The ubiquity of upscale cafes and beaneries in the urban landscape obscures the grudging awareness in America, over time, of a good cup of coffee. In an upbeat song from '69 that Carmen McRae later perfected, it was the just the next best thing ...
Just a little lovin', early in the mornin'
Beats a cup of coffee for startin' off the day.
Just a little lovin', when the world is yawnin',
Makes you wake up feelin' good things are coming your way
... far better at least than the dirge of Ella's Black Coffee, 'a hand-me-down brew' reminiscent of the swill of that period, rendered even more disreputable by its association with cigarettes and jazz.
At the time, grocers carried a handful of brands and I had to go to a hardware store to buy my first percolator, a flimsy aluminum contraption. Local hardware stores were still around when Mr. Coffee made his appearance some years later and made one dependent on filter paper. I gave that a pass and bought a pot that was a household version of Bunn coffee makers, once common in diners, that forced boiling water up a funnel into an upper chamber containing the grounds, then allowed it to drip through with the heat turned low. When that broke, I found that Corning has discontinued the product and got myself a more substantial percolator, a stainless steel wonder that regulated itself. Next, the French press made its appearance. I couldn't master it and soon gave up. Bialetti introduced their stovetop espresso makers to America and I put my percolator away. They survive to this day if only because of their routine appearance in European films. I ran through a bunch of them until electric versions hit the shelves in appliance stores. From there it was a short hop to justifying the outlay of a few hundred bucks for a real espresso machine. America and I had arrived. All the while, in the land of my birth, tastes in coffee had followed the opposite trajectory.
At the time, grocers carried a handful of brands and I had to go to a hardware store to buy my first percolator, a flimsy aluminum contraption. Local hardware stores were still around when Mr. Coffee made his appearance some years later and made one dependent on filter paper. I gave that a pass and bought a pot that was a household version of Bunn coffee makers, once common in diners, that forced boiling water up a funnel into an upper chamber containing the grounds, then allowed it to drip through with the heat turned low. When that broke, I found that Corning has discontinued the product and got myself a more substantial percolator, a stainless steel wonder that regulated itself. Next, the French press made its appearance. I couldn't master it and soon gave up. Bialetti introduced their stovetop espresso makers to America and I put my percolator away. They survive to this day if only because of their routine appearance in European films. I ran through a bunch of them until electric versions hit the shelves in appliance stores. From there it was a short hop to justifying the outlay of a few hundred bucks for a real espresso machine. America and I had arrived.
All the while, in the land of my birth, tastes in coffee had followed the opposite trajectory.
In Madrasi hotels real coffee continued to be the beverage of choice, sold 'by the yard' in reference to the exhibition of the hot brew being cooled and frothed by repeatedly pouring from tumbler to tumbler over a distance as wide as the waiter dared. To the rest of the country though, Nescafe had become synonymous with coffee, making inroads even into the most traditional of South Indian homes. In my college days, when it was first introduced, hotels had a way of disguising the ersatz. For an extra fifty paise you got special coffee. A few teaspoonfuls of water or milk were added to the instant and the mix beaten with a fork, interminably it seemed, to produce a rich beige froth which was then ready for the addition of hot milk. We are talking four decades before the recent introduction to haute cuisine of froths and foams by the Catalan chef of El Bulli - a word of louche connotation where I grew up! Indians have brought their Nescafe culture to the US and I prudently decline when relations offer me coffee in their homes. Nevertheless, Southies like Sujatha and myself remain nostalgic for the coffee from our mothers' kitchens. The memories are not just of the quotidian cup that started off the day, but of the ritual and ambience that embellished the taste. Mine predate Sujatha's to a time when my mother had to start from scratch with the green bean.
An entire morning was set aside every few weeks for the chore of roasting beans. The lowly roaster was part of my mother's trousseau. It was a crude steel cylinder with a small sliding door, fitted with a bent rod for a crank, and suspended on slotted uprights attached to the sides of a brazier. The operation was carried out in our backyard. Coke, which was practically free in our company town, was too sulphurous for the purpose, so charcoal had to be at hand. It took my mother an hour to get the charcoal lit and then to wait until the smoke had dissipated, leaving only the fierce embers. Then came the tedium of filling the cylinder with beans and slowly cranking the device, all the while averting her face from the smoke and constantly dabbing her eyes with the end of her sadi. For a visual check on the progress of the beans she had to open the sliding door with a wet rag and squint through the dense smoke that emanated. The aroma suffused the entire neighborhood. The price to pay - and well worth it - was the godawful screech of metal turning on metal. I never lingered to watch the clean-up but, days later, would beg to be allowed to grind the roasted beans in the hand-cranked made-in-England Spong mill. We moved to the big city when I was starting into my teens, and my mother dumped the roaster. Later, the Spong was jettisoned too. They would have fetched a goodly price today in antique crazy America, but for Indians such things are raddi, old junk, and reminders of arduous times for housewives. Thereafter, coffee, ready roasted and ground, was bought every week at the Madras Provision Store
A few years ago I succumbed to the memory of the ritual and the ineffable aroma, and bought into home roasting. I am on my third electric roaster. A crazy obsession, roasting coffee beans has its own rewards. I can see it leading to alienation of affection from family and friends; fortunately for me, I am immune. It brands one as a snob - more commonly, a kook. You become one with the bean. You learn to attune your ears to listen for the loud 'first crack', which announces that the bean has started to resign itself to its fate. Your nose learns to detect the stages of caramelization of the beans. The 'second crack' arrives, sounding more like distantly heard Chinese fire-crackers, and you have to decide how long to let the process continue. Jargon sets in to confound. Light, medium and dark are words for the mere initiate - who knew of espresso, Vienna, Italian, French and City roasts and how these grades are to be got at! I am still a naïf at it.
