February 28, 2011

Coffee on your Shirt

I don't pass along every link I get, but this one deserves it. Coffee shirts that actually look good are a rare thing, as anyone who has looked would know already. The above is a t-shirt design, featured for the next ~2 days here. And it looks amazing.

A Barista By Any Other Name

If I were half the barista I projected, I might also be a barista right now. It has to be said that I'm not, I think, in so far as I don't actually work at a coffee bar right now. I am, instead, paid to sell discounted books, and to try and maintain something resembling order while doing so.

But even still, I think of myself in those terms. And there is something to be said for self definition, the ability of a person to say who and how they are. Is it so simple as that? Am I a barista because I label myself as such?

On some level, I hope so. I did just write a long-ish piece called "Me the Barista". Thanks to Roast Magazine, it's easily the most read thing I've written since my University newspaper days. So I feel like I ought to be a barista, if only because a lot of people read a piece in which I call myself one.

But what I feel is not always what I think. And though I feel like a barista, I don't think I am. Simply, if one does not work behind a coffee bar, if one does not make coffee for a living, then one cannot be a barista. This may seem overly-prescriptive, but I think it's just minding a fair bit of technicality. No matter how much I might like basketball, say, and the playing thereof, I am not a pro hoopster unless employed as such. So it is with coffee. I like it, yes. I know it as well. But as of right now, no one is paying me to make it. Therefore, despite that affection, there is not the needed tangible object at which it must be directed.

A week or so ago, this did not concern me. There were jobs to be had, and I would get them. I assumed the first, and the latter as well. I am nothing if not confident in my abilities. But time has passed, and neither assumption has proven true. First of all, there really aren't that many barista gigs to be had in Lawrence. It is the sort of job people tend to hang on to, and that is precisely what people are doing right now. But of course, I only needed one job to be open, if indeed I could simply have my choice. As it turns out, however, I am not quite God's gift to barista-dom, and therefor, not an automatic hire for anyone seeking help.

So it is about a week and a half since I've steamed milk. I feel a growing sense of something that might be trepidation that this stretch, which I had assumed would be quite brief, may not be. I enjoy the job, first of all, to such an extent that I've begun to define myself by it. There is this blog too. The majority of what I wrote here was inspired by events at work, or at least musing had while working. Without that, my muse is diminished.

But I am optimistic still, some might say arrogant. I still believe I'm a very good barista, and I believe that others will believe it too. I will see the carafe half full.

February 27, 2011

A Line Too Long

You have to feel a little sorry for the lady. She had endured a 30 minute line, with no roller coaster at the end. She had a child with her, and a coffee too. For most cashiers, the former would draw comment. Something like "cute kid" or "what's her name?" perhaps. But this is me, and my attention went straight to the cup.

"What are you drinking?" I asked.

"Oh," she said, "coffee."

"Well yes. I can smell it. And it does smell lovely. But if I recognize that cup, you got that at The Merc. I was just curious which coffee you got. I had the Ethiopian Harrar earlier. I love African coffee in general, Ethiopian perhaps more than most. But with most beans from that region, you get high acidity, which I like, but this was interesting in that it lacked that. It was roasty and smooth, with just a little grainy or nutiness to it. More like something from Latin America. It was really interesting."

She did not quite make eye contact with me. You have to give her credit for that, for hiding the "WTF" face she surely wanted to make. "Dark roast," she said. "I just grabbed the one on the left. I put cream and sugar in it too."

February 24, 2011

Me the Barista

People get ideas from all sorts of places. Me, I prefer to find mine in writing, though they tend to spring up from other places too. The radio is a decent source of inspiration, cliche as it might be to cite song lyrics. The funny thing is, it’s usually the mindless pop lyrics that inspire some sort of creative blip. What if Katy Perry is right; what if someone really was a firework? That would really be unfortunate. I picture someone walking around, exploding in to a panoply of colors as a crowd of onlookers oohs and ahs; maybe there is a smattering of applause. What does paradise feel like, Britney? And when did Lady Gaga go from talking about riding disco sticks to singing after school specials about empowerment and gee golly gosh, I’m perfect the way I am?

Most of these ideas are fleeting, entertained only to be dismissed. This is all well enough, since most of them aren’t worth anything anyway. Once in a while, something might pop up that’s useful. When that happens, I makes some effort to hold on to it, then to craft it in to something worthwhile. Then, if that happens, I might write about it. Usually, I try and relate it to coffee somehow, since that’s what this blog is basically about.

I say that, but I’m not sure that’s proven to be the case. I started this blog as a means to write about coffee, but mostly it’s been an excuse for me to write whatever strikes me, to entertain whatever muse I might possess at a given moment. I’ve tried to keep coffee in the picture, however, and that’s not hard to do. I mostly always have a cup of the stuff in my hand; if not there is an empty mug sitting nearby. This is almost always the case, up until evening, when I decide I should probably lay off the caffeine, since I have a difficult time sleeping as it is. Sometimes I will seek out a cup of decaf, but not usually, since doing so invites a sort of derision, even if I’m only imagining it. There is something sacrilegious about a self proclaimed coffee geek ordering decaf, and so I don’t.

