The percolator surges on a worn Coleman camp stove, sending savory streams of mahogany up the stem and into the glass top. Sporadic bursts at first, becoming more frequent, then frenzied.
Its scent mixes with the tangy terpineol of our evergreen backdrop, and the aromatic smoke of the campfire. Here, along the river on this frigid February morning, I'm drawn back in time to holidays at my grandparents’. Where a fresh-cut spruce sported bold lights and lively decorations, Grandma busied herself in the kitchen perking coffee and baking tree-shaped cookies adorned with green sprinkles and red cinnamon dots, and Grandpa dutifully attended to the stubborn fireplace in the living room.
Or to the campground my family gathered at each summer when I was a kid. When I'd wake early to the sound of dogs stirring and the aroma of breakfast being fixed - coffee, bacon, and woodsmoke all tangled together to form a wispy medley that hung in the trees.
It's funny, the power of smell on our memories. But, with coffee, it isn't just the fragrance for me.
It's that first dark, acidic taste cutting into my tongue like a razor. Rich, roasted, toasted, nutty, berry, smoky heaven in a cup. As precious as ice water to a man forty days lost in the wilderness, it tumbles over my tobacco-stained tastebuds like a tannic river over worn rock.
Old Joe is a trusted companion or a bad influence depending on with whom you consult – me taking the former opinion and my doctor espousing the latter. Joe's fine, he says, but maybe you could spend a little less time together? Pish! I can't imagine going anywhere without Joe alongside.
The truth is I'm a coffee-aholic. I just can't get enough. From my first kick start in the morning, to the last precious sip after dinner, I'm eternally grateful for the gift of the little red fruit and the Ethiopian goat herder who first discovered its potency.
You'd think consuming as much coffee as I do, I'd have acquired a highly developed java-juice palette. But I haven't.
Unlike wine or bourbon – beverages I've been accused of being somewhat particular about (if being particular entails refusing to drink a mash that costs less than a pack of Marlboros or turning up my nose at vino whose label features a winking bird of Minerva) – I'm just not that fussy about my coffee. As long as it's stronger than Church Basement Blend, not flavored with hazel, peppermint, pumpkin, or other such idiocies, and served black, I don't care if it's iced, lukewarm, or piping hot, comes from a tire store, cafe, diner, donut shop, or drive through.
Folger's Crystals secretly switched at a fancy restaurant (you must be of a certain age to understand this reference) or half stirred in a Styrofoam cup? Pass it over. The questionable contents of a thermos found rolling around the back seat? Chug-a-lug. Tepid truck-stop swill at two in the morning? Sold. In fact, make it a "grande", will ya, Sweetheart?
I recently met two buddies at a local diner for breakfast. The bespectacled gentleman that arrived first was stoically sipping Earl Grey when I arrived – a perfectly acceptable option assuming that the selected establishment is out of coffee, you are British, or you work in a library. But as an intentional choice to start the day? Sorry Ole’ Chap, I just can't wrap my head around it.
I, arriving second, properly ordered my coffee, black – no ma'am no need for cream or sugar, thank you – and nodded my knowing approval when she brought out a steaming cup, plus an entire carafe, just for me – an act that would be generously reflected come tip time.
Our third compatriot arrived a moment later (a traffic snafu slowing his commute he claimed), scanned the contents of the table, and harrumphed the lack of French-press or pour-over options to our delightful waitress before, a bit dramatically in my opinion, settling for a glass of water. I was flummoxed. Caught off guard. Et Tu, Brute? You?
Yes, yes, I'm well aware of your discriminating tastes in double guns, your genteel adoration for fine cane rods, and your fastidious affection for well-aged single barrel, but coffee? This cannot be my same friend who shares salami sliced with a rusty Ka-Bar on the river or instructs me to push through the popples while bird hunting with my shotgun held as I would if breaching a door in a drug raid. Surely not the same friend whose old, worn flannel has been re-stitched so damn many times it's literally named Patches? No sir. Can’t be.
Look, I don't hold it against anyone who needs to get fancy with their morning pour. Go on, order your double soy Venti latte foamed cappuccino with extra whipped cream and just a dash of cinnamon; it's fine. But, for the love of God, don't try to tell me it's coffee. That twelve-dollar beverage with the heart shape on top is no more coffee than a strawberry daiquiri is a cocktail, or an Impossible Whopper is a burger.
I'll own up to being a bit particular about my wine, and even my bourbon. I'll confess to sometimes mixing in a little cola to take the spurs down a notch on the likes of ole Johnny, or Jack, or Jim. But when it comes to Joe, I'll take mine neat, please. In an old-fashioned diner mug, a brown-paper gas-station cup, a dinged-up thermos, or, preferably, poured from a percolator surging atop a camp stove.