Munching & Musing: Coffee & Café Culture

August 13th, 2006

I didn’t grow up in a café culture. Coffee, yes - café, no. Grandma mixed an egg with freshly ground coffee and set it on the stove to percolate. Mom plugged in a coffee maker and we listened to it “perc” until brewed and ready. Gramps carried a thermos of coffee to the leathergoods shop with his lunch of smorrebrod on firm, dark Danish rye bread. Mingled with my memories of coffee aromas, I recall a stream of places, people, and seasonal sweet treats “to go with coffee”. Rarely was a cup of coffee poured without an an accompanying slice of nut bread, lemon cake or - at Christmas time - a raft of cookies that seemed to float out of a round tin box. In the upper midwest, coffee always came with one or more little temptations.

Coffee time, ten in the morning and again about three in the afternoon, was cause for a party. On summer mornings, Mom would ask a few neighbors in, bake a blueberry coffee cake and set the table on the porch. But coffee in a café was not in the routine. Oh, sometimes I would tag along with Gramps if he had errands, which might include a stop at the Sugar Bowl Café on Main Street in Storm Lake, Iowa….no lingering coffee stop, just a pause, sitting on revolving stools at the soda bar, coffee for Gramps, Dr. Pepper for me. When lunch time rolled around, Gramps’ first gesture was to twist the red cup-cap off of his thermos, pour some coffee, then unwrap the waxed paper holding his open eggsalad sandwiches and pickles. All of this was set on his broad roll-top desk in a corner of the shop. Before, during and after lunch the thermos cup was replenished.

During my teen years, I was offered an occasional Sunday morning cup of coffee with Mom, but the taste came slowly. The best was a ritual cup of egg coffee at Christmas with Grandma, alongside a china plate of fatigmann bakkelse and mandel kranser (Tak!). All of this would seem odd to my neighbors in southwest France. Even workers helping to renovate our old stone house decline the offer of a cup of mid-afternoon coffee. Coffee is for breakfast, for after lunch or dinner. To create a party around coffee? “What an interesting American habit!” my French friends exclaim. Some would stop at the corner café-bar to chat with a friend after the market and “take” a cup of coffee, but one -no refill, merci. One cup suffices. I put my Minnesota mugs away for tea or tisane, and line up little three-sip sized cups, adjusting to cultural differences.

While traveling in Italy, I stand up at marble-topped coffee bars along with the regulars to sip a bracing dose of caffè that would fill a thimble, taken quickly - no time for a refill. Like Gramps’ stop at the Sugar Bowl, in haste. It seems that everyone in Italy stops for their morning coffee in a café-bar, leaving me to wonder if anyone takes time to make coffee in their own kitchen. Perhaps an exchange of pleasantries about the weather or soccer games with the barman as he wipes clean cups is more sociable than a chat with the cat at home. Coffee, café, caffè - any are still best with something to bite or dunk, whatever the time of day or setting. Memories of coffee savored in the past, by the window in Mom’s kitchen or perched on a stool by Gramps’ old desk, linger with me in Siena as I duck into Pasticceria Nannini for a toothsome, almond-sweet Ricciarelli. And make that a double caffè macchiato.

(With apologies for the Danish, any misspellings, no slashes through the O, no tiny circles floating over the a)

No Comments »

No comments yet.

Leave a comment

RSS feed for these comments. | TrackBack URI