It would be more accurate to say that the blog isn’t about coffee, so much as inspired by it. Voltaire and Beethoven supposedly downed cups of the stuff daily, fueling their creative efforts. And though it would be ludicrous to put myself in their company, there is no doubt that caffeine stimulates the brain to do things it might otherwise not. The body is not unaffected as well. Without coffee, I don’t think I’d be able to keep up the fitness regimen I subject myself to. I say that like it’s some sort of torture, but truthfully, it’s the days off that are hard. My body has almost become addicted to the movement, to the the effort, and it becomes stiff and lethargic in the absence thereof. And writing too, so often derided as something you’re subjected to as a student, is something I could scarcely imagine going without, even for a day or two. And without coffee, I don’t think I’d be as good of a writer, and certainly not as active of one.

I suppose this makes me sound like something of an addict, and maybe there’s a reason for that. If I need coffee to do the basic things I like to do, perhaps I need coffee too much. A lot of people might say that, but I wouldn’t. There are a lot of things everyone needs: Food, water, air, clothes, etc. But the basics are just that, the basics, and probably aren’t sufficient for most people. Sure, everyone needs those things, at least, but most people are going to want, or need, more. For me, that’s cardio, writing, and coffee. They seem distant things, unrelated, but they aren’t to me. They are integral parts of my day, the summation of which equals my collected experience. This is not a good or bad thing, objectively, but I think it’s a good thing, because I’m pretty happy with my life as it is.

Without coffee, I don’t think I’d have this life. It sounds impossible, or if true, perhaps a bit sad. But I don’t mean to say that my palate is so stimulated by the drink so as to make my life worth living. I mean a whole lot of things besides that, though the pleasures of tasting a good cup are not excluded. I mean that I enjoy the morning ritual, delight in leaving even a comfortably warm bed on a cold morning in order to sip a warmer cup of coffee and gulp down my oatmeal. And I like the fitness and writing I’m able to do, I think, at least in part because of the coffee. I certainly couldn’t do either of them as well without it, however well it is that I do them.

I think what I owe to coffee has more to do with my time as a barista than anything else. This is a subject I’ve written about a lot before, but it deserves mention again. There was a time when I was an introvert, happier alone with a book or a video game than with any but a select few people. That hasn’t changed totally. I can still spend an entire day with no more human interaction than what I get from an author, and consider that mostly a day well spent. But it’s not how I would rather spend my time now; at least, it’s not how I like to spend most of it. Thanks to my time behind a coffee bar, I’ve developed an extroverted streak, or at least nurtured the one I already had. It’s grown, to the point where I’ve developed a reputation as something like perky, and certainly loud and ostentatious. I don’t view this as a change in persona, so much as a realization. I was always who I am now, it just had to be chiseled out from under a bit of rock first. It took some work, as things sometimes do. But it was worth doing. And without coffee, and the making of it, I never would have started that task.

I’ll land at another coffee bar soon, and I’ll keep drinking the stuff in the meantime; I’ll keep writing and running too. I’ll keep looking for ideas at the bottom of mugs, empty except for that omnipresent stain. I’ll find them, and inspiration too. If the past is any indication, I’ll probably find out more about myself as well.

Why Bother?

 There is a bar, the sort you might see in any coffee shop. The counter is decorated with plastic wrapped baked goods, who knows how old, and a basket of fruit, the contents of which may not be any more fresh. There are four coffee pots, one house, two single origin, and the requisite decaf. They are specked with something that might be coffee stains, the name tags bent and withered. Behind the counter, there is an espresso machine. It has three group heads, two steam wands, and looks to be the only thing consistently wiped down in the building. It is cleaner than the man tending it, who looks carefully out of sorts, with hair and stubble that must have been put just out of place. He is detached, but comes something close to alive when a customer approaches the counter.

