Sunday, February 18, 2018

ohm coffee mane padme ohm...

The Traditional Moka Pot
Coffee. I drink it every day. I've written poems about it. I photograph it. I ritualize it. I cook & bake with it. I’ve blogged about it before and probably will again, because, well, it’s THE ELIXER OF LIFE. As the British Museum’s earliest known coffee ad says, “It quickens the sprit and makes the heart lightsome.” The ad goes on to say that coffee can prevent consumption, and it can CURE dropsy, gout, and scurvy. Elixer. Of. Life.
Cold-brew French Press

Cut down? Never. I say, pour ANOTHER cup or three while you read this about coffee’s health benefits:

The discovery of coffee is often attributed to Abyssinian goatherd Kaldi, around 850 AD. Kaldi discovered that after eating the berries of a particular shrub, his goats got peppy and frolicked about. He chewed a few himself and felt a sense of euphoria, so he filled his pockets with berries and took them to a local monastery to share his happiness. According to

Kaldi presented the chief Monk with the berries and related his account of their miraculous effect. "Devil’s work!" exclaimed the monk, and hurled the berries in the fire. Within minutes the monastery filled with the aroma of roasting beans, and the other monks gathered to investigate. The beans were raked from the fire and crushed to extinguish the embers. The chief Monk ordered the grains to be placed in the ewer and covered with hot water to preserve their goodness. That night the monks sat up drinking the rich fragrant brew, and vowed that they would drink it daily to keep them awake during their long, nocturnal devotions.

See? Coffee is a spiritual gift.

My grandma, who lived with us when I was a kid, drank instant Folger’s or Sanka, and I grew up loving the smell. She used to call church coffee “caramel-colored water,” so I also learned stronger is  better. Then, my own full-on, coffee-fueled nocturnal devotions developed during grad school. I spent my days chasing three kids, then pulled all-nighters writing a Master’s thesis, studying for comps, or writing papers for PhD classes. Since then, I’ve tried just about every method available for coffee preparation, and I’ve amassed an impressive collection of coffee accoutrement. Oh, oui oui, mon amie.

The Nespresso and Capresso Grinder
Travel Stanley and Drip Cone
Travel French Press and SPARE Chemex
I have several options for travel rigs (depending on available space and mode of travel), a BUNN for holidays/gatherings when I need a constant supply over a long time (if you HAVE to drink auto-drip coffee, BUNN is the best), a Nespresso one-shot pod brewer for guest treats and my evening “fun cup” of decaf espresso, and a Keurig in my office at school. I don’t have a real espresso machine yet, but believe me, it's #1 on my wish list.

As for my daily grind, after a few decades of dedicated research, I have what I believe is the perfect brewing method—the yardstick by which I measure every cup of coffee and find most lacking. It involves four components:

1) the darkest, greasiest, freshest organic beans I can find. My preference is CafĂ© Altura French Roast, which I buy in 4 lb bags, then break down into 1 lb bags, 3 of which I freeze immediately. (Yes, snotty connoisseurs, there IS a little condensation loss from freezing/thawing beans, but I can’t go to the market and buy fresh beans every dang day. Geeze!);

2) ONE POT’S worth of beans (5 heaping standard coffee scoops of beans), ground fine in a quality burr grinder (NEVER a blade grinder!);

3) filtered water, heated in my Zojirushi to 208 degrees. I set the timer the night before, so the water is ready the minute I get up. (Wow, you coffee snobs are something. Yes, many of you prefer 195 degrees, but I’ve found that 208 doesn’t burn the coffee, and my cuppa stays delightfully, drinkably hot longer.); and

4) the most important component, a CHEMEX 10-cup pour-over coffee pot, with genuine CHEMEX coffee filters, which are thicker than standard filters and made from lab-grade filter paper.


Mom and I are planning a trip to Lafayette LA in April, so she can meet great-grandchild #10. There are loads of arrangements and decisions to make, but of course the biggest is whether to pack the Aeropress, the stainless or Stanley travel French press, or the drip cone? Because trust me, NO ONE wants to spend their vacation with an undercaffeinated me.

