Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Coffee Snob Returns

I am a cappuccino connoisseur. I am obsessed with them. Caffeine is my drug. Other people, they smoke weed, they drink 'til dawn in bars, they chainsmoke American Spirits. Me, I get high, silly and cracked-out on caffeine and I love it. I love Friday nights in particular, because I know that I don't have to go to work the next day and I can grab a cappucc from my favorite corner coffee spot in Greenpoint and stay up late, giddy and jittery.

Let's talk about cappuccinos. Or cappuccini, as is correct in plural Italian form. A proper cappuccino contains foam. Not milky bubbles, not just steamed milk, but thick milk foam. That is the inherent different between a cappuccino and a latte (or rather, caffe latte). A cappuccino contains primarily foam (with the addition of some steamed milk being acceptable) and espresso while a latte contains steamed milk and espresso. The knowledgeable coffee drink makers, James at Greenpoint Coffee House being one of the best that I've discovered in New York, steam the milk and then continue to tap the metal pitcher on the counter several times to get rid of the bubbles, making a thicker, headier foam.

I always wonder if I am in the right place when I read "cappucino" or "capucino" or "capuccino" on the menu. You'd be surprised at how many nice, upstanding places misspell this word.

Anyway, Starbucks (that fast food chain of lesser quality coffee beverages, where the espresso seems to become more watery by the minute) is fairly inconsistent on this point. I've had cappuccinos that turn out to be lattes because I doubt that the staff is really trained on the difference, with the occasional and rare exception to the rule. Once, I had a barista at a Starbucks in Oakton, Virginia tell me that she didn't understand what the difference was between a latte and a cappuccino. Dunkin Donuts also seems to be mildly aware of the difference, with a foam-like substance hovering on top of their greyish cappuccino, when I've been forced to settle. Even the automated Nescafe cappuccino machines in Ecuador do it right.

So the other day, I went to a new seemingly upscale coffee place in Long Island City in Queens. I ordered a cappuccino, and watched, somewhat distractedly, as the man behind the counter poured the milk straight out of the canister without steaming it or anything. I thought perhaps I had missed the steaming, and the foam-creating. I removed the lid only to see what looked like basically a dark cup of coffee - no foam, not even much milk. Not your normal New Yorker, I am always hesitant to complain. I walked out to the bus stop and sampled my drink. After realizing I just wasn't going to drink it as is, I headed back inside. I said "I'm sorry to bother you, but I ordered a cappuccino. Aren't they supposed to be foamy?" The gentleman behind the counter said "Well, yes, but we don't do the foam thing here." I said, "Then it can't really be called a cappuccino, then, can it?" The two people behind the counter looked at each other. "Well, if you really want foam, we can do it that way this time." This time? People, please, get my drug right.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

My grandmother

My grandmother went to college at the University of Colorado at Boulder, back in the 30’s. A farm girl from Illinois, it was a huge deal for her family. She worked very hard to do well, studying constantly, never taking for granted the opportunity of higher education. She did not have many friends, she worked too hard and farm girls weren’t very popular. In the dark, lonely night hours, away from her home and family, she yearned for a grand social life, for girlfriends and suitors.

One day, a few young women, well-dressed and beautiful, approached her as she was exiting the library. They told her that they were members of a sorority, and that they had decided that they needed more studious and academically successful women to join their sorority. My grandmother hesitated, not quite believing that these refined young women, gorgeous and popular, the eyes of all the eligible young men on campus, could want her in her home-sewn dresses to join their elite group. They assured her they were serious, smiling widely, leaning in and touching her arm. They invited her to a fancy-dress party to take place next month, where it was said they would induct her. They convinced her to accept, and she spent the rest of the day beaming at her unexpected luck.

My grandmother purchased a lovely silky pale blue fabric with what little money she had, and spent every hour that she could spare hunched over an old sewing machine, painstakingly making a dress for the party. She found a pair of white leather shoes that wouldn’t stand out too much beneath the length of the dress, polished them and removed what scuffs she could. She set aside a deep pink lipstick that her aunt in Denver had given her two summers ago for special occasions. She rummaged in her hard suitcase under her bed and located the small, satin jewelry bag that contained an old pearl necklace. The pearls had belonged to her mother, who had died of tuberculosis when she was only 6 years old. Her last memory of her mother was hearing her tired voice, small through the screen window, watching her dark figure on the bed from outside, her younger sister’s fingers clutching her hand.

The evening of the party arrived. My grandmother didn’t eat at all that day. She had set her hair the night before, and the large, dark curls looked lovely against the blue silk dress, the gleaming pearls and the bright rose of her lips. Her old white shoes barely showed beneath the skirt of the dress. She took a deep breath, and stepped out into the brisk, Colorado night air.

She stood at the door of the massive stone house, all of the windows lit-up from within, the sound of laughter and glasses clinking, the swinging sound of a band calling from somewhere inside. She rang the bell and waited. One of them opened the door, diamonds glittering beneath bright blonde hair. She looked my grandmother up and down, and asked what she wanted. My grandmother stammered, mentioning the invitation a month before. The blonde stared at her, silent. The music had stopped, the band must have been between songs. Some other people were standing near the door, drinks in their hands, cigarette smoke hanging gently around them. They seemed to be watching, listening. My grandmother struggled to remember the details of the invitation, slowly, quietly reminding the blonde about their meeting, recounting the sorority’s decision to include those women who were more academically-inclined.

Something glinted behind the blonde’s eyes before they squinted ever so slightly.
“Oh, sweetie, that was a joke. Did you really think we were serious?”