Weekend Coffee

Parlor Coffee, Williamsburg

Except for a rumbling taxi or a warbling bird, it’s quiet. The sun is up and has been for a while because it’s mid-July and the days are long. Some parents and retail workers stumble bleary-eyed outside, but mostly people are out buying coffee. Even the joggers and dog walkers will join the queue for a grande with skim milk. They might buy a bagel or a doughnut or a croissant as well. But the particularities can wait for Monday morning. Now, it’s Sunday coffee.

The early-risers project an automatic confidence as they balance their coffee, pastry bags and dog leashes. This is not improv. No one woke up earlier than anticipated. They didn’t lie in bed and, staring at the poster of Vermeer’s View On Delft they bought on sale from allposters.com, exclaim, ‘what the hell! I’m going to get up, go for a run and pick up some coffee and breakfast’. Their pride appears in their distinctive exhausted swagger. They don’t look around; they look ahead. With blinds up and sunglasses on, they navigate Sunday morning inattentive to their powerful performance.

Becoming a member of the Sunday coffee troupe requires practice. No one supplies you with stage directions as you leave your apartment. But you dive through the emptiness to discover a café where regulars dialogue with their barista. This rapport could develop from two rehearsals or years of practice. The man in green spandex biking shorts might be a regular character, coming to the café since its opening day. The woman in sunglasses could be an eager new recruit. Together, they turn Sunday morning into Sunday coffee.

The coffee may be exceptional or it could be dirty water. The alarm clock could ring or the sun could act as a pseudo-alarm. Even the variables unfold according to a predictable selection. All is normal. All is Sunday coff

Five Friday Reads 03.07.2015

Looking up in Tribeca

  • Voltaire Night‘ from The Paris Review (213). This short story explores the limits of sharing misery and what occurs when the worst happens.
  • When did the end begin?‘ from New York. The term ‘anthropocene’ describes a geological era with visible human impact upon land, but while the term has entered popular vernacular, geologists debate its utility.
  • Expo: Sporting Success‘ from Monocle (85). Would you like to run around a gorgeous green track above a mall in the heart of your city? Or would you be enticed by a cycle club that began with coffee and ended with drinks? Yes, you would like both.
  • Jeffrey Eugenides on Liberal Arts Graduates in Love‘ from The New York Times and ‘The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides – review‘ from The Guardian. Years later and I’ve finally read The Marriage Plot. I preferred it to Middlesex (as the first review did) but found it disappointingly relied on cliches in creating the characters. Perfect summer read (which is a good thing).
  • Josh “The Fat Jew” Ostrovsky Loves Benihana, Hates Group Birthday Dinners‘ from Grub Street. Sometimes I’m worried for my sense of humor. I laughed for at least five minutes after reading Tuesday, June 30th’s non-breakfast.

Drinking Iced Coffee in a New York Summer

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When June’s humid haze descends, New Yorkers drink iced coffee. Commuters grasp their squishy clear cups, condensation running down their wrists. Cafes measure days in plastic lids. In New York, iced coffee isn’t a simple summer drink — it symbolizes the New Yorker’s commitment to the city.

Whether from Starbucks, Blue Bottle or the cart on the corner, New Yorkers buy more iced coffee than any other city in America. The environment demands it. Crowded streets amplify the heat and poorly ventilated apartments offer little relief. But a city that esteems its velocity requires fuel and so cool coffees replace hot ones. The switch is simple. Brew coffee, chill it in the fridge and throw in ice cubes before serving. This formula unites New York’s diverse iced coffees.

New York boasts more iced coffee variations than Starbucks does simple syrups. Add ice cubes made from coffee; buy cold brew concentrate from the grocery store; sip on New Orleans-style iced coffee infused with chicory; or wait for a pricey cold brew. If New Yorkers embrace cold-brew mania, it’s because their coffee shop serves it. Unlike hot coffee’s litany of extras, choosing iced coffee is the choice. The guy in plaid shirt clutches a Starbucks cup, the girl in the black dress one from Joe and the kid with the afro grips one sans-logo. Together, they’re New York’s iced coffee drinkers.

Whereas warm coffee inspires debates as to flavours and the best cafes, iced coffee elicits these arguments for a few weeks at the start of summer. During this time, AM New York and The Daily News publish a flurry of stories about cold coffee mania. But iced coffee isn’t a trend. Personal preferences are established before the summer’s first cup. He automatically poured in milk, she mechanically drizzled in agave and the kid instinctually added nothing. While clear plastic cups reveal these changes, the underlying brew unifies the differences. It’s iced coffee and the motivation for drinking remains the same: struggling through a New York summer, trying to keep it together.

