Desiring Decaf (Or, WTF, Coffee Snobs?)

balanced breakfast
                                                                                  balanced breakfast

Today I started my morning with part of a Cupcake Royale raspberry pavlova cupcake (vanilla cake, raspberry sauce, lemon buttercream, meringue, delicious) that I’d saved from the night before, and a cup of hot black coffee. In bed. It felt so right.

The coffee, incidentally, was decaffeinated: not because I’m 36 week pregnant (it’s generally accepted that moderate caffeine consumption is just fine during pregnancy), but because I’m extremely sensitive to the effects of caffeine. Anything more than a single cup of black tea makes my heart pound unpleasantly and turns me into a jittery, anxious mess.

It’s a cliché for mainstream coffee drinkers to sniff “what’s the point?” when reminded of decaf’s existence. My partner once mistook this for acceptable banter when I ordered a decaf Americano, resulting in a fight during which I called him a dick in front of the mortified barista (we laughed about it later). Recently, I remarked to a veteran barista friend that I liked a certain coffee shop because I didn’t feel like they were judging me for ordering decaf. “Oh,” she assured me, “they’re judging you.”

But why? Caffeine is a drug, the effects of which don’t agree with some people. I’ve been a caffeine drinker in the past, but after I quit cold-turkey in an effort to address my night bruxism (aka tooth grinding/jaw clenching; it helped, somewhat), my tolerance plummeted. To this day, I reserve anything more than the relatively tiny amounts found in tea, chocolate, or decaf coffee for emergency situations (solo road trips, deadlines that require all-nighters – of which there are mercifully few these days). There are simply those of us who want to enjoy the taste of coffee without corresponding ill-effects.

I’ve heard it said on many occasions that people like me should just avoid coffee, because, you see, no one could possibly enjoy the taste of decaf. That’s news to me: I happen to like it. Admittedly, my taste in coffee is not very sophisticated. I’ve worked as a barista and received training that enabled me to understand the nuances of coffee roasted with restraint. I can appreciate the floral, citrusy, or herbaceous complexity of a single-origin shade-grown light-roast pour-over. But I still prefer the robust, earthy, pedestrian (okay, haters, burnt) flavor of a good dark roast. And, let’s face it – when you’re roasting coffee beans to a charred crisp anyway, the flavor differences between regular and decaf are negligible. There are even some roasters who do a pretty good job with their decaf beans.

Why should anyone care whether I have shit taste in coffee? Does that make me less of a person? I like what I like – why is that a problem for you? The only conclusion that makes sense is insecurity. Why else would anyone be in the business of policing someone else’s preferences?

As a server, I always liked it when someone had the chutzpah to ask for ice cubes with their wine. And if someone wants their steak cooked well-done, or wants to put ketchup on said steak, what business of it is mine?

An apparent lack of sophistication in others stirs up anxieties about the parts of ourselves that may be underdeveloped, unformed, or simply out of step with what the culture considers “cool.” A truly secure person (I’m not necessarily claiming this designation for myself!) has no need to pass judgment on the aesthetic preferences of others. A truly secure person doesn’t waste time scrutinizing someone else’s taste. A truly secure person says (and means) “right on: you do you.”

So, even when I’m no longer pregnant, I’ll still enjoy my decaf, listen to corny 90’s country music, wear brown and black together, and dip my fries in my milkshake. Snobs be damned.

Wednesday morning at Vif

I love to feed people. Always have. From my first forays into baking with something I called “grit cake” (exactly as terrible as it sounds) to my work in restaurant kitchens and dining rooms, I’ve been inexorably drawn to the heady blend of passion, hard work, and tenuously controlled chaos that is the restaurant world. As a little kid, I always wanted to visit the kitchen when I ate at a restaurant with my parents. And as soon as I turned sixteen, I got a job as a busser and hostess at a restaurant in my hometown. I quickly insinuated myself into the kitchen, where I learned how to make stock and creme brulee and acquired basic knife skills.

