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How I Make Coffee: My Coffee and My MS
A New Twist on an Old Topic
I think I've talked about my early experiences with coffee in my life ad nauseum. Dad was a Lieutenant Commander in the Korean War, a young surgeon working in a MASH unit in Korea and later having duties in Tokyo. From the time I was a little Munchkin, I heard about Navy Coffee, about a brew strong enough to support a vertical spoon in the cup. Always black, hot, energizing. No cream or sugar. Black.
Dads Italian immigrant family drank coffee. They had a large device into which beans were poured and a handle on top which was then rotated. A smallish drawer was removed from the grinder and the result was put in the percolator. Again, black coffee primarily, though my Grandpop would add his cup to a finished bowl of corn flakes, the excess milk and sugar, drink the result from the bowl and call it Cafe au Lait.
Plain and Simple
Nothing Fancy but Very Good
The Percolator: Reminds me of Medical School
Medical School for me was part of my Finishing Process. I found myself at 25 hidebound with preconceived notions of How ThingsShould Be Done and these many constraining strings, Lilliputian-like, held me hog tied and unable to enjoy what should have been a simple and thoroughly enjoyable part of my life. I started with a Draconian course of self-flagellation, rising at 6;00, smoking outside, drinking my first of twenty large cups of coffee that day, going to class, a full pot of black Folgers on arrival home, then work in my room until two am with constant coffee until 1100 PM, so that I'd be able to fall asleep at two. Up at 600! I forced myself to read everything, try to memorize everything, never use the freely-available Old Tests and consequently I ended up with a vast scattered Data Base and a brain that was Fried. I spent a Christmas break of my second year trying to recover from this ordeal, then I gave myself an extra week of Break before I hit the books again and then I reformed my life. From that day forward, I studied four hours a day Total, all snippets of study counting for the total. I put myself on a Drug Holiday for a year or so. The Premature Atrial Contractions I'd developed with my Long Coffee Binge resolved and I allowed myself my present two cups per day. I started reading a non-medical bedside book as William Osler had recommended for all med students. Fifteen minutes a night, then sleep. I first read War and Peace this way, one short chapter a night. In the second two years of my med school, I was active on the wards. I enjoyed it much and was constantly active, walking about and really seeing that Life as a doctor could be a Fine Thing. And I finally had some control over my coffee habit and could enjoy it and all my Methyl Xanthine friends. Caffeine (coffee), Aminophylline (tea) and Theobromine: Food of the Gods!! (chocolate). Again, this is a simplification since there is some cross-mixture of chemicals within the food types. There is some caffeine in chocolate. It will keep me up a bit if eaten at bedtime.
At school I had a Sunbeam percolator. Three tablespoons of Folgers would brew a Righteous Cup. Two cups a day, as I learned, would serve as my Electrojet to Heaven. Twenty gave me PAC and necessitated the total cessation of use until my fourth year.
This all worked out. By the time I graduated, I was well educated and realistic for the first time in my life about Faith, Proper Medical Practice and What I Could Expect in my life. I started as a surgeon but changed to Emergency Medicine when I saw General Surgery as a once-large pond now ever-evaporating and stuck in the Cul De Sac of outmoded practice. I liked ER medicine; blood, the need for my wide Data Base and its Internal Medicine Roots and going home at night with no call responsibilities.
The Origin of European Coffee: Vienna
The methyl Xanthine foods were not really available until rather late in the sixteenth and seventeenth Centuries AD.
The riches of the New World was not only the Gold of the Aztecs or the Silver of the Inca but the many foods newly available. Potatoes from Peru fed the Irish peasants until the Famine and since. Tomatoes, thought poisonous at first, soon graced our Italian Cuisine. Coffee was introduced as a spoil of war. The sudden attack on the besieging Ottomans sitting at the gates of Vienna by John Sobieski and his 10,000 Polish Knights resulted in the Moslem Army's hasty retreat, leaving three million pounds of dark, round, bitter beans or seeds and the accoutrements to roast their green forms and prepare an initially unsavory brew which was quickly found to be deliciously addictive and remarkably stimulating. The Viennese Coffee House so began. The Croissant, the crescent roll, was a celebratory pastry, also from Vienna. It is thought that the Arabs may have traded with Brazil and so got Coffee beans or that coffee grew naturally in the Mideast (which is what I suspect).
