Volume 12, Issue 8 ~ February 19-25, 2004

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Burton on the Bay

Percolating Out There Somewhere, a Good Idea
Is coffee good or bad for you? It all depends which day of the week it is.

That’s the way things go in these days of continual, confusing and oft-times conflicting health advisories. Over the years, this writer has heard at least a dozen different so-called authoritative opinions on the big question about the merits or demerits of America’s favorite drink.

Mind you, not that I pay any attention to them. Until the past decade I was going to have my cups of Java regardless of what the doctors — or their cohorts doing laboratory or statistical studies — had to say. I needed that jolt in the am. I still do, but no longer is rich-in-caffeine-coffee the answer; matter of fact, there is no answer to my particular dilemma.

Even the latest news on the coffee front — a new brewing process Proctor & Gamble announced earlier this week — won’t help me. But it will probably be of interest to most readers, seeing that today most folks want to be in on something fancified, which we’ll get into in a moment. But first, why it probably can’t help me.

My Life with Coffee
I was a late starter on the coffee route. Those who made the decisions in life when I was young didn’t think kids should drink coffee: It was taboo. Then in my teens, I joined up with the Navy SeaBees. Anyone who has been in the service — Army, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard, WACS, Waves, Spars or whatever — can tell you what a chow hall was like, especially at breakfast.

Being roused at the crack of dawn by a bugler was bad enough; so was breakfast chow. But the overwhelming aroma (stink is a more appropriate description) of mass-produced coffee in the mess hall was enough to gag a maggot. But the caffeine in a cup of Joe was the grease that turned the wheels of would-be warriors.

The smell of Navy coffee was enough for me; anything that smelled like that wasn’t to go down my throat. To me, it had to taste worse than Postum, a drink that Grandma Burton occasionally made for me when I wanted something hot. Old-timers probably recall Postum, a hot drink made of some kind of cereal wheat, as I recall. To me it tasted like that, but at least it was hot; above all it had no caffeine, which Grandma thought kids should avoid.

Naturally I preferred hot chocolate, but chocolate had caffeine, so cocoa wasn’t standard fare for kids. In chow halls of the military back in World War II, it was hot coffee or cold milk, no other breakfast choices. Presumably cocoa cost too much. Furthermore what macho soldier, sailor or marine would be caught dead pouring himself a hot cocoa? A glass of milk would be bad enough. I didn’t (and still don’t) drink even an occasional glass of the white stuff, which is bad enough in my morning cereal to this day.

In my mid-20s, I rescued a husband and wife lost in the deep woods of Vermont on a cold, wet and windy night, then hunkered down waiting for other searchers to locate us. That’s when I had my first cup of coffee. We were taken to the camp of woodcutters, and as in all camps of any kind, a big pot of hot coffee was on the pot-bellied wood stove.

Chilled to the bone — yet still young enough to be too macho to ask for cocoa — I accepted a hot cup of coffee poured black (literally) into a mug. Know what? I liked it. And thus began a love affair of more than 40 years with black coffee.

Swearing Off
In my 40s, I was drinking 20 or 30 cups a day, all before noon, whether at my desk at the Sun or writing at home. The carafe at home accommodated 10 cups, and I’d have two carafes, all loaded with caffeine. But by the time I got into my 60s, a curious thing happened. I couldn’t fall asleep at night. A doctor told me I had to give up all caffeine, even in soda pop. My system could no longer handle it; I had overdone it.

Seeing sleep is necessary if one is to do anything, I switched to decaf — but not for long. Drinking decaf is like eating sugar-free ice cream, pie or jam. It isn’t the same; the flavor is lacking. So I’ve pretty much given up on any coffee, even with the occasional breakfast of bacon ’n’ eggs.

Now I sleep better, but I miss a good cup of black coffee with a tad of cinnamon brewed into it, which is as fancy as I cared to get in my Java days. Look at all the things mixed into cups of coffee today, and look at the price. In fast food joints, a bleary-eyed coffee drinker in early morning will pay as much for a cup of starting fluid as I paid for bacon, eggs, home fries and a cup of coffee with free refills back when I had the habit.

What’s Next?
When I was a kid, coffee was percolated: the liquid bubbled up under a glass dome, and it smelled great. When the glass dome broke, until one could find time to get to the store in the village, fresh coffee was put in a cooking pot and boiled; the grounds were strained out.

In the Navy chow halls, ugh, it was brewed in big stinky vats. Later, Joe DiMaggio made more moola hawking drip coffee makers than he did in a lifetime of baseball. Automatic Mr. Coffees or look-alikes arrived in every kitchen and restaurant. And still remain — though not for long if Proctor & Gamble has it’s way.

On the front page of USA Today, there’s the big story. P&G intends to give Starbucks and other gourmet coffee dispensers a run for their money with its new pressurized single-serve coffee-making system, one cup at a time. So, many (probably most) drinkers of Joe will be tossing out their current coffee makers — maybe even their stops at fast food places — to try something different at home or work: A Home Cafe system that brews fancy coffeehouse Java in one minute.

Natch, it costs more, much more than with a percolator or the current traditional drip units that can be purchased for $15 or less. How about $60 for a 60-second process, then $4 for 18 tea-bag-like coffee filter pods?

Maybe this will work out, and do-it-your-self coffee will once again be made in the home or workplace. Since the ’80s, USA tells us, home coffee consumption has slid (in 2002 it was down 14.2 percent) while it was up 1,200 percent the past 20 years at coffee houses.

Maybe I’m a victim of nostalgia, but I’m wondering what can be next after this. Deep inside, I’m rooting for some genius to come up with a scheme to introduce to the kitchen a less-than-60-second percolator system. What goes around comes around.

Aunt MiMi still uses her 50-year-old percolator up in Vermont. Her coffee beats Starbucks’ brew, and there’s something about the gradually changing color of liquid bubbling in the clear glass dome that makes one glad to face a new day.

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Last updated February 18, 2004 @ 11:59pm.