Barista: (Nods, leaning on the counter, head just raised) Hey.
Customer: (Scanning the menu board frantically, as if the drink names are being shuffled about) Umm -- Hi -- Yeah -- What's, uh...
Barista: (Looks at the board, raises eyebrows) What's what? We have a lot of stuff. I can pretty much make whatever besides.
Customer: Cool, yeah, cool. Um, well, I was thinking like something sweet. I really like coffee, ya know, but I just really want something sweet too, ya know?
Barista: (With more condescension than intended, but less than he would like) Okay. Well, we have all sorts of syrups. (Points to the board) There is a list. I can make a latte with any one of those, or any combination. Like I said, whatever.
Customer: (Like the menu is in French, unless he speaks French, in which case, like it's in Japanese) Umm... Well what's good? What do people usually get?
Barista: (Like the customer is five years old) Mochas are really popular. That's basically just a latte with chocolate. It can come with whipped cream too. A lot of people like vanilla lattes. Those are probably the most popular. But again, it really depends on what you like. We have all those syrups.
Customer: Well what do you like?
Barista: (Cynically, with all the condescension he can muster) Coffee, black. Sometimes a small cappuccino. I don't every get anything with syrup.
Customer: So should I get a cappuccino then, if that's you're favorite thing? Aren't those pretty sweet?
Barista: (Like a grade school teacher, tending to a petulant class) No. A cappuccino isn't sweet, unless you put stuff in to make it that way. It's espresso, with a little steamed milk, and a lot of foam. The ratio varies depending on how wet or dry you like it. But you don't want that.
Customer: So what do I want then?
Barista: (Pauses, then carefully) I don't know. You said something sweet. So a latte with whatever in it is probably your best bet. I don't know what flavors you like though.
Customer: I like French Vanilla -- Do you have that? I don't see it up there.
Barista: We don't, but I can make it. French Vanilla is just a fancy way of saying a vanilla and hazelnut mix, usually a 2 to 1 ratio.
Customer: Oh -- Then never mind. How about a mocha then?
Barista: (Relieved) Okay then. I can do that.
Customer: (It's just dawned on him) Do you have that in sugar free?
Barista: (Considering lying) No. We have vanilla, hazelnut, and caramel in sugar free. Not chocolate.
Customer: Huh. I probably shouldn't get that then. Lot's of calories. (A pause, like he's seeking confirmation that it's okay, you've earned a treat)
Barista: (Not humoring him) Probably. It is chocolate syrup.
Customer: Then how about a vanilla latte -- sugar free -- and with skim -- and decaf.
Barista: (Is that all?) Okay. (Ringing him up, then making the drink, focusing on the process so as to totally ignore the customer, who is watching expectantly)
Customer: Sorry to have to order something so difficult. (Laughs, fishing for an "it's okay")
Barista: (Not looking up) It's easy enough. (Shouldn't, but can't help himself) It's actually kind of got a name. "Why bother?"
Customer: Huh? What?
Barista: (Pours, hands the drink to the customer) Why bother.
Customer: (Not following) Why bother with what?
Barista: The name.
Customer: Why bother with the name?
Barista: Why bother is the name.
Customer: (Sips) ...
Barista: The drink is, all in good nature of course, sometimes called the "why bother", since, you know, you're kind of getting a neutered version of everything.
Customer: (Wants to be in on it, forced laughter) Oh -- I got it. Yeah, why would anyone order something called that?
Barista: Good question.

February 23, 2011


I know very little about Japan, and less about the nation's beverage culture. But I know that many of the finest methods of drip coffee preparation were, if not created, refined in Japan. Hario is the name that comes to mind, for its pour over technology, but there are other companies too.

I had my first brush with Japanese coffee however, in the form of Boss canned coffee. I had the Black, pictured above. It's a 6.5 oz can of iced coffee, and it is, frankly, too good for being a cheap canned beverage. Though I can't find detail about how the coffee is prepared, it tastes rich and smooth, suggesting cold brew. If it is just hot coffee, cooled off, count me fooled.

Sadly, I know of no place to get this sort of thing other than Asian grocery stores. Although, said grocery stores do have an immense amount of interesting things not stocked at your friendly neighborhood mega-mart, so it might be worth the trip. You'll find an immense amount of canned coffee, though most appear to be sweetened or doctored somehow. You will also find rice cake, which you absolutely must buy.

Boss coffee apparently, has lots of other flavors, or at least, lots of other cans. I had the "Black", which was very good. There is Silky Black also, which sounds nice, and a can with a rainbow on it. I can't figure out what that might be, but I feel oddly compelled to try it. The others might merit a taste as well. We shall see. In any case, I'll have chances to buy them, as I'll need to buy more rice cake in -- I don't know -- a day or so?

February 21, 2011

Going Back to Pike's Place

Memory is a funny thing, and not terribly accurate. Taste, being such an in-the-moment sensation, is perhaps especially difficult to recall. You might remember a feeling of a sensation, or perhaps the broader context, but specific flavor notes vanish.

I remember not caring much for Pike's Place Roast, the default house coffee served and Starbucks cafes everywhere. Certainly, I had my share, working as I did with the stuff for somewhere close to a year. So when I ventured in to a Starbucks recently (certainly not looking for a job...), desiring a coffee, it was with no great enthusiasm that I ordered.

"Medium or bold?" was the question. I looked, peering around the barista to the name tags hanging from the coffee pots. Pikes read one, Italian the other. I had hoped that Casi Cielo might still be around, and might still be brewed, or perhaps one of the African coffees, all of which I recall fondly. I even harbored fantasies that the Blue Java might be around, and I might get a lucky taste. But no such luck.

"Pikes," I said. "No room." Though I didn't have happy memories of Pikes Place, I've never had a "Italian roast" that I enjoyed. And so I figured, as I tend to, to err on the side of lighter roast.

I took my first sip, paused, and sipped again. It was -- good. I sipped more, drinking it too fast, trying to slurp down the lie. But the taste didn't change. It was smooth, just a little lively, with a balance of roast and acidity. It was a medium everything coffee, the sort of thing that makes a perfect house blend. But more than that, it was good. Seriously.

I went back the next day, purchased a wrap and another coffee. The wrap was decent, the sort of thing that would make ideal lunch break fare (not that I'm looking for a job... again). I attacked the Pike's, daring it to taste as bland and insipid as I recalled, to reveal the previous day's cup a fluke. It answered the challenge, however, delivering yet another perfectly palatable, drinkable, enjoyable cup of coffee.

