For Love of Coffee and Words

Like many writers, I’ve come to view the neighborhood coffee shop as a second home (office). There’s something about being out of the house, in a public space, that helps me focus. I never procrastinate, I seldom check email, and if I’m briefly distracted by the other people in the shop, those seconds lost are offset by the pressure I feel to appear busy. Noise-canceling headphones also help.

But it’s not just about getting out of the house that brings me to the shop. It’s the smell of the espresso, the sound of the beans grinding and milk frothing, and the local art on display. It’s the people who remember your name and the way you like your cappuccino — not too wet, not too dry. And at my local joint, Sno Valley Coffee (which also has craft beer on tap), the leather armchair next to the fireplace also brings me in. It’s what keeps me from going to the library across the street.

The Pre-Addiction Years

I didn’t grow up in a coffee drinking house. Oh, sure, my mom made a pot every morning, only to color it beige with so much milk that it ceased to resemble the Maxwell House dripping from the Proctor-Silex. I’d dunk my Oreos and ‘Nilla Wafers into her mug every now and then, but drink the stuff? Yuck! That was for old ladies who played Scrabble and watched General Hospital. She was in her thirties.

The first time I ordered a coffee of my own was during an early morning surf trip with my high school friends. Beverage maturity had struck at sixteen and suddenly, without discussion, it became de rigueur for our group of five to make a Dunkin’ Donuts pit-stop before merging onto the Garden State Parkway. Shore Points exits or bust. We used to surf throughout the winter in New Jersey so the cold may have had something to do with our yearning for scalding liquids. I distinctly recall sitting in the backseat of my friend’s gold Monte Carlo, a car equal parts Bondo and steel, sipping from a too-large, too-hot Styrofoam cup. After holding the damn thing between my legs for an hour, I’d inevitably pour three-fourths of it in a sewer when we reached the beach. Which, if you ask me, is where Dunkin Donuts coffee belongs.

That sound you heard was my east coast readership slamming their laptops closed and throwing their phones in disgust.

Just kidding, everyone knows people who drink Dunkin’ Donuts coffee can’t read.

And now that I’ve firmly established my Left-Coast Liberal Elitist Scum® bona-fides, let’s continue. And don’t worry, Starbucks won’t get off lightly either.

The Taste Has Been Acquired…

I had my first encounter with the wonderful world of independent coffee shops in college. Hill of Beans had opened one block off campus on College Hill in Easton, PA and, despite the owner being a Pittsburgh Steelers fan (a trait I found impossible to reconcile long before 2005), she graciously added 10% in store credit to my monthly deposit. Yes, I was 19 years old and had a “meal plan” at a coffee shop. She brewed Green Mountain Coffee (Rainforest Nut was my go-to) and served up a perfectly toasted-and-buttered spinach bagel. I had two bagels and at least three mugs before morning classes, even more if I had to go in early to study.

I shelved books in the library to pay for my caffeine fix, presumably so I could stay awake to shelve more books, to earn more money, and well, you get the idea.

My first writing breakthrough came, at least intellectually, at The Percolator, a complete dive of a coffee shop in Greenville, NC. It was 1998 and I was taking a Scientific Manuscripts class as part of the Master’s degree I was working toward. The Percolator had three things that stand out: 1) The Red-Eye, a drink boasting five shots of espresso, a splash of hot water, and a dollop of frothed milk, 2) the best damn hot-pepper vegetable cream cheese I’ve ever had (along with really good everything bagels), and 3) a collection of furniture that not even Goodwill would consider appropriate for human usage.

Our final grade in the class was based on how well we revised the abstract, proposal, and whatever portion of our thesis we had completed that semester. I didn’t think my initial abstract submission was that bad, but it came back with a 2:1 ratio of red ink to black. Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it’s also one tough mother of a nut to crack.

Sitting on the torn upholstered chair, notebooks scattered across the scratched, wobbly table, I felt as if I was working my way through every possible combination on a locked briefcase. Inside were untold riches, or at least an A, and, after several hours, I knew I was getting close.

Click!

Everything snapped into place: The understanding of what an abstract was, what it needed to accomplish, and what my thesis was really about, or at least how to describe it. I wrote as fast as my hand could move and didn’t stop, didn’t cross anything out, didn’t fuss over word choice or punctuation. I just wrote. Five paragraphs later I knew it was perfect. I couldn’t believe it happened and never thought it’d happen again. The typed version came back a week later with an A+ and a note, “Would submit to journals as-is.”