Five Friday Reads 26.06.2015

Oslo

  • Two weeks of status updates from your vague friend on Facebook‘ from The New Yorker. We all have the friend who dramatizes their life on Facebook. Why do they do it remains a mystery, but it sure is a hysterical one.
  • ‘Take me to the Valley’ from Lucky Peach (14 Obsession). West Virginians lead the country in ranch dressing consumption thanks to a culture that still esteems packaged foods.
  • Dude this headlines is so meta‘ from The Boston Globe. Meta has become a buzzword for the twenty-first century’s self-referential culture, making a parody of itself in the process.
  • The Future of Iced Coffee‘ from The Atlantic. Blue Bottle is working to pioneer an iced coffee that’s available at the grocery store and compulsively drinkable. And — surprise! — it relies on milk and sugar, just like the Starbucks’ frappuccinos it sits next to.
  • True Lies‘ from The Paris Review. I lie about books and movies and I accidentally lie to tourists. That’s why I laughed.

Waiting and Reading (on fact and fiction)

Near EU Parliament in Brussels

 

Last Tuesday, I began thinking about the boundary between fact and fiction. The real versus the imagined. Where does one begin and the other end? I’m figuring it out.

My fascination began while I was updating our office’s stationery inventory. People frequently steal pens and double-stick tape, so I audit our supplies twice a month. This sounds simple — count the Bic comfort grip pens on each desk — but my co-workers are too messy to make this a straightforward task. Sometimes, in the middle of counting, you realize you forgot to divide up the blue and the black pens. Or you remember that Olivia stashes her pens in her desk and she’s gone to lunch and — since peeking into her desk would violate her privacy — you wait for her to return from lunch, but she takes forever because she went to the sandwich shop that prepares each sandwich to order (slowly) then decided to — why not! — eat in the park. When she returns, hours have disappeared and you’re sitting at the computer poking yourself in the head with a black Bic comfort grip wondering when you’ll be able to finish your count.

I had been waiting for Olivia to return for twenty minutes when I started contemplating fact and fiction. The rest of the office was at lunch, so I listened to a podcast while updating the quantities of double stick tape and off-brand post-its. The podcast was called ‘How close are fact and fiction?’ The host interviewed several authors and a journalist (to feign fairness). One of the interviewees suggested that journalists worshipped structure and that separated reportage from literature. In literature, meaning flows from the author’s mind onto page.

I was convinced and wanted to test it out. But as I opened my book Olivia came back. Returning to the spreadsheet, I counted the minutes until I’d get to read, which would be later than normal because I was meeting a friend for dinner at a cheesy Vietnamese restaurant. My friend visited Vietnam the previous summer and insisted that after a week in Hanoi he was fluent in pho and bánh xèo — a crispy, rice flour crepe that ought to be Vietnam’s culinary legacy. I ordered a curry chicken over rice that tasted like coconut milk-fortified chicken soup. My friend chose bánh xèo but it wasn’t “crispy like they are when you get it from a street vendor in Hanoi. There they cook them, serve them and eat them all in under ten minutes, actually, it’s more like five. They use, like, a different oil or something. This shitty American oil — canola or peanut or whatever restaurants buy in bulk — it doesn’t get frickin’ hot enough!” He scraped his plate clean.

When I got home at nine, I brewed a cup of chamomile tea and settled down to read The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn. A mystery. I picked it up at the bookstore last week before a dentist appointment. My dentist thinks she’s a teeth virtuoso and I always wait for at least half an hour. That day I waited longer than usual and was halfway through the book when the receptionist called me back from the snowed-in lodge where a host of comical characters bickered.

The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn was fun but I didn’t lose myself to it easily. I enjoyed the characters’ names — Luarvik L. Luarvik, ha! — but the pace overwhelmed me. Aliens and creatures and impossible escapes bombarded me. It left me exhausted — exhausted with plot. This wasn’t fact or fiction; it was make-believe.

But I’ve always enjoyed make-believe, so I felt foolish not appreciating The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn. Plot does not reflect reality. Yesterday I counted the office’s supply of Bic comfort grip pens and today I emailed the Chicago office about our off site meeting. Guess who has to book the conference space and accommodation? Me. I’m favouring the Ramada Inn in Batesville, Arkansas. When I called the hotel on Tuesday, they promised a special discount on a lunch buffet if I agreed to include tuna sandwiches. I told them it should be okay, but I need to review the options with my colleagues first.

Liz, the head of the Chicago office, did her own research and prefers the Hampton Inn in Tallahasse. That is an awful idea. None of us live near Tallahasse and none of us have reason to visit Florida, unless it’s to see our grandparents (as if). When I mentioned to Liz that the Hampton Inn adjusts their rates for golfers from Des Moines, she sent me a single emoticon: the face with three lines. It resembled my picture of Luarvik L. Luarvik. “Maybe we can counter their offer with the Batesville Ramada Inn’s tuna sandwiches,” she said. We’ll probably meet at a Super 8 Motel off the New Jersey Turnpike.