I was a little perplexed, and surprised. I knew my palate had shifted since my last Pike's sip, moving from dark and roasty to light and lively. But could that be it? Perhaps this cafe brewed a better cup than mine had. Or perhaps the blend had been altered a bit (though I doubt it). I didn't -- and don't -- know the answer. Moreover, it's not something to be concerned about. If something is going to be as ubiquitous as Pike's Place is -- and it probably is the most brewed coffee in cafes across America, considering -- I may as well like it. There goes my hipster cred.

February 20, 2011

Keep Your Head Down

The tone of my last couple posts has been morose, so I decided to show that I can, in fact, relax. And that bulge is my wallet. I swear.

February 18, 2011

The End

There's no use crying over steamed milk. But for now, pardon me if I do just a bit. The SBC cafe in Borders is done, closed today with no more than half a day's warning, and nothing more formal than an email.

I had one final day, at least. One final day to make medium caramel lattes with an extra shot, iced cappuccinos (an odd drink, that deserves a post unto itself), and others. One final day to ask what level you'd like, and if you needed room for cream. Or perhaps you'd like that cookie warmed up. And for here or to go? Those phrases, rote lines to be sure, but part of a charmingly familiar script. And oh, have a nice day.

I told most anyone who would listen, especially those who needed to listen, those regulars who now needed a new cafe, a new barista. They were sad, or angry, or shocked, or something else altogether. But they were all sorry, for their loss and ours.

And then it was done. I left, not sure how to make a proper exit, or even what one would be. So I just left, as I had every other night, though this was no other night. I got a text an hour and a half later: "Where the fuck are you? We're all at the cafe."

I arrived as quickly as possible, to see that yes, they all just about were. A half cup of javanilla shake was thrust in to my hand, the sort of ultimate overkill I wouldn't indulge in normally, but why the hell not? I ate one final whole wheat pretzel, savoring every spongy bite of bland, starchy gluten. We finished cleaning up, started tearing down. We did what seemed like enough. Finally, we wrote our goodbyes on our board, normally used to advertise beverages or promotions. We then placed it at the front of the counter, where all the expectant customers could get, if not coffee, at least something like closure.

Mine went more or less as follows: I have no talent for brevity. You've probably noticed this about me already. So I couldn't possibly fit everything I want to in this space. Suffice it to say, this is the job at which I've felt the most myself, and had the most fun. Thank you all, for that, and for everything else.

We went out then. There were drinks had; I decided a cup of coffee was most appropriate for me. We browsed old notebooks, old memories, and set about making some new ones. We laughed, sat in silence, laughed again. We shared in company, the presence of which had come to seem guaranteed, yet was never taken for granted.

Finally, we walked back to the Borders parking lot. We would see each other again; we would work with each other, even. Though there is no cafe, there are books still to be sold. But even still. We were the cafe, and would not be again. The hugs took time to give, because in embracing, we admitted that it was over.

But we did, because we had to. We had homes to return to, Fridays to prepare for. We have futures to attend to, once we can figure them out. As for me, I've got milk to steam. Somewhere.

February 16, 2011

Borders, As You've Likely Heard

The news has been circulating for some time now, thinly disguised as rumor, that Borders is filing for chapter eleven bankruptcy. I won't pretend to know what that means, exactly, on the large scale. I do know that, as a result, Borders is closing 200 stores, and that the Lawrence, KS, location is one of them. And I know that I'm quite unhappy about that.

Allow me a bit of nostalgia. I've been going to this particular Borders since I moved to the area in the about a decade ago. I've been shopping there for years, but I've been going to certain groceries for that long as well, without the slightest attachment being formed. So it's not so much about the duration over which the visits have taken place, as the frequency and quality of those visits.

I spent untold hours there, well before I was called it a job. I browsed the manga first, squatting as junior high kids do, waiting for the "buy 4, get the 5th free" sale, rejoicing when it arrived. But mostly, I didn't spend my money then, because I didn't have a lot of it.

When I did get money, I started to buy the manga I had browsed previously, and fantasy novels too. Borders provided my escape, along with Adult Swim, the fantastic worlds and events that young minds devour. And there was the Borders cafe, not yet Seattle's Best. I got the chai then, which I remember as being good, and I'm told it was.

Years passed, and my shopping continued -- though waxing and waning, depending on my moods. I fell out of love with reading briefly, then rekindled the romance several years ago. It's what I spend most of my free time doing now, that and writing.

Writing, of course, about coffee. That brings me to the present day, or rather, to late Spring. That was when I was informed that the Borders cafe -- which had converted to a Seattle's Best location several years prior -- was hiring, and that I might have a good shot of landing there, were I interested. I was. Coffee and books, my two loves, together, and with money. I couldn't pass that up.

And so I started that job, which I've had for about 8 months now. That is not a long time, I realize, and so it might seem a bit odd for me to lament. But that time, if rather brief, has been revelatory, in a way. It's calcified my love of coffee, and energized this blog. If I didn't work with coffee, I wouldn't be able to write about it. If there's anyone out there that considers it a good thing that I do, you have the SBC cafe in Borders to thank, in large part. There, I also met a group of coworkers, whom I might more accurately just call friends. I cannot say enough good about them, so I won't try. But I will miss those hours with them, when they do end.

