Requiem for a coffee cup

Paris in winter was frequent gunmetal skies which, along with those somber limestone façades cutting canyons along the boulevards, turned my long, aimless days into beautiful brooding monochrome canvases. It was very cold and I didn’t have a good coat but it didn’t bother me much: I ran on an internal engine stoked by art and cobblestone ghosts, and warmed my corporeal self at regular intervals in cafés during my daily five- and six-hour walks around the city. I was a typical poor student—having partially financed my sentimental education by working as an au pair—but a café crème or an express was cheap, as was a petite buttery croissant or two.

Likewise, I could always nip into a bakery and buy a slim baguette, or procure a small sandwich stuffed with fine ham; good chocolate was as abundant as spring pollen, and savory tarts filled with greens and cheese helped propel my wanderings. I hadn’t the fortitude to brave French cheese shops; so much of what I anxiously gaped at in large, mirror-like vetrines was as alien as pornography, with—should the door open—great feral odors wafting out to shock my virgin nostrils.

First the RER train from Enghien and then the métro from the Gare du Nord popped me up on the Boulevard Raspail early every morning. But before heading to class at L’Alliance Française and the half-hauteur of Madame Hingue, my instructor, I tucked into my adopted café Le St. Placide for morning coffee. I’d read a book, or study French verbs, or scribble in my journal.

There was no barista culture in the States back then, and none of Starbucks’ darkening creep over the American landscape. I was a coffee rube from the Midwest who drank Folgers out of a Mr Coffee like my mother did. It might sound like hyperbole to say that Paris’ cafés civilized me, but it’s the gospel truth. The ritual of coffee—nay, the culture of coffee—slowly insinuated its way into my blood. Sitting in a warm café—or in finer weather, outside on the pavement under an azure sky; the brisk and efficient and smartly-turned-out waiter; the quick service—the coffee set down with a neat flick of the wrist and a dollop of politesse: voilà, mademoiselle! The small, clean, marble-topped table, the cane chairs, the china cup and saucer, the pleasant clink of a demitasse spoon against them. Sitting, sipping, sitting—as long as you wanted, with no wifi to encircle you in a plume of isolation. Then asking for the check, participating in another little verbal dance of courtly manners, and going on your way: altogether a civilized expanse of time—what I suppose we might call a “curated experience” today, not unidiotically.

These rituals which Europeans have constructed are the bricks in a wall that shores them up against life’s vagaries, disappointments, and tragedies. In such a stylized yet unprecious landscape, pausing for coffee affords them a moment of beauty: it elevates the mundane into the realm of something more, if only briefly. Which is why I loathe paper coffee cups. Or plastic coffee cups. Or—Jesus Christ almighty—styrofoam coffee cups. And their wretched plastic lids.

I can hear the protests swelling up from the pit—groundlings crying out about convenience and the need to transport their 20 oz. concoctions in handy bucket-like conveyances, something that will fit neatly into the cupholders of SUVs or grocery carts. Since when did coffee go from an urbane beverage over which to debate the philosophy, art or politics of the day to merely a tankard of fuel to be gulped in the mad pursuit of life, liberty and happiness—these days all but a euphemism for consumerism?

Sadly, imbibing coffee from paper cups makes sense. As Americans, we deny ourselves pleasure, relaxation and art for art’s sake because of our entrenched puritanical mean-streak, the subconscious impulse to self-flagellate, and that Protestant work ethic that demonizes earthly enjoyments. Rather than being happy hedonists—like the Italians, say—we are a guilt-ridden race of stressed-out consumers, literally and figuratively. Enjoyment is something we fitfully deny ourselves on a daily basis: we suck our triste coffee out of utilitarian cups while scurrying off after something that forever eludes us: money, love, fame (real or Instagram). It doesn’t occur to us that happiness—a lovely, pure drop of it, anyway—can be found in the slowed-down ritual our European gurus call “taking a coffee.” This is why, when we go to places like France or Italy, our dehydrated souls become deliriously drunk with joie de vivre.

“These Italians really know how to enjoy life!”

“Everything tastes so much better here!”

“I could get used to this.”

So why don’t we get used to it? Why don’t we allow these moments into our own lives, let them wash over our tired bones like water? Strolling with a beautiful lack of purpose in Florence or Rome, a good gelato in hand, beside our wife/boyfriend/kid/friend—our synapses firing pleasurably—the realization alights on our consciousness as softly as a sparrow: “Hey, life is good.” Sitting at a sidewalk café in Paris, watching the cool stream of humanity for just 20 minutes or a half hour, we’re recharged. But we Americans are a relentlessly flailing, busy people, magpies of consumerism, tanks forever on the verge of empty—which explains our penchant for depressingly pragmatic, outsized cylinders filled with double- and triple-shots of bitterly-roasted java.

