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The Coffee of a Lifetime
One of my most memorable coffees has a flavor that gets more distinct and recognizable every year. When I have this rare brew, it's always an autumn day, and my father and I have spent the afternoon working outside, raking and burning leaves, or cleaning out the garden, or winterizing a car and then washing our hands in gasoline that always somehow feels much colder than the weather. We sit on the concrete steps of the back porch, having that warm, brown coffee and resting before we go inside to clean up and cook dinner. Relaxed by the day’s exercise, he’ll mumble something, and although in reflex I only glance at him, my eyes are magnetized and quickly return to his face. He’s almost in profile, looking out into the yard, squinting a little into the setting sun that shines dull red on his skin. He tilts his head down to sip his coffee, and I notice the gray stubble on his cheek and the thinning white hair that curls out from under the paint-spattered blue knit cap that sits, as it always has, precariously on the back of his head. A dog barks behind the neighbor’s house, so expectantly my father and I look out into the next yard, not knowing what will come into view. We sit together on the hard steps of the back porch, breathing deeply the cooling air and soaking in the last of the setting sun.
In my Navy years, the best coffee was on the 4-8 watch, especially when we were at sea in the tropics. With the crew asleep and the six 12-cylinder diesels snoring steadily like a group of drunken giants, the ship was peaceful, and I’d push open the weatherdeck door to watch the rising sun melt the night sky. I’d turn my back to all the alarms and gauges and lean against the doorway, listen to the black water sliding along our iron hull, and, waiting for enough light to distinguish the horizon, just look out into the fading darkness. With each gentle roll of the ship the warm salt air would breathe in and out of my little iron cave, ruffling papers on the desk, and I’d be sipping not the day’s first but its best cup of “joe.”
In the autumn mornings of my junior year in college my girlfriend and I would walk hand in hand to the edge of Penn State’s main campus to The Ye Olde College Diner, open 24 hours a day for something like the past 47 years. We’d get a cavernous wooden booth with dark Naugohyde seats and have a big blueberry pancake breakfast, and then, in no hurry to go anywhere, we would sit and talk and sip coffee and smoke menthol cigarettes, sometimes holding each other’s hand across the heavy wooden table. On rainy, cold days The Diner was usually subdued and hushed, even cozy, but on bright, crisp, colorful October Saturdays The Diner serviced hundreds of fad-wearing students and their visiting families, all anticipating a day at the football game and tailgates, all talking at once. We would catch bits of conversation, just a phrase or name or a laugh, but mostly the voices blended together into a hum above the scrape and scuffle of tables and chairs being moved and adjusted, the clink of heavy ceramic dishes and the tinkle of silverware, and the bangs and shouts and clatter from the kitchen. And my girlfriend’s soft voice, quiet and pretty, separate from the noise . . . The coffee at The Diner never again tasted as good as it did during that autumn with Lori.
There were three winters that held the best Sunday morning coffee I’ve ever known. Separately we’d stumble into the kitchen, my girlfriend, her son, her mother, and me, and with the appearance of each new face we’d contest who had the morning’s worst bed-head hair. We’d have bacon and cheese and tomato on English muffins, eggs scrambled with scallions, and breakfast sweetcakes, and we’d lounge around in sweat pants and wool sweaters and thick socks, reading the Sunday paper and recounting the week’s adventures. Her sister had taken to driving 45 minutes to be there for coffee, and almost every week her ex-neighbor and long-time friend joined us, once even driving over in her houserobe and slippers. Occasionally her other son or some of the boys’ friends would show up, and they’d trade young men’s stories of wild Saturday nights, entertaining us all. On those bleak winter mornings when no one wants to bother going anywhere, still people would come to Suzanne’s kitchen, and Sunday morning coffee often lasted way past noon.
Those three winters with her have also borne a new tradition: Christmas coffee. Ethiopian Sidamo, New Guinea Peaberry, Sulawesi . . . Shopping for it, lingering among the bins of fresh gourmet beans, has become my duty and, for me, another sign that the holiday season is at its peak, just like the sight of nearly empty Christmas tree lots. Christmas morning we’d know that we had special coffee, but still everyone tore off the wrapping to discover the flavors. Three generations lounging together under the Christmas tree, losing our coffee mugs under discarded wrapping paper, admiring each others’ gifts and playing with ridiculous toys, pushing the overly affectionate and easily distracted dog toward any other family member, lying on the floor near the fireplace and wanting nothing ever to change: now that’s Christmas.
We do lazy mornings in the summertime, too. There are those easy mornings out on the shaded deck, reading the newspaper and with a bare foot mindlessly rubbing the dog’s belly, glancing up at the blue sky and having just one more cup before going in to the office . . . And there are those mornings when I’m the first to awaken on family vacation at the beach house, especially that first morning there, that first morning I wake up free of my normal work routine: while I wait for everyone else I sit outside with a cup of coffee, just damn glad to be there and not in a hurry to do anything, the sun warm on my cheek, the ocean sparkling in my eyes, the cries of gulls and the smell of sand, all of it sifting memories into my morning’s slow thoughts . . .
You have to drink coffee for a couple of years before it wets that certain part of your tongue and warms that certain part of your belly, and then you start finding many cups that taste especially good. There’s the coffee had after a truly exhausted and refreshing sleep, and there’s the cup poured for you as you return from driving barefoot and un-showered to fetch donuts on a hot Saturday morning. There’s the precious mud had with a hangover, when you sit thoughtless and stare into your mug at the shiny reflections from the oil of the coffee beans. There’s the coffee used to kill time between job interviews, and there are those endless cups in the middle of a day when you just don’t want to go home or do anything but let your life roll around in your head. There is, of course, that wonderful cup lingered over after a good dinner when you want an excuse not to get up and leave your favorite restaurant. There’s the roadie cup as you commute to work on a cold and oppressively gray morning, and there are those delicious cups – preciously limited in a lifetime – poured from a Thermos as you drive alone across several states straight through an empty winter night for the sake of young love.
The best coffee ever? I don’t know . . . it might be the cup I’ll have as I watch the face of a friend as she reads what I’ve written here. We’ll see; the best coffee can’t be brewed, only poured.