Archive for November 27th, 2007

By OmbudsBen

I’ve known a lot of women who rely on coffee for ignition. A kind of starter fluid, rise and grind. In my experience, it’s enough to draw a tenuous gender distinction, so long as I draw it carefully, or at a safe distance. Of course coffee can be starter fluid for men, too, but in my family the percolation prerequisite (the perc perk?) is less dire for men. We’re early risers by nature. As a kid I was a morning paper boy and would no more have dreamt of having a jolt of coffee first than sticking a fork in an electrical socket.

It was different for my mom, who wakes like a tightly closed flower and isn’t going to open up until she’s got a little boost of caffeine running through her veins. Hoping for the best perhaps, but caffeine-fortified for the worst. I grew up in a medical household where one of the jokes was that the first IV of the day should be run from the coffeemaker upstairs to our mother. She might have tried it, too, but as she was the only one trained to start an IV, she wasn’t taking any chances with the rest of us. Not without having a cup of coffee first.

We brewed ours like everyone else did, out of an aluminum canister labeled “coffee” with a black plastic lid and kept on the kitchen counter next to three others for flour, sugar, and salt. After Mom had her first upon rising and most of us had a cup with breakfast, we were good to go, and I don’t think we gave coffee much thought after that. It was, at most, break fluid. You complained if it sat on a burner too long and cooked down to the consistency of 30 weight oil, but none of us ever thought to ask whether our beans came from Guatemala, Kenya, or Sumatra.

I now live among people who believe that coffee is more than just a plant, a product of agriculture. One of them told me that the word bean doesn’t do the fruit of the coffee plant justice. Beans are kidney, pinto, lima, and string. The elixir of coffee is finer stuff, more powerful; it is morning’s complement to an evening’s cocktail.

My grandfather would have scoffed at distinguishing coffee as separate from beans. He was a farmer before managing a grain elevator, one of the gray prairie spires that gather our corn, wheat and oats. His simple linoleum-floored office, with metal furniture and desk, kept coffee simmering on a burner, as a social gesture for local farmers. It was a place to do business as well as share a cup. They’d formed a cooperative, and I imagine sharing a pot of coffee was an extension of that, discussing the price of commodities and the events of the day as they sipped thin coffee. They were a dry-humored bunch of leather-skinned old farmers who told jokes about each other, and who grew the grain that may well have gone into sandwiches you’ve eaten.

So their coffee was more a social beverage than a starter fluid, meaning what they drank was weak by our standards. I suppose that way they could sip it frequently during the day. Or maybe after a few hours of cooking down on the burner it wasn’t too lethal, I’m not sure. But Grandpa wasn’t fond of thick stuff. My great-aunt Florence, on the other hand, favored a potent pot. “That Florence,” Grandpa said, “brews a cup of coffee you could stand on.”

Florence, I believe, resented the notion. I never heard Grandpa say it around her, but she complained about thin restaurant coffee to me once. “Just a spot of cream I added,” she groused as an aside, “and the whole cup turned white. It was too thin for cream. What that coffee wanted was milk.”

I left home as a young man, moving to a distant city, where the notion of coffee as sensory experience had escalated far beyond the kitchen counter canisters of my youth. My peers debated refrigerated or frozen, bought fancy grinders and coffeemakers that ground beans just before brewing, and they considered the qualities of foreign beans like the French discuss wine. My coworkers debated which vendor purveyed the best coffee; one disgruntled employee in accounting vehemently refused to drink the trendiest blend, a pungent brew he likened to the odor of camel droppings. (How did he recognize the scent?)

The topic of office coffee gathered so much steam we had a mini crisis over the cups, and I wrote a humor piece, called “Coffee Muggings,” for our office newsletter:

It’s Monday morning, and after the week’s first crawl to the office you’re approaching your goal – a cuppa hot coffee. But just as you near caffeine paradise, good humor is snatched from the jaws of java heaven as your very own coffee cup, the one your lips are accustomed to, is nowhere to be found. It happens, and there’s nothing to be done except snap at your boss or snarl at your secretary, or maybe blame Housekeeping and plot revenge. People seem to fall into two distinct camps on this. Some, like joyful beagles, go through life befriending all, eager to share any old coffee cup they have. For them, the trauma of separation from one’s coffee cup elicits nothing more than knit brows and a quizzical smile. Others are like Greyfriar Bobby, the Scottish terrier loyal nigh unto death, and a coffee cup is a treasure, a true friend lost in the moment of need.

This is a friendly plea from the terriers to the beagles. A number of cups are “missing in action” and the woeful howling emanating from our kitchen some mornings is a sorry sound. If you haven’t a cup of your own, please use a plain tan cup or one of the unclaimed castoffs in the far left cupboard. It may save on churlish morning manners – some bites can be worse than their barks.

And that was just about the cups, the collection of motley travel keepsakes from the Grand Canyon or Wall Drugs, South Dakota. Cups with heat-sensitive logos where the Phantom of the Opera would appear or some corporate logo would be revealed promising a solution to our temp employee needs, until the heat-sensitivity wore out and the poor phantom lost his disappearing act, looking a little bit sheepish.

Stay tuned for “Coffee Rorschach – Part 2,” where the author talks about the perils of caffeinated vs. non-caffeinated dating, his coffee habits, and how he prefers his coffee today.

About the author:  OmbudsBen once traveled to the island of Java in Indonesia and ordered a “cup of java, please.” His traveling companion was quite amused by the blank stares the request drew, everywhere. While the Javanese are familiar with the term hamburger, and our word catsup comes from their word kecap, if they use slang when ordering a cuppa joe, it does not involve the word java.

Since then, he has met with similar rebuffs involving Vienna sausages, French fries, and Chinese fortune cookies. He found some consolation in a Belgian white ale. You can read more about him by clicking here.

Read Full Post »