I worked in restaurants throughout high school and college (and have ever since), but never considered restaurant work a viable career path: It was simply something I was doing on the way to a set of fancy-ass letters beside my name. Sure, it suited my personality. Yeah, I liked it. But I’d always held the (in hindsight, half-baked and ridiculous) notion that my vocation had to be socially redemptive (in a weirdly narrow sense), as well as entailing a certain degree of prestige (or, at the very least, be perceived as noble. Pssssssssht!).

Cue a crisis that’s by now a well-worn cliche: The idea of finding work in my field (cultural anthropology) was patently laughable. The crushing debt-burden, opportunity cost, and bleak employment prospects inherent in grad school made me reconsider my plans to reenter the blissfully rarefied realm of academia.

Gnawing uncertainty about my future coincided with the arrival in my life of a new roommate who quickly became a new friend. Driven, talented, and brimming with crazy-eyed passion, Madelyn Kenney is a force to be reckoned with (one day, the bread-loving public will know her name. I’m sure of it). She has a dream and a good head on her shoulders, and aspires to greatness in a niche of the food world (artisan bread baking) where old-world apprenticeships still happen. So what does she do? She writes to bakers she admires. Asks for an apprenticeship. She is fearless in her determination to perfect her craft and follow her heart.

This may sound simple and obvious; to me, it was a revelation. I started to think that maybe – just maybe – I should listen to my own heart (even as its stirrings sound at times like the ravings of a gourmand in his cups). So I followed Maddie’s example: I wrote a letter.

I chose Vif, in Fremont. Why? Look at their website, and the first thing you’ll see is the definition of their name: It’s a French adjective, meaning “alive, bright, lively, vibrant, spirited, smart, warm, stirring, perky, yearning, lusty.” All things that good food and drink should be. All things that I aspire to be.

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The food and the space reflect this philosophy. A bright interior, all windows and light and clean white walls, a polished concrete floor, rows of seductively gleaming bottles, and an orderly open kitchen. Bright and cheerful even on a gray day. Lovingly-sourced wines and coffee, food that is beautiful and enlivening, even as it’s simple and wholesome. An unhurried, neighborhoody feel, utterly free of gimmicks. Not precious, not sly and hip: just unselfconsciously earnest, unabashedly happy. Real.

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Beans with escarole and a soft-poached egg. Chicory salad with shaved parmesan. Currant scones. “Probably-quince” rugelach. Coffee. Wine. The beans are Rockwell beans grown on Whidbey Island, but that’s not cause for fuss. Neither is the house-made almond milk, nor the moist grey sea salt in place of familiar bright-white Kosher crystals: It’s just what tastes best.

Platonic-ideal chocolate chip cookies, probably-quince rugelach, gluten free yam doughnut-muffins
Platonic-ideal chocolate chip cookies, probably-quince rugelach, gluten free yam doughnut-muffins

The biographies of Vif’s owners, Lauren Feldman and Shawn Mead, struck a resonant chord. Both have long histories and varied backgrounds in food and wine. The loving zeal they bring to Vif is palpable. I wanted to learn from them. I wrote them a letter, stuffed it in an envelope with a resume and a handmade card, and dropped it off.

To my amazement and delight, Lauren and Shawn invited me to come in and spend time at the cafe: That’s how I came to be in Vif’s kitchen yesterday morning.

Clean and serene
Clean and serene

I didn’t know what to expect when I showed up for my stage, knife bag in hand. But Lauren gave me a tour of the kitchen, handed me a recipe, and set me to work making rhubarb streusel cakes. Then I made almond milk. I formed apple galettes and sauteed mushrooms destined for inclusion in a fritata. Throughout these tasks, Lauren issued gentle guidance and suggestions. Even though I was nervous to be a guest in someone else’s kitchen, she made me feel at ease and met my minor blunders with gracious patience.