And then there are the coffee grinders ... mills, as we snobs call them.
The rewards are plenty. Foremost, you have taken charge of your destiny. If hyperbole doesn't sway you, lets just say you now have control over what goes into your cuppa. I was skeptical at first of the claims, the jargon, the minutiae and the general air of foofaraw that infects my supplier's web-site. Chauvinist as any other Southie, I was convinced that Indian coffees, Nilgiri in particular, were the best in the world. It didn't take long to be disabused of this notion. I have come to believe that there are indeed coffees from other corners of the world that hold natural hints of chocolate, vanilla, plum, peach, apple, honey, brown sugar, wood and tobacco. (What are people thinking when they seek out the coffees flavored with vile synthetic additives that crowd the shelves of supermarkets? Even specialty stores sell such noxious stuff, to say nothing of cloying syrups.) Indian coffees, with apologies to our sainted mothers, just did not hold its own against coffees from Sumatra, Central and South America, Hawaii, Jamaica, Ethiopia and Yemen - and Kenya is fast catching up.
I have stayed clear of making recommendations, but in response to Sujatha's nostalgic quest to replicate her mother's coffee I will venture the opinion that nothing less than a real espresso maker will deliver for coffee fanciers with South Indian memories. The stove top makers rely on steam pressure to force boiling water through grounds set in a filter cup with nominally fine perforations. The result is commendable only if you don't stint on the amount of grounds. Indian drip pots, like the one my mother brought me on one of her visits, need only gravity but take a long time to run hot water through a filter with finer holes. Excellent! But then you are confronted with the problem of reheating the decoction a half hour later. (A college friend had this outrageous routine about a Tamilian host ordering up coffee, loudly specifying 'once-boiled milk' for the benefit of his unannounced guests - nothing but the best for them. I remember him fondly as Pudu Paal Ramaki. You had to be there!) True espresso machines use an electric or manual pump to develop the additional pressure (12 to 15 bars) needed to expel the coffee liquor through even finer holes, dare I say micro-sized. The result is a creamier taste that enhances every flavor the bean has to offer, sans acidity, to say nothing of the visual seduction of the 'crema'. Unfortunately, the trade-off here is that the more expensive the maker ($200 to $1000 plus!), the better the coffee is likely to be.
Along the way I have tried other means of preparation. I bought an ibrik, but, after a few attempts at Turkish coffee, I tired of the muddiness of the decant. I have never fathomed how the Swedes, so far from Italy and Ethiopia, figured out the secrets of the bean to make such excellent roasts. An early experience in this country for me was being taught the Swedish way to make a decent cup from the execrable stuff then sold in grocery stores. You throw the crap in water boiling in a pan, wait a minute, break an egg into it, wait another minute, then drain the revolting green-brown mess you're left with though a fine colander. I swear it works - once you get the hang of it! An alternative tactic, confirmed by my Swedish-American 'aunty', is to put an eggshell in the percolator or drip pot, especially if you intend to keep the coffee warming on the stove. These days I stock up whenever I'm at IKEA - cheaper than that fancy brand touted in glossy magazines. In Rio, I wandered into a hipermercado with a whole aisle of coffee, where you could linger and sample free cafezinhos to your heart's content. My hosts made excellent coffee with nothing more than a square of flannel tucked in a sieve. Travelling in the hinterlad, at a roadside stand in Ouro Preto, I learnt that come noon I could no longer expect milk in my coffee : "Não tem leite! Cafezinho so!"
I'm sure there are plenty of books on the lore of coffee. I have sampled them on occasion out of curiosity - you can get as much from trolling the Internet. There is a wonderful passage in "Travels in Arabia Deserta", published in 1888, where Charles Montagu Doughty, that doughty patron saint of hard travel, describes the Bedouin ritual of preparing coffee for guests. On a more distant note, I thoroughly enjoyed a book titled "Somebody Else: Arthur Rimbaud in Africa 1880-1890" - about the poet who rejected his craft while barely twenty and ended up a coffee trader and agent in Ethiopia before his premature death from gangrene. See where coffee addiction can get you!
Any coffee experiences of your own?