I don’t like it; never did. But ohhhhhhhhhh the sensory memories, something you younger folk are deprived of.
’twas a time when every supermarket had one or more machines that ground coffee. There were various beans for various blends and a setting for how coarsely you wanted the beans ground. It was all a mystery to me, but I couldn’t get close enough to the machine while my mother was using it, or even at times purposely taking the wrong aisle in following her because I heard someone else using it. I was drawn to the smell; it was absolutely transporting. I had to drink it in. And when dearly beloved, and now mostly unknown to many, Juan Valdes came into our lives via TV, I was transported next to him and his donkey as we wandered across the mountains carrying coffee beans together to the very machine next to which I stood.
There was more. The vacuum packed tin of coffee, tho’ no longer made of tin by the time I had come along. There was a ritual to the opening of the can. A key slipped into a tab and round and round the can it rolled until it seemed to fight back a little. Here came the magic moment. A long hiss was released signaling the breaking of the vacuum and with that hiss came the uplifting smell of freshly ground coffee.
Each brand had a jingle or a tag line that was so defining that it stuck with the listeners forever, user of the brand or not. I remember Chock Full O Nuts, my mother’s favorite, was the “heavenly coffee” and that Maxwell House was “good to the last drop.” After that line appeared a glistening drop that went, “Ping!” Of Folger’s brand coffee, Mrs. Olson told us in her slightly Scandinavian accent that her choice of coffee was “specially blended and mountain grown.” “You’ll like the flavor,” she assured us.
Savarin trotted out “El Exigente.” He wanted us to know that he was “the demanding one” who would let no unworthy bean slip past him into the blend that hit your cup. Nor can we forget Chase and Sanborne almost as well known for its phenomenally sexist ad as it was for its coffee. As a woman kicked, draped across her husband’s lap kicked her heels wildly while being spanked> Why? For the sin of brewing inferior coffee that she hadn’t done “the freshness test.” This king of his castle told her and us that C&S was so fresh that just buying it was a “sure and certain way to test for freshness.” Gotta love the 50’s…
But there was more, the coffee pot. The fresh grounds were scooped into the bin, peppered with little holes, that slipped over the hollow pipe that was inserted into bottom of the pot. The appropriate amount of water was then added and the pot was, early on in my life, placed on the stove, and later plugged into the wall. Within minutes, either way, came a sound that will stay with me to the grave. As the water began to boil and was washed over the grounds, it was pushed to the top of the pot where it bounded off the glass piece that fit in the pot’s top. This was known as perking, taken I assume from the type of pot called a percolator. This feat of physics brought on the cry to someone or anyone, or in my mother’s case occasionally to no one, ” ‘COFFEE”S PERKIN’!” like it was part of the process. My focus was on the coffee bouncing rhythmically into the glass all the while getting darker and darker. (The electric version took the mystery out of it all by having a red light to tell you, “I’m done!”) Without that red light one could miss the mark. When that happened as cup reached lip a scowl ensued and angry words of failure were uttered, “Ugh! Too bitter!” Or “Yehk! Too strong!”
Coffee then was fairly simple. There were a bunch of brands, but not so many as to need a coffee sommelier to describe what they tasted like and how they should be brewed. I remember Savarin in it’s red tin, Chock Full O Nuts in its yellow and black tin, something called Eight O’Clock, the A&P brand, which was never drunk in our house, and the blue of the Maxwell House “tin”. Like scotch drinkers, coffee drinkers could be quite deliberate about which they drank, when, and for what reason. To me, it all tasted awful and it all smelled wonderful.
Then came “instant” and the decline of the experience began….
To this day I drink no coffee, though a cone or two of coffee ice cream I find delicious. Go figure. I’ve worked in some heavy coffee drinking offices, most particularly the Sheriff’s Department. As I watch people pick from a dozen or two blends of coffee mashed into “cups” that are popped into machines that look somewhat like the orange juice squeezers of my youth, I feel a sense of sadness. As the coffee splashes into the cup with the faintest of smells that certainly don’t fill a room I want to say, “Wait! You’re missing the whole experience. The pop, the hiss, the smell, the sounds of the perking. All you’re doing is drinking the stuff–you need to experience it!”
Time is not that precious that it’s loss should steal from you coffee drinkers the real magic of coffee, which is in the making not just the drinking–at least from my perspective.