We seem categorically unable to bring this way of life home; if we try, it suffers a sea change. The workaday tyranny of the throwaway coffee cup encroaches yet again. We fall back on our worship of convenience, of quantity over quality, fuel over sustenance. Again we forget: it is experience that make us richer, not stuff. Or better, in the absence of the stuff we think we really want, experiences go at least a little way toward mollifying us.

It’s why the Italians, for example, can put up with high taxes, corruption, the mafia, entrenched nepotism, earthquakes, exploding volcanoes, tiger mosquitos, and Berlusconi. Stop for a sublime little macchiato amidst the companionable hiss, clink and clatter of a warm, bustling coffee bar in Via del Corso and, for five absolutely perfect minutes, none of the other bullshit matters.

****

Is there a more American phrase than “For here or to go?”

When I’m in a coffee shop and I clearly, if not adamantly, state my desire to drink my coffee here, I am still given a paper to-go cup and plastic lid with a tiny hole out of which I will presumably suck at my beverage—a stingy teat for a tactile-craven baby. The existential implications are apparent: we are seldom here, present in the moment; instead we are in perpetual motion, an eternal state of going. We drink our coffee on the run, the way we do so many things that ought to be reserved for mindful attention and fulsome enjoyment. Eating, for instance.

I, for one, crave the here-ness of a china cup and saucer. Though my blissful coffee moment may be fleeting, I want to savor it and at least brush my fingers against the implied permanence and steadfastness represented by a material that can’t be trashed or composted. Moreover—and I state this petulantly—I’m a grown-up, and I want a proper goddam cup. If I try to explain all this to my tattooed barista, I am met with a stare that suggests I just asked her to urinate into the milk steamer.

Ask yourselves: is this, then, our gift to civilization? To-go cups and to-go containers? An unwillingness to reside in the present moment, to commune with ourselves or others, to merely slurp and feed, like animals? Each small, jewel-like moment in which we connect with a civilizing influence has the power to change us, smooth us over, to make an ever-so-slight tectonic shift in the hardened crust of our psyches. And, yes—though perhaps as ephemeral as a dewdrop upon gossamer thread spun by a unicorn—a lovely coffee served artfully and without pretense in a real cup in a clean, well-lighted place may very well keep us from becoming savages.

These days, in America, resisting the encroachments of savagery certainly feels like a tall order. Or is it a venti?

[Aside: my Portland pick for a civilized coffee experience is Caffè Umbria]

 

 

Beware small ethnic women bearing gifts

I cannot count the good people I know who, to my mind, would be even better if they bent their spirits to the study of their own hungers” MFK Fisher

For my 12th birthday, Mamou—that’s what we called our round, four-foot-ten Armenian grandmother—gave me a cookbook: The Creative Cooking Course by Charlotte Turgeon. A young wolf when it came to books, I tore into the package. Seeing my surprise once the crumpled, thrice-cycled gift wrap had been ripped away—for I had up to that point demonstrated zero interest in cooking—she said by way of explanation, “Every girl must learn to cook if she wants a husband.” My desire for a husband at that point was considerably less than my desire to learn how to cook.

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But I pored over that book in the months following; I turned its pages and marveled at things like lobster soufflé, coquilles Saint Jacques, vichyssoise and beef Wellington. It was a looking-glass through which I ogled an exotic adolescent world of Culture and Taste and Things Foreign—dim stars galaxies away from 1970s suburban Detroit. In pencil I marked X’s on the pages of things I especially wanted to eat (not cook, mind, but eat). I wanted to be transported to the cosmos they signified.

Maybe Mamou knew me better than I thought, for it turns out that gift dove-tailed nicely with my other youthful obsessions. I was always checking out Berlitz Teach Yourself language books from the library and solemnly reciting “this is the pencil” and “may I please have a serviette?” in French, German, and Russian like mantras capable of unleashing the secrets of the universe. I spent my allowance money on cheap Bantam paperback editions of Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Women in Love (incredibly, these books were for sale at the town’s rinky-dink gift/magazine shop, which perhaps shows how degraded popular literary taste has now become). All summer long I lay around on Mamou’s sagging brown sofa—lumpily bolstered with yellowed newspapers to keep it from collapsing in on itself—in the tiny, stifling living room of her Melvindale pre-war brick house, consuming novel after novel and dreaming of Hardy’s Dorset, Tolstoy’s St. Petersburg, and Flaubert’s Normandy. I wanted to be a Romanov (well, one of the luckier ones); I wanted to hold a cold, heavy Fabergé egg against my cheek. I wanted to speak French with the elegant ease of a courtier. I wanted dark, foreign men to love me and express their passion in long, sinuous letters. In all these richly embroidered flights in and out of time and place I never saw myself as a cook. I was, rather, one who eats.