The Daily Grind with Zojirushi

Thursday, February 8, 2018

It's my party, and I'll cry if I want to.

I’m a little sad today; more snow is on the way, a neighbor and former teacher is moving on from this life to his next adventure, and my post-stroke vocal chords aren’t working today (my friend DLB dubbed these my “Carol Channing" days). We prairie people usually stuff our feelings, especially sadness. We aren’t the only stuffers, of course, but we’re the BEST. Today, however, I’m letting sadness loose. I’ll try to explain why this isn’t just maudlin self-indulgence…

Each semester, my literature students (most of them prairie folk) ask, “Why don’t we EVER read anything happy?” This is a hard question to answer. We usually end up talking about the definition of “happy,” satisfying vs. happy, or the ways in which gross overgeneralizations like EVER distort the truth. Then I usually quote that beacon of literary sunshine & optimism, Cormac McCarthy: “The core of literature is tragedy. You don’t really learn much from the good things that happen to you.”

So maybe this is why I love sadness: It teaches us so much about ourselves and each other. I don’t mean that I wish everyone would stop smiling and suffer. I’m not itching to wear black eye shadow, write angsty poems, and take up the pipe organ. I do live with persistent depression (treated…I’m cool, thanks), and admittedly, this may color my comfort/familiarity with the non-happy side of our human emotional spectrum.

(SIDENOTE: I know that depression and sadness are not the same, believe me. Depression is wack brain chemistry, and persistent depression is NOT situational—sad things don’t make it happen. In fact, things don’t make it happen. Your brain makes it happen. You can’t “cheer up,” “get a hobby,” “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” or “think positive” to cure depression.)

Maybe this is why I love sadness: Turns out sorrow/sadness has its own peculiar language: As a writer, I find this absolutely interesting.

Maybe when I say I love sadness, what I mean is this: I have a deep and profound appreciation for it. Sadness, sorrow, grief—they’re Great Revealers. They lift the veil, cut through the noise. In times of true sorrow, a person stashes the ego, slices through the pretense, stops the show. Shit gets REAL, as the young’uns say. Maybe these are the ONLY times we get real. 

We are the most authentic, the most genuinely human, when we’re the most vulnerable. It’s all bare wires, stomach muscles, and shark brain in times of sorrow. And there’s something extraordinarily humbling about being witness to a person who, in those moments, doesn’t care what you or the rest of the world think. I believe we NEED our hearts to break open now & then in order to reconnect with compassion, to see into our core, and to remember what we’re REALLY made of.

Here’s another thing I love about sadness: Sorrow and grief are also Great Levelers. We all feel them. Let them out, stuff them if you must; they’re still there in every one of us. No amount of power, position, credentials, wealth, fame, good looks, intelligence, or single-source organic fair trade Sumatran coffee can change that.

I feel bad for stuffers, who can’t or won’t fully embrace their own sorrow for reasons of upbringing, “Stubborn Stoicism” (this should be the tagline on South Dakota license plates), fear of embarrassment, a clinging ego, a misguided need to “put on a happy face,” or the supposed propriety of finger-in-the-dam self-control. I have just enough upper Midwest Presbyterian in me to qualify as a stuffer, though I actively work at quashing my stiff upper lip.

Maybe this is the CORE, the nougaty center of why I love sadness: Sorrow gives us rare glimpses of unvarnished, raw, genuine, beautiful humanity.

On the flipside, no one wants to LIVE there, right? And this is another of sorrow’s gifts: When we face sadness, embrace it, move through it with tenderness and appreciation, we CAN move beyond it. Then, for me at least, the eventual return to wonder and joy feels a little electrified—more intense, surprising, healing, zingy—and that’s beautiful, too.

“I have been in Sorrow's kitchen and licked out all the pots. Then I have stood on the peaky mountain wrapped in rainbows, with a harp and sword in my hands.” –Zora Neale Hurston