…And Refined

The evolution of coffee in America largely parallels my own coming of age. Together, from the 80s to the 00s, we evolved from frail, wimpy, misunderstood beings to posses a state of complex maturity aware of our own histories and, at times, growing too big for our britches. Though I can take responsibility for my own missteps (and successes), the humble mug of coffee owes much of its rise in popularity to he who shan’t be named in these parts.

Like anything that achieves mainstream popularity, the sudden rise is often met with a depressing plummet to meet the tastes of the lowest common denominator. In that, Starbucks is unique. It simultaneously defaces the European coffee tradition in effort to suck more dollars from people who, one can only assume by the things they order, don’t actually like coffee, all the while charging so much for their drinks that they become ridiculed by the people who find nothing wrong with the dishwater being brewed at 7-11.

I try not to go to Starbucks. Not because I have a philosophical argument against their ubiquity — by most accounts it’s a very good company to work for — but because I don’t like the smell of burnt cooking spray. And for some reason, no matter what time of day you walk into a Starbucks, the potent punch of burnt canola oil smacks you dead in the face.

Nevertheless, I like to have a cup of coffee with me wherever I go and that often entails a meeting with the mermaid. Fortunately, you can’t smell the cooking spray from the drive-through.

I have two rules for ordering coffee to-go. For starters, if you can’t order it in less than five words, you’re doing it wrong. Secondly, always order an Americano instead of drip coffee. It’s made on the spot, when you order it, and combines shots of espresso with hot water. The result is a fresh, strong cup of coffee that — and this is key — tastes virtually the same no matter where you buy it.

Americanos in Europe

Popular belief places the origins of the Cafe Americano in Italy, during World War II. American troops wanted something that tasted more like the Folgers they were used to back home and took to asking the Italian baristas to add water to their espresso shots.

I certainly slammed back my fair share of espresso shots at all manner of coffee bars during our bicycle tour, but sometimes I wanted to just sit and spend time journaling or reading. And having ordered Cafe Americanos throughout most of western Europe, I can attest to there being a very big misunderstanding about the drink, and why we order it. In places without a significant cafe culture — Italy, Portugal, and Greece for example — espresso is to be sipped (or slammed) at the bar or in a restaurant following your meal. Ordering an Americano in these places was odd because it often left you feeling like a loiterer. And would undoubtedly get you a disproving look from the barista, a look that said look at the silly American who is too weak to handle our mighty espresso!

But that’s not it at all. France gets it. Austria gets it. Morocco and even some parts of Spain, particularly the Basque region, they get it too. It’s not that we need a weaker drink, but one that can be enjoyed over time. Sometimes the moment calls for a drink that can be savored for thirty minutes, as opposed thirty seconds. And cappuccinos, with their wide-mouthed mugs, often cool too rapidly (don’t get me started on lattes). While other Continental Europeans may not order the drink, it was nice to be somewhere where sitting and enjoying a coffee for hours wasn’t unusual. And if Starbucks is responsible for popularizing that concept in North America, then I’m all the happier for it.

Nevertheless, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything approaching a 16oz or 20oz drink outside of a Starbucks anywhere in Europe. We really are gluttons, but coffee is one excess I’m not about to apologize for.

I was on my third Cafe Americano, por favor in Pamplona, at the famed Cafe Irunya, working on an article for Adventure Cyclist magazine. The statue of Hemingway loomed in the corner of the handsome, spacious cafe and I was on a tear. I was revising an incomplete draft of an essay about homesickness and while walking back to my table with my third mug, had that same epiphany that I had all those years ago at Percolator.

Click!

My fingers danced across the thirteen inch laptop as I politely tried to ignore the Spaniard flirting with me from the adjacent table. Noise-canceling headphones, where were you? I sipped and I typed and plowed ahead, eyes ahead, except to periodically glance the statue of the young American who loved the bulls of that city nearly as much as he loved the region’s wine.

The article was published virtually unchanged. Thank you coffee, you wonderful, magical bean. Don’t be a stranger.

Post Image by gordonplant, used under Creative Commons.

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