At about the same time, Chocolate beans were brought from South America. Originally flavored with hot peppers, in Europe it was combined with Sugar, another new food. Also stimulating, it was early used to keep nuns awake at their middle-of-the-night prayers. So distracting was the social 'chocolate-klatch' during Mass that bells were begun to be rung at the Elevation of the Host to bring the miscreants back to their church-like duties.
Tea was first cultivated in China. All tea originally drunk in the British Empire was Green. Black and Oolong teas were cultivated in India and Ceylon when the Brits fought the Chinese in the nineteenth Century and green tea was not easily available.
The present Drip Machine
The French Press
Why I became enamored of this Fuddy Duddy way to get what is essentially Percolation, I don't know. I have always hated the Same Old Routine and I guess the new regimen of exact measurement of water at exactly the right initial coldness, the grain-wise exactitude of the Right amount of coffee, the Right brand and the nearly Religious regimen of preparation appealed to what remained of my obsessive compulsion after MS had obliterated the inferior left Singulate Gyrus of my little brain, stopping the tidal Circus Flow of OCD.
The French Press provides a precisely timed Percolation of the coffee; boiling water (a liter) is poured into the glass container (no plastic please!), the resultant Brew is stirred to fully mix and the device is allowed to sit for a precise time. I timed this with my Tag Heuer and then applied one of the most Arcane separation devices I could ever imagine. The solution is thus cleared of grounds. All the aficionados pour the resultant coffee into a Special Carafe and dispense it from there.
Now, let's run a little Mind Experiment. How could we Topologically get to the same point?
- the coffee could be put into a filter and the water run through it and collected directly into a carafe. This is the Drip Method.
- the coffee can be placed in a coffee pot, water added, the entire Menage boiled, an egg white is then added to adhere to the floating grounds and deliver them to the base of the pot, removing them from the final product. This is the Boy Scout Method.
A sock (hopefully clean) can hold the coffee and boiling water can be run through it. This is the I-Really-Need-my-Morning-Cup-But-Don't-Have-My-French-Press-With-Me Method.
And so forth. I smoked Camel Straights for some years in my reckless Youth, so I can't really discriminate the fine variations of the Rich Taste of Coffee, except that I can always tell instantly if the brew is too weak, which is an Awful thing.
Instant Coffee: it can be good, if Done Right
Coffee is grown in South America as the Arabica Bean (I don't know the exact entomology here, though it would be easy to research but I am too lazy). The other form of coffee Bean is the so-called Robusto. It is from this latter that instant Coffee is made. Maybe it is the type from which the strong, MidEastern brew Came. Look it up.
I always have instant coffee available. Sometimes, overcome by ennui, I seek out the simplest method of making my morning Cup. Since I am American, a better way that works is always attractive. My instant brew is from Community Coffee, whose blends are Strong and Tasty and equal the Folgers I drank for so many years.
The Yin and Yang of Methyl Xanthines
I've written before that for me, life is a collection of intersecting Gaussean Curves rather than an upright pile of unchangeable Granite Blocks. There is a constant gradient within all life and admixtures result always. This doesn't really fit in well with Yin and Yang, which, as I understand these concepts, stand separate from one another without any mixture.
My point, though, is this. Methyl Xanthines were first made by Almighty God as 'easers' given to a set of peoples to make life, ever more nasty, brutish and short, a little Ignorable, for a little while at least. In 'The Others', a very fine little film from a couple of years ago, the Housekeeper tells the Newly-Understanding Mother to join her in 'a little cup of tea', a brief break from the new Understanding which threatens to overwhelm her. A cup of tea takes this mom from the storm for awhile. Not to resolve or eliminate the problems of the new life but to make them more absorbable. A 'Thank-You-Ma'am' was an intermittent flattening of a steep road which allowed rest for the struggling animals on their way up the hill. The Methyl Xanthines are brief Thank-You-Ma'ams in our lives.
However. They can be abused. My using coffee for a year and a half to allow four hour daily sleep sessions and mental inprisonment either hurt me or proved me to be an Ironman. Their consistent abuse decreases their effect and ever-stronger forms or ever-greater amounts become necessary. I had to learn this. Coffee can be a Boon and can be a Comfort but the Scorpion has a Venomous Sting.
Final Comments on Coffee
I am so glad, all things considered, that the MXs are part of my culture, my life. Maturity has brought sobriety and maybe some real understanding to me. I love Coffee. I love Chocolate. I like Tea. Yin and Yang.
The text and photos herein are my own and I claim all Copyright privilege.