Mine is not the saddest story, in relation to all of this. I am a part time barista, working while polishing off college. I would like to make a career of coffee; it is my ultimate goal, in fact. But right now, that SBC cafe in Borders isn't my career. But Borders is a career to a lot of people, a life for many years. I know several of them, have been a coworker for months, a customer for years. I valued them then, for the job they did, and much more now, for the people they are.

So what now? That's the question. Well, though the sentence is given, the doors won't shut for another month or two. That's now. And then? Coffee, wherever will have me.

February 15, 2011

A Less Pithy Valentine

The sun had just set, but there was still residual warmth in the air, now mingling with a tame bite. She approached the cafe, the usual assortment of punks, hipsters, hippies, philosophers, musicians, poets, etc., smoking out front, legs crossed, dimly aware grins decorating their faces. 

She looked through the window, saw him walking around from behind the counter. He wore thin jeans, a long sleeved shirt with horizontal stripes, and cowboy boots. There was a smile on his face, a gleam behind the black rims of his glasses. There was confidence in the way he stood, left leg cocked, like some emaciated Marlboro man.

A deep breath. She inhaled, looked at the sidewalk, and her feet, which should have been taking her to the door. But there was no movement. They were content to stand, to honor that swirling angst in her gut. And what of those shoes? The toes looked pointy now, and the buckle lavish, perhaps a bit much.

She exhaled. It was 8 pm; she always visited around this time. She told herself that this was a day like any other, that some illusory corporate invention need not throw her. She looked in the window again, saw that he was behind the counter now, dusting grounds from a portafilter.

She slipped in through the curtain of smoke, slid to a table in the corner. She slung her bag to the floor, reached in and grabbed Three Plays for Puritans. Shaw made for acerbic company, however, and was quickly retired to the bag.

"Fuck," she said, standing with enough force to knock her chair in to the person behind her. "Sorry."

She began to walk towards the counter, each footfall an imagined declaration of her nerves. Stomp. Stomp. Stomp. A series of resonant thuds, a poem of romance and hate and feelings and society and stuff and dammit.

He finished wiping the portafilter clean, shoved the towel in his back pocket, a consummate coffee monkey. There was only that space of the counter now, a half full tip jar and rice flour, vegan brownies separating her from him. He leaned on that counter as he always did, turning his head slightly, his hips more. She pictured him, cowboy boots with spurs now, doing the same pose at a saloon.

"Hi," she said.

"Angie," he nodded.

She pictured him tipping the hat he wasn't wearing, saying howdy, ma'am, wondered if perhaps last night had been a bad time to watch Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. No, there was never a bad time for Robert Redford.

"No plans?" he asked.

And there it was. Straight to the point. She could say it now, ask away; he had opened the door, she need only walk through it. It would just be good manners, really. She gestured to her bag, slumped against the table. "GBS and I."

"Boo," he said, furling his brow with mock indignation. "So." He stood up, turned with relish to the espresso grinder.

The whir and the click spoke to her, telling her that this was just another day, which she had known it was, had told herself it was, but still. The near omnipresent disingenuity on his face vanished as he ground, brushed, tamped, twisted, brushed again, flicked.

He turned his head to her, as he lifted milk from the fridge, poured it in the pitcher. "I've been working on something." He smiled.

As quickly, he was back to work, steaming, stretching, swirling, hissing, then cutting, pounding, swirling again. He grabbed the portafilter, locked it in, pulled the shots in to a 12 oz mug, still working with the milk pitcher.

She noticed that his concentration had been infectious, that her jitters had dissipated, then noted the irony in that, surrounded by caffeine.

"Okay," he said, exhaling sharply. "Let's see if I can get this. You know how I can get like a decent rosetta? Well I actually never learned this one, but, you know, today."

He poured, more quickly, and with less flicking from side to side. He struck through the middle at finish, exhaled again. "Okay. Wow. That sucks."

She laughed. "Let me see."

"Uh, no. Let me try again."

"Oh stop. What did you try, like a polar bear or something. I saw that online once."

"Double rosetta?"

"What? Oh, the blog. Yeah. Maybe."

"But whatever. No, this is, well."

He walked to the counter, set the mug down. The crema cast a caramel outline around what might, from just the right angle, have been a heart.

"So it's what?" she asked, smiling now, butterflies netted, killed.

"It's free, for one," he said, pulling a handful of coins from his tip jar, counting them, then grabbing a couple more. "It's also better tasting than a rose."

February 14, 2011

A Pithy Valentine

Drinking coffee isn't merely about loving the drink; it's about loving the time spent drinking it.

February 13, 2011

On Food and (not) Cooking

Anyone can cook, and most everyone should.

Mark Bittman begins the aptly named How to Cook Everything with this declaration. What follows, is a massive tome of instructions intended to prove the point, to walk even the most nubile kitchen visitor through baking a potato or boiling water; there are advanced techniques too, and recipes that will impress even that friend who fancies himself a foodie by virtue of his Food Network viewing habits.

