Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Coffee as Life

I dashed out during my lunch break today to run a few errands. The problem with a 7am - 5pm work day is that most places are closed outside those parameters. Nothing like a 30 minutes errand dash to learn the quick routes around a city!

On my way back, I stopped at the downtown Starbucks for coffee - good coffee, not urn (burn) coffee. It occurred to me, not for the first time, that we are a coffee people. We being Canadians. Yes, I know the States is the home of Starbucks and Seattle's Best. But Canada is the birthplace of TimmyHo's - Timmy's- Tim Horton's, the iconic coffee and donut shop

How iconic? Go to a coffee place in the States as ask for a double-double (which I don't order, by the way) and you'll get a blank stare. Timmy's and Canadian Starbucks (and thouse that cater to large numbers of ex-pat Canadians) know it means two sugars, two creams.

Yes, I drink tea. All kinds of tea: Red Rose (remember the TV commercials: "Only in Canada? Pity."), green tea, jasmine tea, herb tea. I'm enjoying a cold glass of 'Wellness Tea' (lemon grass, liquorice, ginger and peppermint) as I type this. Tea is our evening drink. Coffee is the "OMG, it's morning!" drink, the "It's 10am and my brain's gone walk-about" drink.

Ideally it should be coffee brewed in an aluminum percolating pot over a gas stove, a close approximation of cowboy coffee. Have you seen the movie 'Hidalgo', about the endurance race Frank Hopkins undertook in Arabia during the 1890s? The sheik in command of the race (played by Omar Sharif - swoon) was a Western Cowboy lore junkie, and when he asked Hopkins (played by Viggo Mortensen - swoon again) if the Arabian-style coffee was too strong for him, Hopkins replied that for a cowboy, the coffee wasn't ready until you could stand a horseshoe up in it. Yeah!
My Grandma and Grandpa McKinnon made cowboy coffee even when they retired into the city, the type where the perk guts were removed from the pot and fresh ground coffee put directly into the water each morning. The used grounds were removed at the end of the week.

Do you remember coffee made outdoors, on camping trips or range tours? Especially range tours when coffee for 100 or more people was made in copper boilers over an open flame. If you are under the age of hmm - 40? you might need to be told that a copper boiler was a long, deep vessel used to boil white clothes in or to process hot-water canning, or a multitude of other large-volume hot water duties.

Ground coffee was put directly into gallons of water, boiled to a fair-thee-well, then removed from heat and cold water dashed into it to (supposedly) settle the grounds. Chewy coffee. Nummy.

When friends from New Zealand spent time with us a few summers ago, I learned long afterward that they thought my coffee was too strong. I wish they'd said something then (I was using a French press at the time) because I certainly could have made it milder.

On the other hand, some years before that our 'adopted' German daughter Claudia came to visit us with her parents. Her physician-mother Ursel said she couldn't understand why doctors in Canada warned patients against excessive consumption of coffee: "The coffee in this country isn't strong enough to do any harm!"

All a matter of taste and perspective I guess.

Starbucks was a lifeline for me in New Plymouth. Much as I love New Zealand, it isn't a coffee culture. Plain ol' coffee in a restaurant, if it's available, is called filter coffee. Most times all that's available is espresso or some tarted up coffee confection. Starbucks is the same the world over, thank goodness.

The NP shop was my sub-office, my wi-fi spot, my sanity sanctuary. It was the place where I did a lot of my writing, a good deal of editing and occasionally spent time with friends (right, Ron?!).

How much time did I spend there? When I walked though the door, the baristas had my brew ready by the time I reached the counter; the only variable was what snack went with it, if there was indeed a snack.

If I was editing a manuscript, I curled up in one of the big armchairs with a low table handy to take the load of papers, pens and assorted paraphernalia of my craft. Midmorning or late afternoon, there was no pressure for me to give up my perch for other customers. The barista would sometimes stop by to ask what I was working on, how it was going, pass a minute or so in companionship.

In 1980 I had a similar sanctuary in Grande Prairie called Ceppella's. Do you long-ago GP-er's remember that place? It was a cutting edge establishment, in the days when espresso and the barista culture was new, especially in the north country. The owner's sister, Shawna, was my across-the-back-alley neighbour.

Ceppella's was a hangout that wasn't a bar, a place for a single person to spend a sober, entertaining afternoon on a rain-soaked Saturday. There were board games, card and cribbage boards, and people willing to play. After four hours of backgammon and espresso, a person's nerve were rather jumpy! It was a good social network in a fast-paced, hard-living oil town.

These days my coffee stop is generally Tim Horton's because there's one just down the block from my workplace, or it's alongside the road on my travels. I prefer the small independent places, of which there are several in Vernon I've yet to explore. After a long work day, all I want to do is get home to Falkland, and I'm not likely to drive into town just for coffee. Still, everytime I drive past Talkin' Donkey or one of the little places along 27 Street, I feel the urge.

There are some interesting free lance research/writing/editing projects coming up in a few weeks. Editing fairly screams "friendly neighbourhood coffee spot" to me. Finding my calm in the midst of murmur and laughter is a happy time.

When I spin or weave or sew, I'm happy at home. Writing sometimes requires me to move out of that environment, away from the distractions of household chores. I wonder what the people at Talkin' Donkey would say if I lugged my spinning wheel and sack of fleece in there one afternoon. Oooh, tempting?

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