Burke: ‘Cup a Joe’ doesn’t seem to fit our morning brew now

Maybe the coffee is better today than it was in the ‘percolator era,’ but where’s the romance in a K-cup?

By Tom Burke / Herald columnist

(I need some relief from Trump’s mishandling the corona pandemic and its 128,00-plus deaths, staggering unemployment, racial injustice, retweeted calls for white power, ignored Russian bounties on American G.I.s, and his attempts to culturally and racially fracture the nation. Here’s something lighter.)

Donald Trump knows what a regular is. So does former New York Mayor Ed Koch, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Madam Justice RBG, AOC, Cardi B, Michael Cohen, Robert DeNiro, and 8 or 10 million other New Yorkers.

They all know a “regular” is a cup’a Joe “wit milk and two sugas.” Just ask in any bodega, Greek diner, or deli in the Five Boroughs. Ya don’t have to order a type of roast; how many shots; choose almond milk, oat milk, or coconut milk; or specify Americano, cappuccino, espresso, flat white, latte, or cacchiato. Ya just say “Gimme a reg-ya-la,” and you’ll walk out with a New York cup a coffee in that blue and white cardboard container seen in Lenny (the late Jerry Orbach) Brisco’s hand in every episode of “Law and Order.”

Now I started thinking about coffee while cleaning a cupboard and came across my Mom’s old coffee pot. (Some things you just can’t throw out.) It was tin and kinda beat up and probably had 30,000 cups of Maxwell House run through it. It had a basket for the ground coffee, and after filling you waited ‘til the water boiled; then you let it perk for a while ‘til it was ready.

I set that old pot on a counter and popped a K-cup into my Keurig. I hit the button for extra strong and waited three minutes or so for what is, honestly, a mediocre cup of coffee. It ain’t bad, but it ain’t noteworthy either. It’s easy, fast and after adding my Sweet-N-Low and some half-and-half, it’s … well, coffee.

If I have more time or patience I upgrade, using a French press and some Cutter’s Point Sumatra Mandheling to brew my cuppa, which, after the Sweet-N-Low and half-and-half, probably tastes pretty much the same as my Costco Pacific Bold in the K-cup.

(In a fit of gourmet exuberance I ordered [thank you Amazon] an espresso machine that’s nice but a lot fussier. But with either the Turkish coffee or German illycaffe I use, I can get the kinda cup I like — like the spoon stands up in it — and with two sugars (hold the Sweet-N-Low) it’s a caffeine rush and sugar high. But after the coffee is enjoyed you’re not done, however. You still have to take it all apart and clean all the many pieces thoroughly.)

My mother, who for many years was a typical “greatest generation” stay-at-home-mom, got double duty out of her pot. She had it perking for breakfast in the morning; then mid-morning she’d have a neighbor over for “coffee.” As our street was filled with other stay-at-home-moms the daily coffee klatch was an important ritual. All the gossip got traded, complaints about kids and spouses aired, and friendships that only ended when someone moved far away or died were cemented.

(I have no earthly idea if this was a New York thing or specific to the ’50s and ’60s; I don’t see any signs of it today with all the time constraints and pressure on 21st century [working] moms.)

That old tin pot finally got retired; first by an electric pot, substituting amps and watts for natural gas BTUs; then a Mr. Coffee (thanks to you Joe DiMaggio). A big commercial 32-cup pot Pop rescued from a restaurant was on standby, for parties or family gatherings only.

Of course Mom’s old pot doesn’t even qualify for consideration among today’s coffee cognoscenti. Chemex, Aeropress, and the “American” press have replaced it. And Maxwell House doesn’t cut it either. Nope, coffee, properly brewed, should be high-quality-whole-beans-only (read: expensive); properly sourced; precisely weighed and properly ground in a burr grinder. Water must be weighed and temp-controlled to just below boiling and then immersion time should be monitored to the nearest half-second before you get your Joe. Sugar and milk is strongly discouraged. (If your coffee is more than merely “go juice,” I guess it’s worth all that extra effort.)

There’s an anthem for coffee lovers, recorded by the Ink Spots in 1940, and begins with:

I love coffee, I love tea

I love the java jive and it loves me

Coffee and tea and the java and me

A cup, a cup, a cup, a cup, a cup … yeah.

A cup, a cup, a cup is a lot more complicated today. And my mom’s old pot is surely a relic. But I wonder how many folks are going to get nostalgic about their Siphon, Aeropress or Hario V60 coffee system 25 years from now. I doubt they’ll be thinking of the good old days gazing fondly at a Keurig.

Tom Burke’s email address is t.burke.column@gmail.com.

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