. It’s simply being present. Sometimes it’s not great, sometimes it’s fish-filtered, but it’s always an experience.

There can definitely be romance in a thoughtful cup of coffee: Delicate flavors in a well-poured cup can be evocative as both launching and landing pads for memories. But that is just one kind of experience. Wrapping your hands around a diner mug at a lunch counter can also be a communal experience, a comfort, a touchstone of conviviality, a moment of community on a lonely road trip.

Dale Cooper is a man who seeks connection, who is at his best in that place where curiosity and community intersect. And coffee helps him make that connection. So it just doesn’t matter what is actually in the cup. What matters is where he is, who he is with, what he is doing — that he is present. And there is something to be said for having no expectations beyond the experience, for finding pleasure in the simplicity of a very human interaction that involves some water, some beans, and a cup. Or maybe two.

“Harry,” Cooper says in Twin Peaks’s pilot episode. “I’m going to let you in on a little secret: every day, once a day, give yourself a present. Don’t plan it; don’t wait for it; just let it happen. It could be a new shirt in a men’s store, a catnap in your office chair, or two cups of good, hot, black, coffee.”

Give yourself the gift of Dale Cooper. Whether it’s watching him in the original series, discovering him the new series, or even doing a deep dive on the character in an absurd attempt to nail down how a fictional character would intersect with a real-life cup of coffee, the character of Dale Cooper, himself, is a worthy experience.

Melissa Buote writes about food and culture from a tiny flat in the tiny city of Halifax in the tiny province of Nova Scotia, where she is a contributing editor at The Coast.
Editor: Erin DeJesus