Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Alma's Coffee Tragedy & Building Community One Cup at a Time



Most of us know what it feels like to be desperate. It's an uncomfortable, breath-stifling feeling that can take hold with an uncomfortable intensity. Henry David Thoreau famously wrote about desperation in "Walden" which was published in 1854. "Most men (and women) live lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation..." He then repeated his sad observation that "Most men live lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them."

On a day to day basis, there are many ways to overcome a sense of desperation or an uncomfortable feeling that something is not right. One way is through community. There is nothing like sharing coffee to abet any sense of gloom and doom. A well-made cup of coffee, rounded off with edifying and meaningful conversation, can uplift us and prepare us for the tasks at hand. Beautiful, wonderful coffee!

So it came as a surprise during a visit to my friend Alma Schneider's house that it was hard to get a cup of coffee. Alma, Founder of Take Back the Kitchen, has written convincingly about how important it is to know how someone takes their coffee---it signals more than a good memory, but a sense of respect and caring. But on that day, coffee was hard to get. Alma related to me her "coffee tragedy".

Here's how it happened. Until recently, it was possible to to enjoy a nice cup of coffee made in Alma's 4-cup Bialetti. This machine is an icon of Italian design that boasts a stunning profile. It consistently produces a cup of smoothly brewed coffee and a scent that lingers and envelopes Alma's gorgeous kitchen. Unfortunately, one day, a very dear friend burned it while making coffee. "This can't be," Alma and her husband said to each other. But it was. Finally, after four bouts of acute denial, they figured out that that Bilaetti would be no longer...So, there was another Bialetti--a small, 2-cup espresso maker. It just so happened, that when they went to use it, the handle broke. They took it to a local coffee-bean merchant, known for carrying high-end European coffee makers, and it could not be fixed.

So...on to the next option. Alma's Presto percolator, circa 1940's, inherited from her grandmother---a cherished heirloom with a graceful sloping spout. A coffee maker that can make a super-hot robust cup of coffee---for at least 25 to 30 people...Even for coffee-lovers like us (Alma, our friend Dennis, and myself), it was too much. So finally, Alma found the solution. The Melitta fall-back. In this case, a red, molded, elegant sturdy plastic model with rounded edges. Alma put her plastic Melitta on top of a cup and voila---there was coffee. We waited patiently while she boiled the water and finally the coffee--a robust Kirkland Brand brew from Costco---was in front of us. It was perfect. Our coffee desperation was eased and we had a very productive and fun conversation!

Note: Special thanks to Dennis Dawson for photography (without the benefit of a cup of coffee beforehand).

9 comments:

Alma said...

I am so sad about all my coffee pot mishaps and hope to remedy the situation soon by getting the bialettis repaired.Thanks for sharing the afternoon with me!

Alan said...

Very timely...today I gave up on my Mukka Express cappuccino machine. I keep having the same problem....its makes wonderful cups of cappucino for short period and then starts acting up -- delivering luke warm tasteless liquid....I then contact the manufacturer and they acknowledge a problem and then send me a replacement valve. Each time the value has a new design....and then the cycle repeats. Only, recently the manfucturer has started making noise about my machine being out of warrently...shame of them for selling something without working the kinks out! Anyway, today I have decided to throw in the towel...back to the French Press which will never break...unless I drop it. Thanks for listening...I feel better! Alan

nicole said...

It's true that the way we make coffee and coffee drinks becomes sacred to us---and when our machinery fails us it feels like a betrayal. I would publicize the indifference of manufacturers whose designs don't hold up. It's not fair....fortunately, most of us, like Alma and Alan, have back-up coffee-making machinery.

dennis dawson said...

there are days when the coffee making apparatus
is functioning just fine but i am not. occasionally
(in the morning and only in the morning) i totally space- forget to grind the coffee beans and put them in the bottom of the french press whole. i then momentarily stand and stare --trying to figure out what is not right. more importantly i try to figure out what kind of bad karma has descended upon me. i then empty them out, grind, and replace. and though this only delays my coffee jolt/bliss by minutes it feels much longer.
if i was already caffeinated this would never happen.

i want to be perpetually pre-caffeinated -

nicole said...

The concept of being perpetually pre-caffeinated is very appealing---it feels like an odd form of quasi-immortality. It holds the promise of no more painfully groggy mornings---and most important, perhaps, it levels the playing field for larks and owls...

Many of the most intense coffee enthusiasts are definitely owls...

Glad that your karma was rectified during the second go-round...

Deborah said...

Nicole, you are amazing writer and I loved the photos accompanying this blog! All of Alma's coffee makers were very impressive. I hope the bialettis are fixed soon for her!

Andy said...

It saddens me to admit that this is the first piece of your writing that that I've ever really ingested, Nicole, because it makes me suddenly aware of what poetry I've been missing. It's akin to a man having, at last, his first genuine brew after a lifetime of instant Sanka, waking to realize that he has gone without for so long. I had no idea that your gift with words shines as is does! Right from the start you captured me with your erudition referencing Thoreau, transitioned seamlessly into the delight of the bean by offering up a personal experience, then kept me ensnared with your story about someone else's tale. This is wonderful meta-storytelling. I'm hungry for more, baby!

nicole said...

Thank you Andy...as always, it's always an energizing experience when we re-connect. I love, love, love the extensive "ingestion" metaphor...kind of takes me back to those breezy days in Ms. Fan's English class when we deconstructed Moby Dick strenuously and meta-metaphorically.

No need to be sad any longer---because the next post will focus on coffee and exercise and optimism---and the intersection of all three. Then I want to hear more about your fitness musings.

One thing that saddens me: your long history of instant Sanka consumption. I am so glad that the intervention has come and you're now well beyond shop-worn, supermarket dribble. Drink coffee, live long and be exuberant, dear Andy!

Mia said...

Nicole, I just read this post again, for the third time. The melodrama of the coffee maker tragedy gets funnier upon multiple readings. We need more laughter - along with more coffee.