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Mamou knew I loved to eat the things she cooked. When dining at her house, I’d ladle up great Everests of her rice pilaf—each grain fulsome and separate and glistening with chicken fat and clarified butter—on my chipped, flowered plate, relegating the protein bit-players to the sidelines. I generally loathed red meat, typically cooked by my mother until it turned gray and tough as a Cossack’s boots. But I adored Mamou’s shish kebab, and her lamb-stuffed grape leaves—moist, tender and singing with parsley, lemon and mint—her homemade lavash, and the trays of wrinkled black olives, raw scallions, Armenian string cheese, and bowls of dried mulberries and sultanas that were always within arm’s reach. She took me on long walks around the neighborhood and showed me where wild grapevines grew in the most shabby and unexpected places: abandoned lots, disused baseball diamonds, at the dusty edges of gas stations. It was here she harvested her precious leaves. On the brown sidewalks of the fraying edges of Detroit, she had me taste all sorts of foraged herbs and grasses and flowers, culled from forlorn and forgotten crevices, and it was like finding small signs of a once-thriving civilization cobwebbed over by ruin.

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Did we make a sight, we two diminutive creatures moving in the shimmering landscape alongside busy four-lane roads with no other pedestrians abroad—this was automobile country, after all—one of us old and plump, the other young and skinny, both missing some teeth? Mamou had never worn a pair of trousers in her life, preferring woolen skirts of modest length, and her iron-gray hair was forever sectioned into the two thick, ankle-length braids favored by Armenian maidens of yore; she coiled these around her head in a tight, serpentine configuration that lent her the air of royalty in exile. She wore thick support hose and cheap, open-toed, rope-soled wedge slippers with which she’d nudge about in the weeds, her fat little feet looking for treasure. I wore faded navy Keds and denim shorts and wilted in the heat, dragging my carcass along, but Mamou stepped smoothly—an endurance walker. Notwithstanding her many years in the Motor City and her long stints on two automotive assembly lines, she never learned to drive nor owned a car. So we explored the contours of that land as others had forgotten—or were fast forgetting—how to do.

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I want to fall victim to a pâté emergency

Likewise I loved any “foreign” food my Armenian-speaking father exposed me to (he was, I now know, a closet gourmand). There were 1950s-era Chinese classics like the wonton soup at China Boy on Allen Road or chow mein and egg rolls at Lim’s Garden on Michigan Avenue; lahmajoon—my beloved Armenian pizza—and all the Middle Eastern specialties from the delis and bakeries of Dearborn; fresh tamales from Mexican Village and spanakopita in dark Greek Town tavernas; pierogis and polish sausage from Hamtramck; smorgasbord at the Sweden House (alas, Italian food in those days was a travesty that even I recognized as such). At that time Detroit’s immigrant base hadn’t yet been decimated and it was possible to conjure the World of victuals in a crazy hurly-burly filtered through an albeit Midwestern lens—orthodox church ladies with thick accents and parochial potlucks being the keepers of the flame. As a salesman, Dad was always on the road and delighted in bringing little surprises home, like jewels: escargots and Spanish sardines in shiny tins, wedges of liverwurst and limburger cheese in oily paper, beads of caviar glistening in small glass jars.

All of this had been merely a weak prelude to the revelations of the Creative Cooking Course. In its pages were symbols and signifiers, clues to histories and civilizations, archetypes and meanings to be decoded by my frizzy-haired Indiana Jones. The wholesomeness of Provençal lamb. The haute-bourgeoise swagger of beef Stroganoff. The naive optimism of baked Alaska. The colonial muddle of mulligatawny. The immense capacity for joy or tragedy held suspended like breath in the beaten whites of any soufflé. The utter nihilism of molded gelatin.

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Yet even as the main thrust of its force was propelled by Old World tradition, there was another, opposing influence very much at work in the Creative Cooking Course—a kind of gastronomic Third Law consisting mainly of Jell-O salads, deviled eggs, and hors d’oeuvre gondolas fashioned out of creamy shrimp dips, radish roses and iceberg lettuce. It was a mash-up: Brillat-Savarin and Annette Funicello meeting at Cannes and spawning a love child. As improbable as a Hollywood musical, staid European hegemony and perky American impiety—like rival culinary gangs—had been flung together by Fate to tango in Technicolor. It was not without its charms.

 

And so this strangely prophetic book, bestowed upon me by my swarthy fairy grandmother, quietly and for some time fed a flame in me and stoked the desire to throw myself to the tides and be washed up on the shores of the unfamiliar world in order to seek sustenance there. But I’m sorry, Mamou—rather than spurring me on to learn to cook for any eventual husband, your gift made me resolve to find a man (and a foreign one at that) who would cook for me. Which I did.