Since my life is tuna sandwiches and off-site meetings, I can’t pinpoint either fiction or fact in a genre-bending detective novel from a pair of Soviet authors. That’s why I started reading Mr. Palomar today. I picked up a copy at second-hand bookstore a few months back because it was cheap and a friend (not the Vietnamese food fanatic, a different one) once mentioned that she’d read anything Calvino wrote. Calvino is post-modern; Mr. Palomar isn’t unrealistically linear. The book describes an everyman named Mr. Palomar. Rather than chapters there are meditations. I read the first section, Mr. Palomar’s Vacation, this morning. Mr. Palomar doesn’t gallivant through a snow-secluded lodge filled with aliens. He goes to the beach and looks at the waves and thinks. I’m convinced Calvino put himself into Mr. Palomar, but Calvino probably invented a fair bit. Maybe Calvino loves the beach, but hates watching waves. Or maybe he’d enjoy the waves if it didn’t require a trip to the beach. It doesn’t matter. Mr. Palomar relates a fact — that people go to the beach and they watch waves and think — through his fiction. This isn’t artifice; it’s storytelling — it’s relatable.

Sometimes at work I sneak into the stock room to read magazines. I only do it on slow days and never when my boss is in the office. Fortunately, slow days are common and my boss’s appearances aren’t. My favourite magazine is The New Yorker but I’ll flip through anything — even The Economist. Last week — after the inventory and before the Ramada Inn — I read a New Yorker article called ‘Two Weeks of Status Updates from your Vague Friend on Facebook’. My favourite updates was for Wednesday: ‘It happened again’. Olivia probably jumped hearing my laughs, scattering her pens all over her top drawer. The article seemed real.

Yesterday I read an article in The Economist about Denmark’s swing to the political right. I’m not a politico or Danish-phile but I read the article mesmerized. The narrator wooed me. First, there was the melodious opening: ‘Northern Europe’s voters have been swinging to the right as the continent stumbles out of recession’. Once upon a time, I stumbled upon a Europe in flux. Two-thirds through the article, the narrator calmed me with hard-truth: ‘policy towards the EU is the biggest hurdle of all’. This certainty gave me confidence to face my co-worker who was busily g-chatting with the receptionist about his ‘epic trip to Rome’. And there was plenty of intrigue to keep me interested, ‘she is rumoured to have declined an offer to become president of the European Council.’ I would have read on to discover why Helle Thorning-Schmidt (the she mentioned) allegedly declined, but the article ended before my curiosity could be sated. What I read was truth, but it enchanted like fiction.

Today, I’m planning to go out for lunch. Since I finished the office supply inventory yesterday and I’m not ready to respond to the seventh emails I’ve received in three days from the Batesville Ramada Inn, I’m ready for a break. Maybe I’ll get a sandwich, or a summer roll from the cart across the street. It’s okay if there’s a wait; I’ve got time. I’ll take my book with me and sit in the park and read. Or maybe I’ll watch people pass by.

Five Friday Reads 19.06.2015

Oslo

  • Culture: How close are fact and fiction?‘ from Monocle. The relationship between fact and fiction isn’t binary imagination/reality. It shifts as fact borrows from fiction and vice versa.
  • Party Of One‘ from The Paris Review. Marginalia illustrates our reading patterns. Sometimes these patterns are inscrutable to subsequent readers.
  • Ode to Norwegian Brown Cheese‘ from The New Yorker.  If you’re not a fan of fish, eat brown cheese in Norway. If you’re a fan of fish, leave some room for brown cheese while in Norway.
  • ‘McChampagne Wishes and McCaviar Dreams’ from Lucky Peach (14, Obsession). ‘He told the Milwaukee Wisconsin Journal Sentinel that he spent the last bit of his final unemployment check on a McRib Extra Value Meal the day he won a million dollars in 2010 .. he might have never discovered [the winning Monopoly pieces] had he upgraded to a larger size — “It’s a lesson on moderation,” Kehoe said.’ Best. Line. Ever.
  • Can Reading Make You Happier?‘ from The New Yorker. Bibliotherapy involves meeting with someone who has read much more than you and getting recommendations based on the issues you’re facing. It’s the self-help shelf for literary fans.

From Persia to Paper Packets, Raisins Are the Coolest Food You’re Eating

Raisins

I didn’t always worship raisins. As a kid, I insisted they were inferior to fruit snacks and fake-cheese filled crackers. Then, one day during breakfast at university, I reached into the opaque plastic cereal bin and pulled out a scoop of Fruit ‘n’ Fibre cereal instead of Crunchy Nut. I converted immediately thanks to those chewy-sweet raisins. Raisins do that to you: they lodge stick themselves into your daily routine.

