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Coffee in all its glory

Coffee is not a mere beverage to be swilled like beer.

It must be savored. Drinking coffee is a tradition, an experience, an event. For some it is a ticket to mellow, for others a temporary high. I love coffee. When my kids were younger and wanted something very badly, they’d say, “Pretty please, with coffee on top!”

In a stunning reversal, I’ve had to switch to decaf. It’s part of the protocol for those of us lucky enough to suffer from chronic headaches. It was never clear to me that caffeine affected my tender cranium, but I made the sacrifice. My conversion was less traumatic than I expected. Once, back in the day, I was asked by a guest at our home if the coffee I was serving was decaf. I replied, “What’s that?” Decaf and I have come a long way.

Remember when Sanka was the only alternative to caffeinated coffee? Does anyone still drink the stuff, or am I being condescending here? We can thank a team of researchers led by Ludwig Roselius in Bremen, Germany, in 1903 for the invention of decaf. Sanka (from the French, sans caféine — without caffeine) poured its way to the U.S. around 1909–10. For me Sanka evokes a sense of nostalgia. I recall my parents’ generation drinking it in the old days, before French press coffee makers and Keurigs.

As for the never-ending Dunkin’ Donuts vs. Starbucks debate, it can be seen as a stand-in for class warfare. The upper crust is assumed to favor Starbucks, and the folks that sit in the bleachers or drive American cars prefer Dunkin.’ After careful research I can say that each has its strengths and weaknesses. I tend toward Starbucks first, then Dunkin.’ Honeydew Donuts wins third place among the bigger chains in Greater Boston. (There might be other regional coffee giants I’m not aware of.) Starbucks’ quality is consistent. Dunkin’ is somewhat less so, varying from store to store or drive-thru window to drive-thru window. In Dunkin’s favor there are far more DD drive-thrus than Starbucks. I’ve actually seen two Starbucks drive-thrus. Something about them doesn’t feel right. Of course Starbucks pastries are good, but expensive. A cinnamon chip scone now and then is a treat. DD and HD treats are less expensive, and, I suppose to some, déclassé. DD’s coffee cake muffins are pretty good, though.

As a coffee aficionado, I’ve felt inspired to develop a coffee ceremony in the tradition of the Japanese tea ceremony. The tea ceremony, which dates back to the 8th century, represents Zen precepts of the harmony of nature and self-cultivation. A Chinese Buddhist priest wrote a book on the proper way to prepare tea, which influences the tea ceremony to this day. The book is called Cha Ching (no kidding!). Preparing for a tea ceremony is hard work: choosing a theme, preparing flowers and food, extreme cleaning and other ritual requirements. Ethiopians actually have a coffee ceremony, which involves washing, de-husking, grinding and roasting coffee beans. Lovely, I’m sure, but not what I had in mind.

As I envision it, my modern coffee ceremony reflects the 21st century concept: Chill. Guests are invited to sit in comfortable chairs around a coffee table. Cell phones are deposited in a specially designed container near the front door. Shoes may be removed. No humans under 20 are permitted. Well-behaved pets are. Coffee is served in fine china, unless the hostess prefers paper goods. Caffeinated coffee and decaf are present. Cakes, donuts, scones and bagels are served, none baked by the hostess. On a nearby side table is a choice of sweeteners, such as sugar, Sweet’N Low and Splenda, along with cream, half and half, and milk (whole, 2%, skim and soy) to meet the tastes and needs of all guests.

The ceremony opens with the hostess intoning, “Unwind. Take it easy. Decompress.” Conversation centers on celebrity gossip, sales at area or on-line clothing stores, plans for vacation as well as favorite books, movies and TV shows. Soothing music plays in the background. The ceremony strives for tasty food and mellow mood — civilized, low maintenance, lowered blood pressure. Drink, eat, chat, breathe, repeat.

To quote Louisa May Alcott, “I’d rather take coffee than compliments just now.”

— Ann Green

Ann Green is a freelance writer, editor, PR consultant and tutor.

Reflections of Erma