I know this, because I read cookbooks at work. At least, I browse most of them. I have a fascination with food, and to an extent, with the preparation thereof. But that fascination ends somewhere between the eating and the cooking. The former, I will do with relish, the latter, mostly not at all.

The only vital kitchen apparatus is the microwave, for making oatmeal, frozen dinners/burritos, and "steaming" rice and vegetables. Everything else can be tossed in un or pre cooked, or else it can be avoided altogether. Dress the whole pile up with too much siracha, salsa, mustard, or other strongly flavored condiment, and you've got something I've grown to find palatable.

Thus it isn't the first half of Bittman's pithy quote that I fail to achieve; I don't doubt that I can cook. But should I? It's a question that evokes an almost automatic yes. One who cooks can eat healthier, we're told. That person will also save money. Perhaps most of all, said person will eat better, and be more satisfied. We're told those things so often that they must be true, or else people would surely stop saying them. There isn't wisdom in numbers; there is certitude, however.

Of course, this is a false dichotomy, if what I'm doing counts as cooking, which I would argue that it does, technically. To cook something is merely to prepare it for eating by use of heat, which I do. Perhaps one could say, more accurately, that I'm thawing more than cooking. But whatever the case, I am consuming food, in my home, with control over the ingredients and portions.

Which brings me to that first argument, that one who cooks eats healthier. There are studies that show abysmal health metrics for those who eat out routinely. But those people are visiting fast food restaurants, by in large, and the studies don't account for their caloric intake, or even the general makeup of those calories. Which is not to say that higher end dining is less potentially damaging to the waistline, bite for bite. Rare is the delicious restaurant dish that hasn't been sweetened with more sugar than you'd dare use for a dessert, or fried in more oil than BP spilled in the gulf. These things are good, not always because of some sublime technique exhibited by the couldn't-care-less line cook, but because they appeal to the primal desire for sugar, salt, and fat.

More appropriately, one might say, Anyone can eat at home, and most everyone should. Having an Amy's rice bowl and cup of Fage greek yogurt for dinner is not cooking, but find me a tangible metric which says the pair don't form a healthy meal. And it is not expensive, nor is it any less satisfying to the stomach or the mind. Anyone can eat healthy, and most everyone should. Anyone can eat good food, and most everyone should. But let's leave the cooking to those who like it. I like making coffee, and running in sub freezing temperatures for several miles, wearing shorts and a sleeveless shirt. I think those things are good, because they are good for me. I also think that others could probably, on some level, derive benefit from them. But should everyone drink coffee? Should everyone run? No.

Anyone can find activities they like, and most everyone should.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to cook something from a Mark Bittman book -- seriously.

February 11, 2011

Funnier Than Anything I've Written

This is a brilliant website, and I mean that without hyperbole. Just look at the posts on grammar if you don't believe me. You could instruct college level English students with those posts, and they would be better off for it. (Trust me.) But this post is about coffee, of course. So click the picture, and laugh heartily.

February 10, 2011

A Bitter Instance

Unforgivably, and unfathomably, I let myself run out of coffee. I looked in the cabinet, and the realization punched me, knocking the air from my lungs, the sensation from my mind. What? How? Why? So many questions, and nothing but the simplest of answers to all of them: I had forgotten. I had let my mind drift to other matters, my focus shift to things like school, dips, and running. And I had forgotten coffee.

There was surprise in that dawning, and shame as well. How dare I, barista, coffee enthusiast, coffee blogger, even, forget that most base of things? It happens, I said, though I knew it should not have. I had been to Dillons the day before, purchased vegetables, rice, oatmeal, and fish. I had all of those things now, but all of those thing I could do without. Peanut butter slapped on saltines would be enough for sustenance, enough to quell hunger and fuel my efforts at work.

I had options, none of them ideal. I could drive so a kwik shop, or perhaps a local grocer, and buy either a cup or bag of coffee. But I looked at the windows, frost rimming their frames. The sun had yet to crest the horizon, and the temperature remained below zero. A cold wind whipped past, screaming its taunts. I would stay inside.

That settled, I began to rummage for caffeine. Like a squirrel trying desperately to dig up nuts, having exhausted his winter stash, I opened cabinets, tore through their contents. Surely, there had to be a can of Folgers. Everyone has some coffee, even if it's nothing more than a safeguard, in case some caffeine fiend comes to visit. But no, there was not even that.

There was, however, a remnant of a visit from last fall. I saw it, a brown rectangle propped in a far corner, behind forgotten noodles and black beans. Nescafe. Instant coffee. I resigned myself to this pungent fate, measured out the course granules, and tried not to inhale to deeply. I boiled water, crunched an apple, stirred peanut butter in to my oatmeal.

The pot whistled, and I swore there was a hint of sarcasm in it. I snatched it from the burner, refusing to be mocked by a tea kettle, and poured the water over the granules. It hissed, steamed, and released an astringent aroma. I sipped. Watery, wispy, and yet bitter too. It manged nearly all sins at once, offending every part of the palate and a whole spectrum of senses.

