Russ Ringsak

Coffee

March 27, 2006

There are at least seven ways to bungle the brew in an electric coffee machine, plus a few more if you actually grind the beans yourself. Which I quit doing. Not only was a guy like myself barely able to tell the difference in the coffee, but a guy like myself was also overloaded by simply assembling the two ingredients, without first having to process one of them in another machine.

No use to burden you with a list of the seven errors, but some end up with hot coffee running loose on the counter and some yield a pot of clear filtered hot water. The big ones end up as a real mess, like when you get clumsy and knock the coffeemaker right off the counter. And all the errors are repeatable. Slipping the glass pot only partway under the overhead nozzle, therefore closing the gate and causing coffee to flood the filter basket and rush down onto your counter top, hotly spreading its tiny granules: this mistake does not of itself create an immunity against doing the same stupid thing the very next day.

My ongoing voyage of self-discovery recently yielded up two more incredible coffee screwups, beyond even the dumbest ones I had already committed. One was to dump the coffee into the steeping compartment without first putting the filter in there. And then, two weeks later, even worse. I dumped coffee into the water side of the machine. Cast the coffee directly upon the cool waters, I did. Hit the switch. Walked away. Came back in due time and couldnít believe it. You have to get down and unplug that thing, not that easy in the older kitchen, and take it to the sink and clean out every cranny with a sponge. And you wonder if it wouldnít be easier to just go buy a new one. Itíd be fifteen minutes to the store, twenty minutes shopping, ten minutes standing in line, fifteen minutes back, an hour just to throw more money away. So donít get stupider than you already have just been, you tell yourself. This all leads directly into a morning of self-disgust, trying to find something to take your thoughts off ridiculous error number nine.

Now I canít imagine my dad ever making a mistake like this. I canít picture him making coffee at all, in fact, except when they were making it in foxholes under fire in Europe, heating it in a helmet over a can of Sterno, and in that misery they didnít think about coffee filters. They had other concerns.

But after the war, he didnít cook. Nobody expected him to. Nor did anybody elseís dad cook. Dads didnít cook in our town, at least none that I knew, and nobody can now say if thatís good or bad or irrelevant but I will say my many years have led me around to the point of view, widely held among most dads of that time in that place, that all change is not necessarily progress. Some is and some isnít.

The mannered psychogarbling and the thinskinned evasiveness sneaking into our rich language in the past two decades is definitely not progress. It is in fact an abomination unto clarity and good sense. I have more to say about this, but Iíd rather say it directly to some dingbat who promotes the process. I know thatís perjorative and arbitrary and marginalizing to dingbats in general, but I have in mind specific dingbats, those seeking gravitas through mobilizing their cognitive-behavioral inner resources to facilitate countertransference through a window of probability to achieve a positive imagery and some passive-aggressive bipolar left-brain anal closure. (I might happen to know a couple of guys who are offering two-for-one on gravitas and closure.)

Now the coffee machine could actually represent progress but it has lately been tempting to simply put the grounds in a sauce pan and pour in the water, bring it to a brief boil, shut it off and let it settle. Cowboy coffee, G.I. coffee, hobo coffee; it works fine for those of us who use coffee just to get at caffeine. And it has a noble history.

So I made it that way last week and discovered the first rule of that style is that you need coarse-ground coffee. The fine stuff floats and sticks to the cup and to the inside of the pan, and the time you might save in the preparation you lose in the cleanup. But it tastes the same, at least to my jaded old palate, and if a person were to adopt it as their preferred approach they might take it to the next step, which would be to not wash the pan.

Once on a long-ago Dakota winter I spent a night snowbound in a deep blizzard when I drove my dadís car into a ditch near an old hermitís farm; he took us in, a country girl and me, and after some conversation about how suddenly the storm had hit, fed us. He had loose corn, oats and feed pellets piled in three rooms of the old house and there were chickens close by in a side lean-to. He scrambled eggs in bacon fat and his hermit coffee was thick and dark. We noticed he didnít wash his cast iron pans, which were shiny on the inside but the outsides had a texture like the firebox of a steam locomotive. It made sense. An iron pan gets sterilized every time it sits on the fire; no need to waste soap and water cleaning it.

He was a gnarly old guy, looked like a troll from a book of fairy tales, hunched over, one eye shut, stumps of various lengths for fingers; accidents, I guessed, or frostbite. He had scraggly hair but no beard (everybody shaved back then, the unkempt less often than the rest). He spoke in a raspy voice that fit the way he looked.

She was my first actual girlfriend and I was taking her home from the movies by way of a road we never drove. The hermitís place, about five miles southwest of our small town and barely visible through the blinding and quick-drifting snow, would have had the sinister look of a haunt in a B-grade thriller if we hadnít been so glad to find it; snow mounded up past the window sills, trees moaning overhead in the storm, house all run down and unpainted, one bare bulb hanging in the kitchen. Bare wood floors, walls blackened with soot and grease smoke. No phone. Big mangy dog. We heard later that neighbor kids were scared of the place.

He was a good guy, that old man, and I donít believe we could have made it to the next farm down the road, or that we would have survived in the car in that remorseless 30-below cold. So we owed him, big time. In those old days we eastside schoolboys would hang out sometimes in the woods with the hobos, and we werenít afraid of shaggy men in dirty clothes; and she of course lived on a farm, so we got along fine with our host. Although we could tell he hadnít had a visitor in a while. The talk went late and we finally fell asleep slouched in the kitchen chairs. Breakfast was the same as the midnight snack, eggs and coffee. Late in the afternoon the fire department came out and found us, after the blizzard quit and a snowplow driver spotted the car nearly buried in the drifts. The whole town had worked itself into a high state of anxiety, bless their hearts, and it had become a much bigger deal than we expected. We were greeted like heroes.

If we could be granted the fantastic privilege to go back in time and relive one day, a fond fantasy for some of us, one of the prime candidates for me would be that day we were taken back to town in the fire truck. All the principals in the rescue and the happy reunion are now gone: my folks, her folks, the firemen, the hermit, his house, his dog, the car, the newspaper with the story about it; and even the girl herself. How amazing it would be to see them all again. And on such a day as that.

A lingering shame, nagging even yet, is that we never went back later to thank the man for the eggs and the coffee and especially for the heat. Hey, thanks for saving our lives. We appreciate it. I wonder how it could have been too much bother to drive out to his dilapidated place and tell him that, and would it not have brightened one day in an old manís quiet existence.

Anyway, the electric coffee maker is probably, as I said, a bit of progress. The coffee is less grainy and itís more convenient, and if a person has any semblance of clarity about them in the morning they can execute the brewing maneuvers without a hitch, day after day. Month upon month, a functioning citizen can do this without lapsing off into ineptitude and frustration and spilled coffee. Some of us need to do less daydreaming and just tend to business. Iím admitting to you, folks, it canít be that difficult. Like the man said, anything is possible.

©R.Ringsak 2006

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