Rhubarb streusel cakes (I made these!)
Rhubarb streusel cakes

At the end of my short, cushy work day, the women of Vif gave me lunch: Luxuriant gruyere melted over sweetly piquant peppers between slices of toothsome Columbia City bread, crunchy and golden with butter. Tomato soup with fennel, dill, fergola, and a judicious dollop of yogurt. Grilled cheese and tomato soup, done just right.

Grilled cheese, house made kraut
Grilled cheese, house made kraut

Thank you, Lauren and Shawn, for the opportunity to take part in the loveliness you’ve created!

 

Coffee at the Anchored Ship

A cortado at the Anchored Ship on a grey cloudy afternoon: bliss. Warmth and rich coffee smell, brick walls and a staircase and a little kitchen like a galley, in shades of cranberry and turquoise. I am fortunate to get a spot in the cozy upstairs, and my neighbors at their laptops don’t mind Ayla, who sleeps placidly between table and couch.

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Morning Joe

To sit and sip—to truly savor—a well-made cup of coffee in the morning is a pleasure unrivaled in its simplicity. From the first tentative exploration, steam singing your nostrils and scalding your lip, its aroma twining pleasantly through your neural pathways, it’s a deeply sensual journey. The sepia layer atop a deep black americano, or the bloom of cream through the darkness if you take it like that, are a small beauty to cherish and add to your catalog of minor pleasures. The initial chuffing and blowing and barely letting it touch your tongue, the frustrated longing for a full round mouthful while it’s still too hot to drink. The gradual cooling and revelation of complexity—chocolate and dirt and secret starchy roots, or blossoms and citrus fruit and spice (or whatever you happen to taste). The heft of ceramic and its comforting warmth flowing into your hand.

Of course, there are other moments, other cups. Hastily quaffed, thin and sour from paper or Styrofoam when you just need the drug that’s in there, or the reassurance of hot liquid. The desultory cup of decaf that must (must!) accompany dessert, no matter how old and bad it is. The frosty iced espresso with lots of cream, ice clunking against plastic, drunk on a languid summer day.

I’m not talking about any of those. I’m talking about the perfect cup, the first cup, the ultimate cup. Black. For here. Drunk slowly, observed as it cools, appreciated at each stage for what it is in that instant. (A quality cup of coffee, of course, should taste just as good lukewarm as piping hot, the last sip as pleasing, in its own way, as the first.) Leaving a few speckled grounds as a portent to be read and pondered. The lingering flavor, staying with you as you get up and move on, an intimation of timelessness in the midst of the here and now.

The perfect morning coffee is more than a drink: it’s a refuge from daily demands, a reminder that to give oneself over to small enjoyments, to delight unreservedly in a humble occasion, is the basis for a satisfaction that abides long after the coffee is gone.

joe

I love breakfast

Sometimes my house turns into a greasy spoon: fried taters, spinach, egg and lots of grated cheddar

I’ve always been a breakfast eater.

When I was a little kid, my mom would sometimes sneak into my room before I woke up and leave a bowl of cereal, a pitcher of cold milk, and a glass of juice by my bedside. It’s one of my favorite childhood memories.

Throughout high school, when many teens traditionally eschew breakfast, I would make the same thing every morning for a month or two, before tiring of it and switching to something else: breakfast burritos with scrambled eggs, potatoes, hot sauce and ketchup; bagel sandwiches with fried eggs, grainy mustard and gruyere cheese; oatmeal with bananas and cinnamon.

Vegetable stew, scrambled eggs and feta on crushed tortilla chips (with cheese and hot sauce, naturally)

The apotheosis of the morning meal, and one of my all-time favorites, is the venerable English fry-up, complete with fried eggs, fried mushrooms, fried tomatoes, fried bread, sausage, bacon or ham, fried bread, and sometimes baked beans.

Although my breakfast selections tend toward the savory, I also love pancakes, fruit and yogurt, cereal or toast with lots of butter and jam. If there’s leftover cake, pie or cookies in the house, I’ll eat those too.

A hot drink, or course, is absolutely essential: coffee (black, french press) or tea (black, strong, one sugar, whole milk).

What’s your favorite breakfast?

Mmmmm pancakes