Meet your maker
My beverage of choice is coffee and has been for more than the past half-century.
I started drinking it as a social ritual at the tender age of 18 — because my friends drank coffee, I joined in. Shortly afterward, I started traveling around the country, and diners and truck stops offered a great break from the monotony of the highways, as well as keeping my caffeine level jacked to the max. The quality varied, the best being what the truckers called “100-mile coffee.”
Then in college I spent my time between classes in the union, where the coffee was ever-flowing and cheap, and so my habit thrived.
Next came This Man’s Navy. I’ve no idea what coffee drinking was like in the other services, but in the Navy it was off the charts. Not everyone drank it, of course, but among those who did, it was nonstop. The lifers, having been in longer, were great role models for java addiction. Most of them always had a mug in hand, and the mugs had not only their name on them, but their rank insignia as well. We used to joke that when they weren’t on duty, their index fingers were bent in a permanent hook.
I can’t remember how much I drank a day, but if I’d have told someone I had a 20-cup-a-day habit, I’d have gotten a half-hearted shrug … if that.
As for the coffee itself? It had only one requirement — it had to be sinfully strong. And it always was. The first thing each newbie learned when he had coffee-making duty was never, ever, upon pain of keelhauling, clean the urn. You could empty it and rinse it out a bit, but that was it. I’m sure there were divisions who cleaned their urns, even cleaned them scrupulously, but I never saw one. And along the same lines, no one cleaned their mugs, either. If nothing else, we were consistent.
After the Navy, my coffee consumption fell off but didn’t disappear. I drank it at home, at work, at diners and with my friends. It may sound like a lot, but compared to my Navy days, I was a shadow of my former self.
But as long as I’ve been swilling the stuff, and as much of it as I’ve poured down my gullet, I never became a fuss-budget. Gourmet babble be damned, I have only three criteria for good coffee: One, it must be strong. Two, it must be hot. Three, it must be cheap. Before I’ll pay 20 bucks for a pound of grounds, I’ll walk through Berkeley Square at high noon, nekked as a jaybird, waving a “Scott Peterson for president” flag.
But given those three simple requirements, one nagging issue remained: What coffee maker was best?
The best coffee I ever had was my mother’s. It was strong enough to raise the dead, but never bitter. She made it in an ancient aluminum stove-top drip maker, and she always used the A&P’s Eight O’Clock coffee. So it was only logical that I’d follow her lead. I did, but only in a manner of speaking: No matter what I did with grounds-to-water ratio, brewing time and stove temp, my stuff never came near tasting like hers. I tried other brands, but still no-go.
At the time I was vexed by my lack of results, but over the years, I’ve come to understand it’s more common than not: People follow their grandmother’s recipe for mac ‘n’ cheese, let’s say, and follow it word for word, but still it falls far short of Granny’s oeuvre. I’ve heard countless people tell me similar tales, about all kinds of foods, all of them confused by this generational disparity. But now I know the answer: Those old biddies had made a pact with the Devil. I’ve never had anyone agree with me, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s the only thing that makes sense.
After the drip maker, I tried a French press. The results were a double-edged sword. Because I could let the grounds steep as long as I wanted, I got strong coffee, but by the time it was strong enough, it wasn’t hot enough. So I limped along with that until I was bequeathed an ancient Krups espresso maker. The coffee was strong, and I could steam the milk, and it was also nice and hot. But since it was meant for an effete epicure, not an old-school coffee head, it could make only one cup at a time. This was fine for evenings, when I wouldn’t drink more than one, but in the morning, it made for a painful, ongoing struggle.
So, realizing all life — especially coffee-drinking life — is a compromise, begrudgingly, I went back to the French press.
But then a convo with Jackie Da Luke sent me on a mission that changed my coffee life.
Jackie’s been my pal for decades, and we usually check in a couple times a week. Since she’s also a coffee fanatic, it was inevitable the subject comes up, and once when it did, she mentioned the best coffee she ever had was her grandmother’s. She figured it was because her G-Ma made it in a Corningware stove-top percolator. She also gave herself a verbal scourging for not having inherited it.
“Hey, no sweat,” I said. “I’ll get you one.”
“Where?” she said. “They haven’t made them in years.”
“No matter,” I said. “I’ll do it.”
And thus I started on my mission.
I figured I’d find them online, and I was right. But they cost five arms and 10 legs — plus shipping charges — so that was out. But another source remained, and I knew it wouldn’t let me down — Wilmart.
It’s in Wilmington, and its real name is the Riverside Thrift Store. But to those know and love it, it’s Wilmart. It is to me what Lourdes is to the faithful — the place where miracles happen. I go there every few months, and each time I do, I cop something wonderful. So I figured if I could find a Corningware stovetop percolator anywhere, it’d be in Wilmart.
A few days after our call, I drove there. I immediately went to the kitchenware section, looked high and low, but found no Corningware percolator. But I wasn’t disappointed, because my faith in Wilmart is like the peeps’ faith in Lourdes: I doubt a third of them suffering from the Green Gambool or Mogadishu Flu or anything else actually get cured. But it doesn’t matter. In their heart of hearts, they know other people do, so while they may not get the results, they never lose their faith. Instead, they think, “Maybe next visit or next year or …”
And guess what? A year later, I walked into Wilmart and — Voila! — there on a shelf was a Corningware stove-top percolator. And catch this: It was brand new, in its original box. The price? A mere 29 frogskins. I snatched it up faster than you can say fibrillation, smacked down the filthy lucre and mailed it to Jackie that afternoon.
A happy ending? Yes. But only the first of two.
Jackie was in love with her new coffee maker. Over and over she told me how wonderful it was, how it brewed really strong java, how scalding it was out of the pot, how hot the pot stayed, how it filled the whole house with its delicious aroma, and so on.
She rhapsodized so much, I started to think I should get a Corningware maker, too. The only problem, of course, was where and how? Finally, I decided not to dwell on it, but to just be serendipitous — if I found one, fine; if I didn’t, that’d be fine, too.
That was a few years ago. In the meantime, no Corningware percolator crossed my path. But I was OK with it, using my “It it’s meant to be, it will be” mantra.
Then about two months ago, I stopped into Wilmart for my bimonthly visit, when — Lo and Behold! — what to my wandering eyes did appear?
Was it a Corningware percolator?
Was it two Corningware percolators?
Was it (dare I say?) THREE Corningware percolators?
It was indeed!
There were two stovetop makers — one unused, in its original box; the other used but in fine shape. And there was a brand-new electric one. I mulled over them, debating which one I’d buy, because it was a foregone conclusion that I’d buy one.
I bought the new stovetop one, and I must say it makes the best coffee I’ve ever had. Ipso facto!
Clearly, the odds of finding those three percolators in one thrift shop at the same time are astronomical. And while them being there was something out of “The Twilight Zone” and I was overjoyed, I was not surprised.
For as I said, Wilmart is the place where miracles happen.