Have you examined the folds along the raisin’s skin, shrinking as they near the oval ends? Or are raisins simply an afterthought in your cinnamon-spiked bagel? Raisins are more than a snack. Their history, rarity and ubiquity have created lore and merit reverence.

I am not the only raisin freak; raisins boast a global, historic fandom. Persians and Egyptians have enjoyed raisins since 2000 B.C. In ancient Greece and Rome, athletes won raisins in competitions. Residents of China’s Xinjiang province — which borders Mongolia — build Chunche, large, well-ventilated structures for drying mass amounts of grapes. Victorian revellers played Snapdragon — a holiday game that required participants to snatch raisins from a bowl of flaming brandy. Amidst scorched tongues and burnt fingers, a golden raisin waited to assure good luck for one player. Whether inspiring athletic ability, erecting special drying facilities, or causing burns, seemingly simple raisins coerce admirers to toil for ambrosia.

Red Raisin Box

Despite plenty of outlandish raisins tradition, most honour raisins as a delicious food. Take mincemeat — a popular Christmas treat made from raisins, candied fruit and spices. Although cooks once used it to preserve meat for the winter, the rich filling now signals ‘holiday’ for Brits eager for Mr. Kipling’s mini-mince pies to arrive at Sainsbury. Similarly, hot cross buns — a yeasted sweet roll with currants — were once more than a pre-Easter treat. They supposedly kept away mould, maintained friendships and protected kitchens from evil spirits. During Nowruz, Persian New Year, and Mehregan, the autumn harvest festival, cooks feature raisins in cookies and rice dishes to display bounty and thanks. Then there’s China’s polu rice, Austria’s raisin-studded apfelstrudel and Sicily’s raisin-studded pasta con le sarde. For those who think of raisins as a regular snack, these holiday traditions demonstrate that it’s not just cereal that gets us hooked on the dried fruit.

Today raisins aren’t only for holidays. With the snack box, raisins transitioned from treat to daily food. When California began to industrialise raisin production in the late-nineteenth century, growers needed consumers to regard raisins as a common ingredient to ensure a market for their product. Marketing gimmicks, like the Sun Maid Raisin girl, helped. Sun Maid’s founder allegedly saw a gorgeous girl drying her hair in the California sun and decided her smiling face would perfectly represent the raisin ethos. Thus, consumers saw raisins as symbols of life, beauty and health when consumed in regular, bountiful quantities previously reserved only for the wealthy during holidays.

Regardless of the Sun Maid girl’s legacy, raisin demand grew and cultivation practices developed. There were machines that shook grape trees, automatically separating grapes destined for wine from those for raisins. Growers welcomed methods for speeding up the drying process. This industrial growth helped California produce the approximately 1.9 tonnes it grows annually. American and Canadians eat about two thirds of these raisins while Japan and the UK receive most of the remainder for use in curry rice and my beloved cereal. Since the industrialisation of raisin production in the US, the raisin has ceased to be a natural miracle and become an international commodity and daily indulgence.

Pasticceria a Bergamo

But California doesn’t monopolise global raisin production. Turkey, Greece, Iran and Afghanistan are among the largest producers, with Australia not far behind. From Turkey’s golden sultanas and Iran’s green long kashmar raisins to Australia’s packaged Sunbeam raisins and Greece’s Zante currants, there are enough raisin varieties for each country to maintain demand. While the differences between these varieties may seem minute, you don’t need to be a raisin connoisseur to discern between slightly vegetal green raisins and wine-y jumbo Flame raisins.

Then there are the grades and drying methods that mark the difference between stale trail mix raisins and pricey organic boxes. Ranging from Grade A to C, a top grade raisin has 18% hydration and is made from a mature grape. Raisins with 5% sugar and those with 15% sugar and grapes that were either ¾ matured or fully matured are classed separately. Ardent raisin-fans might argue that these unique grapes require distinct drying treatments. Grapes can be: dried on the vine, coated in oil, or sun dried in trays. This means we can variously enjoy and scorn: spongy muesli raisins, gummy-candy like trail-mix raisins and resilient boxed raisins. Even when we don’t taste them, raisins present a host of meanings, ready to be parsed out and analysed, before being gobbled up in pies, pastry and paper packs.

Raisins aren’t a quotidian snack. Raisins are a complex food, evolved over millennia to display wealth, fortune and culture. We should realise this. We should realise that this seemingly ordinary food never ceases to induce awe. From the intricate folds to the intricate history, raisins capture the wonder of society, science and culture in less than a gram.

 

Second image: Flickr via JD Hancock