essays

I Remember Coffee!

I just watched “I Remember Mama,” a classic 1948 film about a Norwegian family, who settled in San Francisco in 1900.  The movie’s depiction of simple, everyday tasks, like using a straight razor, soap, and brush to shave, or boiling water to make coffee, brought back fond remembermamamemories.  The simple chores of life can amaze me with the easy joy they bring. Saving time, being productive, multitasking -- I have mastered these qualities.  What did it get me?  I saved a lot of time, but what did I do with it?  Some of the most wonderful times for me have been completing those solitary, everyday jobs, and now, more than ever, I want to take the time to do them.  The children in “I Remember Mama” had restrictions, so the anticipation of joy was as great as what they were waiting for. Like them, my brothers and sister had to be of a certain age before we learned to play pinochle as the adults did after Sunday dinner.    Waiting to move into the card-playing part of adulthood was an agony that now seems like joy.  The begging, pleading and finally it was time, I was old enough. My older brother had been playing for a year, now it was my turn. It would be four years until my younger siblings got their turn.  They could hardly wait.

I remember reading there are a few things one enjoys so much that you thank God for being alive.  For me it is an abundant flower garden full of color;  watching a mother holding her baby; listening to Aretha Franklin sing; watching bed sheets on a clothesline billow in the breeze.  And that indescribable sweet fresh smell of line dryed laundry is the same smell no matter where you live. I love the ritual of shaving with a horn and bristle brush with very hot water and scented soap. I cannot wait to get up early and boil water for my French press which holds my freshly ground coffee.  My father would put the ground coffee into a pot of steaming water, wait for the grounds to settle, and then pour.  geezermailcheckThat aroma can still fill my home and my memory. I remember the first time I had coffee, in the basement kitchen of my Great-grandmother’s marble-stepped row house in Highlandtown, Baltimore.  Her name was Elizabeth Doyas and she was a small gray-haired woman with a bun, wire rim glasses and a sweet smiling face that welcomed us. My brothers and sister would all head for the basement and the first thing Grandma Elizabeth would say was, “Want some coffee?” Of course we said yes!  My mother would stay upstairs talking to the aunts Lilly, Josie and Eva, my Grandfather’s sisters.  She would yell down the steps, “Are you giving those kids coffee? Don’t give those kids coffee.” Grandma Elizabeth replied with her sweet, angelic voice, “Okay,” Then she poured a small amount of coffee into cups and filled them to the brim with warm milk fresh from her stove. I found out years later that my Mother knew what was going on and said she loved the love her own Grandmother showed her children. 

My Grandmother Helen once said to me when I asked her advice on a business matter, “You are a part of the instant coffee generation. Your Grandfather and I had to work hard and be patient. Let the coffee perk.”

Wayne Brokke is a former restauranteur, raconteur, TV chef, and cookbook author (I Can Cook, You Can Cook). He can also drink more than most other humans.

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