Saturday, June 23, 2012

Coffee Talk

Coffee has been a part of my life for thirty years, and a key element of my morning ritual for the last fifteen years. In college and law school. as well as during my first years of working, my just-in-time approach to mornings did not allow time for extravagances, like breakfast. It was basically alarm; get up; shower; get dressed; leave. I would have my first cup at school, or the office. I had the original Mr. Coffee at home, or in my dorm room throughout this time, but I really only used it on weekends, or when I would switch into full on study mode, which, sadly, was not that often.

Mr. Coffee had one button: on. You filled up the reservoir with water, loaded the basket with a paper filter and some coffee grounds, and flipped the switch. If you forgot to turn it off, you were left with a residue of burnt coffee at the bottom, and 10 minutes of scouring with soapy water.

But it worked. When I moved in with Worldwide in 1995, I took Mr. Coffee with me to my new job at the Federal Circuit, which, unlike my previous employer, did not have a coffee station. I kept I on all day, and had a cup on my desk at all times when I was in the office. When we decided to move to Macedonia in 1997, I gave it to a colleague. For all I know, it may still be working, 35 years on.

Worldwide had a fancier, more attractive model, which took over as the household workhorse. Living with her, I also discovered the appeal of a more laid-back approach to morning, with time for NPR, the Washington Post, and morning coffee, which I welcomed into my new life.

It was in Macedonia that things started to get complicated, a trend that continues to this day. Knowing that our coffee maker wouldn’t work in the 220v world of the former Yugoslavia, we bought a French press, an elegant glass vessel with a plunger for extracting every bit of flavour from the beans. It was a disaster. I don’t know if it was the grogginess of the preparers, the fine grind of the coffee in a country where everyone drank their brew Turkish style, or the particular model we selected, but something was always going awry. From grounds in the coffee, to several incidents in which the plunger somehow popped the top of the press, sending boiling water and coffee grounds all over the kitchen, the French press just couldn’t get the job done, so we broke down and bought a simple German model, which got us through our two years there. We also found a local merchant who would grind it “kako espresso,” and that helped. Plus, every office had a “coffee boy” and every meeting included a beverage, so there was no shortage of coffee in our life from 1997-99.

When we returned to DC, we lived for a while with the old machine, and then, for our new house on Albemarle Street, I bought a grind and brew model, which would grind the beans and then slide them down a chute into the filter for brewing. I began setting the clock, soon discovering that this model, which we named Millicent, took forever to brew a pot. But, for the most part, that didn’t matter, as I could set it up the night before, to be ready at the appointed time. It was only when we had to make an unanticipated batch that there was a problem, and we soon grew to love hearing the high-pitched growl of the grinder, as it did its thing, knowing that our superfresh brew would soon be awaiting us downstairs.

Millicent lasted about a year, before she stopped working. I think that I was secretly delighted, because this allowed me to trade up to a newer grind and brew model, which we did. The new model, instead of a sort of chute to transfer the beans from grinder to basket, had a swinging, spring-loaded basket, that went from its starting point below the grinder, to its resting place above the coffee pot with a satisfying “whack” sound. That worked until we left for Cairo, and another 220v life.

Not making the same mistake as Macedonia, we bought a simple coffee maker. Although the sporadic electricity supply, meant that the timer was not useful, I would still prepare the water and grounds the night before, so that the first person up needed only to flip the switch. I also found a wonderful coffee merchant in Dokki. Although my boss encouraged me to only buy Yemeni beans (Moka is the port city where Yemeni coffee was shipped from back in the day—get it?) I found a darker roast (from Tanzania, I think) that was more to our liking.

When we returned to the U.S., the grinder on our second grind and brew soon stopped working, and I decided that it was better to “componentize,” to keep separate grinders and coffee makers, thereby reducing the cost of failure, as well as having an item that was designed to do only one things—my contempt for unitaskers aside—which would, I posited, increase its reliability.

So, after a couple of hours of research, I bought a Cuisinart model, with a built-in reservoir and a tap-like dispenser, and a burr grinder from the same manufacturer. I would grind the beans the night before, and set the coffee maker for 5:30. This worked great, until the grinder stopped working, but luckily it was still under warranty, so I was able to exchange it for a new one. When the replacement stopped working after about the same period of time, I was unable to exchange it, as, apparently, the terms of sale were structured such that I did not get a new warranty along with the replacement, which was instead covered under the old warranty, i.e. guaranteed to work for one year from the date of purchase of the original model, or, in this case, for two months. So I’m back to grinding my beans the old fashioned way—at the supermarket, and at least for now, I think that I will continue to do so until the technology changes, or I’ve forgotten the worst of this lamentable history with coffee grinders.

The problem now, though, is that the fancy Cuisinart has developed a couple of problematic tics. For no reason that I have been able to discern, it will occasionally do one of two things: the reservoir will not hold the liquid, meaning that one is confronted in the morning with, instead of a fresh pot, a lake of coffee on the kitchen floor; or upon dispensing the first cup, the tap will not shut off, meaning one has to—drip by drip—sit by the machine and gradually fill up a carafe or a thermos.

Neither of these are pleasant to deal with first thing in the morning, I assure you, but they happen infrequently enough that one is inclined to cope with it, or to think that this time, whatever attempted remedy—decalcification, coarser grounds, smaller quantity of water—has succeeded. But thus far, the problems have always come back, and I suspect they always will, until we move on, as we have done so many times before.

This long, sad tale is a metaphor for the explosion of technology over the last twenty years. So many things have made our lives better during that time, but not without cost. Every innovation in the home seems to bring with it either increased stress or agonizing heartbreak, whether it be a computer that cannot be rid of pop-up ads, or a hard drive that suddenly no longer has those five years of family photos. I’m not sure what the future of coffee making in our house holds, but precedent suggests that anything beyond the simplest mug carries with it the risk of minor annoyance. Perhaps more satisficing is called for. Maybe good enough is actually better.

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