After years of living in Seattle, it is no surprise that I developed a taste for exotic coffee. Certainly more exotic than everyday Folgers. I’m not rigid about my coffee. I’ll drink any kind of coffee as long as it is hot. Coffee at the diner, coffee with friends, coffee while traveling; I’ll drink it without complaint.
But, I confess, behind the closed doors of my own home, I am a coffee snob. Each morning I grind my designer coffee beans fresh. I carefully bring water not quite to the boil. I measure an exact heap of ground coffee into the pre-heated glass jar of my French press, pour the water evenly over the grounds, set the top on the jar, and cover it with a special quilted cozy (that I made myself). I wait the requisite four minutes, plunge the press downward to separate the grounds from the delicious dark liquid and pour steaming aromatic coffee into a heated mug. This process somewhat resembles a Japanese tea ceremony minus the kimono. I retire to the living room, my current book in hand, to savor my morning coffee.
On my recent holiday in Mazatlan, Mexico, I decided to breakfast at Juanita’s. I first wandered into Juanita’s a few years ago, following a hot tip from Tony, a beach vendor. He said he eats there and the food is always good. And he is right. The garlic shrimp cannot be bettered, nor can the price. One can walk by and not notice the few red and white checked oil-cloth covered tables with plastic chairs sitting beneath the corrugated tin roof held in place with crooked tree limbs. A concrete wall separates Juanita’s from the store next to it. This wall is covered with philodendron, ivy, ferns and bougainvillea, all planted in coffee tins and plastic buckets. A row of aloe and cactus separates the tables from the sidewalk. Back from the tables is a miniscule “store” with snacks and drinks. And behind that is the kitchen. Juanita’s is not on the tourist map.
I sat down at a table and when Manuel (I asked his name) handed me a menu, I ordered coffee. He indicated two men eating at the adjacent table to let me know the coffee came in a jar of Nescafe. “Oh,” I said with a slight wrinkle of my nose. Instant coffee? Ewww! I ordered fresh squeezed orange juice. Breakfast was excellent and all for 40 pesos. Juanita’s quickly became my morning hangout.
One morning, Manuel placed cups of steaming milk, a small jar of Nescafe and a bowl of unrefined sugar before a couple at the other end of the table where I sat. “What is that?” I asked him. “Café con leche,” he responded. I watched while the couple each spooned a half teaspoon of coffee and a like amount of sugar into their milk. I was intrigued. So I told Manuel I’d like to try this café con leche.
When the hot milk arrived I measured the coffee (yes, instant) and sugar and stirred them into my milk. Oh, my. It was better than good. It became my morning drink of choice in Mexico.
After I flew back to Seattle to spend time with my children and grandchildren, I missed my café con leche. So I stealthily set out to search for the necessary ingredients to make my own — namely, Nescafe instant coffee and unrefined sugar. Stealthily, because I didn’t want my friends in the coffee-drinking capital of the world to see me buying a jar of instant. And to tell the truth, I wasn’t sure I could find Nescafe in the outer reaches of Montana. I stopped at the coffee display of a giant super market, amazed. Nescafe offered me a choice of gourmet, House Blend, several flavors and decaf. I chose “Clasico” because the jar label was printed in Spanish.
I hid the jar in my basket beneath bags of sea salt and fresh strawberries and went in search of unrefined sugar. I picked the sugar that most looked like that which I had spooned from the bowl in Juanita’s.
I still make coffee with my French press. But some mornings I reach into the darkest corner of my pantry and extract the jar of Nescafe instant and the sugar bowl. I heat the milk in my smallest pan, pour it into my cup, and measure half a teaspoon of instant and half a teaspoon of sugar. One sip and I am transported to Mazatlan and Juanita’s. Ole!
(Sondra Ashton graduated from Harlem High in 1963 and left for good. She finds, after returning, things now look a bit different. Join her in a discussion of her column at http://montanatumbleweed.blogspot.com.)