I drank the entire cup. I did, not because it tasted good, but because it was there, and because it was coffee. Some brown water remained at the bottom of the cup, with bits of not emulsified coffee still floating. I rinsed it, and scrubbed the cup, hoping to absolve it of its part. I tried to forgive myself too, saying that there was no choice, that circumstances forced me to play a week hand. But of course, they were circumstances of my own making; I had forgotten to buy coffee, no one else. And so I got dressed and went to work, a bitter tang still idling on my tongue.

February 8, 2011

Leftist Lattes

You'll forgive my lack of timeliness I hope; Howard Dean references stopped being relevant several years ago. Nonetheless, this commercial was brought to my attention, and raises an interesting point: Are lattes liberal?

Obviously, the drink itself has no political ideals. Milk, too, is probably clean. Espresso is of European extraction, and evolved to more quickly caffeinate industrial revolution era factory workers. That same era, and those same workers, led to labor laws and social movements that one could see as the beginnings of the modern political left.

But I'm dodging the point. It's not that the latte is itself liberal, but that the stereotypical drinkers thereof are. Whether this notion was ever true, I don't know -- but I doubt it. Though espresso is an Italian import, the combination of milk and coffee is hardly novel, and certainly not confined to any one geographic region. In fact, the cafe latte as we've come to know it is almost certainly an American invention, devised to sate the dual preference for weak coffee and lots of milk.

But this too dodges the issue. It's not the history of the latte that matters, but the current connotation, the context in which this specific drink now resides. In this imagined world, latte drinkers are the left leaning sort, assumed because they frequent coffee houses, long places of esoteric idea exchange. But why is it that the latte is singled out here? Those who sit and discuss their latest Kantian musings frequently do so over plain coffee (though as often, dressed with cream and sugar), as that drink is less expensive, and more likely to have a generous refill policy. But since 60% of Americans drink coffee, you can't very well single them all out as pinko bastards.

Still, in the hope that we might have better informed PAC ads in the future, I'd like to offer some help in stereotyping. If you really, really want to peg someone as a tree hugging leftist, name them as a soy chai drinker. They are, of course, vegan, and are avoiding caffeine as per their latest detox diet.

February 4, 2011

Coffee: Is it in You?

Marathon runners speak of bonking -- a term denoting that feeling of total exhaustion when glycogen stores have been depleted. For most, this happens somewhere just past the 20-mile mark. Legs become leaden, and the effort required to lift one foot, then the other, is such that running several more miles seems impossible.

It's a phrase I've co-opted for everyday use, though I've never run a marathon -- or any distance beyond 18 miles, for that matter. I bring this up, because, in my parlance, I was thoroughly bonked last night. There was no good reason why that ought to have been the case -- but it was. Still, I returned home from work, having completed 30 minutes of pretty difficult sprint work at the gym just prior, feeling for all the world like I'd just run Badwater. This is not to say that my degree of bonk-ness was warranted, of course, as my job isn't too physically taxing, and my workout was nothing epic. Still, there are days.

I pushed myself upstairs, figuring that I probably ought to eat something, feeling quite glad that I had a large tupperware container of brown rice already prepared, in to which I could mix just about anything, microwave, and eat. And so I did precisely that, before turning my attention to the stairs once again. But before I descended, it occurred to me that I might have received those sample from Seattle's Best coffee.

"Did I get a package?" I asked my roommate. (I had made more polite conversation in the time preceding this question, I promise.) She pointed to a box situated near the stairs; I had walked by it twice, and not noticed. It was a large-ish box, almost the size of a microwave, and there was a Seattle's Best sticker on it. This was my package, then. I opened it, now with an energy probably not owing to my bowl of rice 'n stuff.

Three cans sat, sealed in bubble wrap (a treat, in and of itself), tied in a piece of red string. It had the look of a gift, in that regard, and I couldn't help but feel that it was. I took the cans out, examining the aesthetic and reading the ingredient list.

I am not too visually inclined, so I'll leave it to you to decide how the cans look. I rather like all of them, however. I particularly like the cutesy, tongue-in-cheek attitude about the whole thing. Specifically, there is a graphic on the side of the can, letting you know precisely what's inside: Iced coffee, milk, sugar, and AWESOME.

This leads me to the second point, the ingredients list, and thus the nutrition facts. The first thing you read is this: Brewed coffee. After that, there is milk, and sugar. Basically, that's it. If you're drinking the mocha or vanilla version, there are the flavors too -- but little else. This is good news for those who fear mystery ingredients, and of course, better news for those of us who like things to taste good, and not like some failed chemistry experiment.

But tasting would have to wait. It was 9:30 by this time, and I needed to get up at six in the morning in order to satisfy my cardio addiction before class, and then work. My ideal taste test, setting up all three, sipping them from cute little glasses, pinky out, jotting down flavor notes and whatnot, now seemed like it would have to wait -- or perhaps not happen at all.

Then something happened -- something that the PR folks will probably love to hear. I remembered something I had read about the lattes, that they were intended to be convenient, available, and consumed anywhere and everywhere one might want (or need) coffee. It thus occurred to me that it might be more in the spirit of the beverage to use them, rather than sip them like a single origin Jamaican Blue Mountain.

So I roused myself at 5:50 this morning, with some effort, and pulled the regular iced latte from the fridge. I cracked it open, and took a careful sip. Happy news: It tasted like coffee, with milk and sugar. Perhaps this doesn't sound revolutionary -- but then, that's not what I wanted, and probably not what SBC was aiming for here. The goal was twofold: To produce an iced latte that tasted like the sort one might get at a cafe, but that could be pulled from a refrigerator, or a convenience store, or wherever. On both counts, the standard model iced latte earns high marks. It is smooth, rich, sweet of course, and completely lacking that odd alternative taste one finds on canned coffee beverages so often. It tastes like you think it should, basically, which is a good thing.

With a small dose of caffeine and (a little more) sugar ingested, I left for the gym. I write this now, having completed 4 relatively easy miles (7 mph, with a few uphill sprints tacked on) and a weights circuit. It has to be said: I felt not a hint of bonk, not even at the end of the session. So as a pre-workout beverage, providing quick caffeine and sugar, the iced latte did its job. That it tasted much better than Gatorade (which is not offered in a coffee flavor, thankfully) was also nice.

February 2, 2011

Zen Coffee

There is something romantic about simplicity, about a certain asceticism that rejects needless attachments and the boundless neurosis that comes with. We are busy, of course, and surrounded by a near constant bombardment of sensory stimuli, all of which can make it very difficult to properly enjoy things -- even those things we purport to love.

But we tend to blame the external for this too often, when, in truth, it's our own minds that complicate matters. That is, regardless of what is going on outside, we control our reaction to it. We can frame it as we like, and thus remove a great deal of the stress that we seem to accept as inevitable.

If this sounds overtly philosophical, there is a reason for that. Full disclosure: I've just finished reading Zen and the Art of Running. So, if my mind is drifting a bit towards pseudo-enlightenment, you'll forgive me. Also, I'm listening to Raining Blood right now, so I think Slayer cancels out whatever meditative state I might be flirting with.

But I digress. In any case, the book did inspire me a bit. Importantly, it gave me some mental tools that I imagine will be valuable in my fitness endeavors. It also led me to try something this morning: Drinking coffee.

"But wait?" you ask. "Don't you drink coffee every morning?"

Why yes, yes I do. But perhaps not so intently as I might. That is, I've written about the context of coffee a lot, and perhaps in doing so, not emphasized the coffee itself as much as I ought. I wrote, yesterday, about drinking coffee, while eating breakfast and watching the snow. The focus of that post was on how coffee enhances the experience of a snow storm, or again, how it fits in to a larger picture.

But this morning, I wanted to try something else. I wanted to drink my coffee, and, as much as possible, do nothing else. I would not think about the weather, work, how far I might run today, what I could make for breakfast -- nothing. That is, I wanted to co-opt the zen practice of mindfulness -- of living in the moment -- and apply it to my morning coffee drinking.

Was this a bastardization of the idea? Perhaps, but I don't think so. Zen practice -- if I'm remembering my Eastern Civ and Chinese Philosophy classes correctly -- involves intently focusing on things which might otherwise seem mundane. More specifically, it involves truly experiencing the now, because that's really all we've got.

So this morning, I made my coffee, and drank it, careful to do little else, and worry about less. This was my morning meditation, my attempt at mindfulness. I don't know if it was "legitimate" or not, or even if it was a worthwhile thought experiment. But I know that I enjoyed my coffee.

February 1, 2011

Snow Day

Coffee was made for mornings like this. The thought crossed my mind this morning, and I entertained it, humored it even, although I knew it was absurd. Coffee was not made, per se, so much as it was discovered. And in any case, that genesis was in Ethiopia. Even with all of our modern agricultural genius, coffee is still grown in equatorial climates exclusively. So no, coffee was not made for snowy mornings, for temperatures flirting with zero, white streaked skies or blanketed ground.

But even still...

There is knowing a thing, and then there is feeling it. I know better than that. I know, on a basic, factual level, that coffee was by no means invented to comfort a cold body on a cold morning. And yet all of my rational powers cannot convince that romantic part of me that believes otherwise.

And so I stood in the kitchen this morning, watching the snow dart towards the earth, imagining how high it might pile. Up to a foot, they say. I smiled at that, nostalgia for snow days gone. Then, I would spend my day in the basement, playing Sonic the Hedgehog; or perhaps I would sit at the computer, and play NBA Live '98. I might read too, and probably play outside. There would be hot chocolate, and a fire, as well as family. But memories of fires long extinguished do not keep one warm, and certainly do not quell hunger.

So I shivered a bit, wondered if perhaps I should have bothered to put on a shirt, or even pants, and set about the morning business. There was breakfast to prepare; and so I did, microwaving an evol rice and bean burrito. (Though I'm no epicurean, and certainly no culinary master, I do usually bother to prepare my own breakfast. But the burritos were on sale last night, and so I couldn't help but stock up. Convenience food is, well, convenient.)

Then there was coffee. I made it, sipped it, and looked at the snow again. I thought that, perhaps, a darker roast would have been more appropriate for the occasion, but then decided that a light, bright coffee could be something as a transport to a warmer climate. And so I drank, feeling warm, comfortable, and just generally good. Disregarding what I knew, I went instead with what I felt: Coffee really was made for mornings like this.