Posted on May 6th, 2020
My So-Called Latte
It was before 6:00 am, on some day in 1978 or 1979. It must have been spring or fall because my mom was wearing a burgundy velour robe, which would have been too hot for summer and too light for winter. This makes me around 4 years old. My dad hadn’t left my mom, even though she was basically the perfect Italian wife; she stayed at home with two kids all day but managed to wake up at the crack of dawn and brew him coffee and pack a lunch in a red and white Igloo “Playmate” cooler before he took the train into Manhattan to work for Sheet Metal Workers Local Union 28 (also called “tin-knockers”).
Anyway, the coffee was maybe Maxwell House, although I think that was a bit fancy back then, so maybe it was Folger’s. The pot was a stainless steel Revereware percolator with a copper bottom and a glass top. If you haven’t made coffee in a stovetop percolator, it’s 100% magical. There are lots of parts and pieces, and assembling the whole contraption is part of the allure. Then the water starts bubbling up and you can watch the color of the coffee change as it spatters against the glass. Then you start to smell it and it’s really, really coffee.
All of this can go horribly wrong, too. If you have an electric percolator, you might brew all 40 cups of coffee without realizing the spare cord is in the bottom of the pot, then serve all that coffee, to the more than 40 people at Easter dinner (see: “Lagnese Family Easter,” 2002).
Also, you can start to brew it and maybe sort of forget the stove is still on and the coffee keeps boiling up the stem, into the basket, and back down on itself, until it becomes so bitter and charred you sneak some almond extract into it hoping your very kind friends won’t notice (see: “Fall Semester Brunch,” 2004).
I am 44 years old, and I cannot make coffee. I cannot make coffee in that damn Revereware percolator. Not in a French press, not in a pour-over ceramic mug. I cannot make coffee. I’ve come to terms with this but it still pisses me off. I’m passably good at a lot of things — especially foody, crafty, homesteady things. So not being able to make a damn pot of coffee stings a little.
At the same time, I’m pretty resilient, so I’m not going to beat myself up over this enormous personal failure. Nope, instead I’ll bring a reusable mug to Cornucopia in Northampton and pay for a coffee refill with two Sacajawea coins. I will casually wave my phone over the card reader at Familiar’s and pay whatever it costs for a delicious and beautiful latte.
My husband and I have lived in the center of Northampton for 10 years. It’s just too easy to trust someone else to make the coffee. We see Haymarket, Iconica, Starbucks, and Woodstar from our bed (either side!). Now that we are in a temporary apartment around the corner, we’re even closer to Northampton Coffee, Sylvester’s, Familiars, Roost, Nourish (yes, the will sell you coffee), and all the rest. This is great. This was great. Now there’s a pandemic.
We are privileged – there’s no two ways around it. We are white, educated, better off than our working-class parents, and we have jobs we can do by staring at laptop screens. Of course, everyone has their invisible stuff. Ours? We ran out of our burning condo building 18 months ago and still have no idea if or when we might go home, or end up in court, or find ourselves in financial ruin. We rotate through a few t-shirts and eat at a borrowed table, and most things in life feel random, unpredictable, and interminable. So cut me some slack for saying that the thing we miss most during this pandemic is lattes.
Humans are resilient, and we’ve have had more than a year of practice turning lemons into lemonade. So when the stay-at-home order was issued in Northampton (and a few days later across Massachusetts), we figured we’d be fine.
Days 2 and 3 of lock-down we called in orders to two different local coffee shops that were operating take-out only. It felt both fine and dumb. Fine because we needed the couple of blocks walk to get some air and sun, dumb because why risk any interaction just for some lattes?
By Day 4, I decided this was unsustainable on many levels, and extracted a tiny jar of Medaglia D’oro from the back of a top shelf in our borrowed kitchen. I keep it on hand for emergencies, and Day 4 felt like one. As expected, it was crappy. I didn’t pay attention to the proportions, so it was kind of watery. I think I added coconut creamer to it. But my coffee-making is already bad, so expectations were met.
Day 7 was rough. We had picked up seeds and gardening supplies and cat food for friends who live about eight miles from town. On the drive over to their place, I asked my best friend if she happened to make coffee that morning (this was like a lawyer question: I definitely knew the answer before I asked). Not only did she say yes, but she said she’d make me some and add half-and-half and put it in a thermos for me by the backdoor. Hallelujah! That thermos was so big it lasted 3 whole days. Remember, I’m so bad at this, even 3 day old refrigerated coffee is better than I could brew on my own.
On Day 11 the same friend knew that I did not have any longer-term latte plan in place and offered me a spare French press. I was on the fence about it, because, well all the brewing, but I did have a bag of ground coffee in the back of the freezer from my last attempt with a French press 6 months earlier. I figured if I broke down and bought a pint of half-and-half it might be mostly bearable.
No such luck. On Day 15, my husband and I walked up King Street in Northampton to get eggs at the Cumberland Farms gas station. It’s across the street from a Dunkin’ Donuts. Yes, we called in two lattes to that Dunkin’ Donuts and drank them on the walk home. They were…. not good. We felt especially dumb after that and I promised myself to become coffee-self-sufficient.
Fast forward many more crappy cups of instant espresso and a couple of frantic mugs of Earl Grey. Then the Twitter got all sorts of excited about “Dalgona coffee” — you whip 2T of instant espresso, 2T sugar, and 2T water into this foamy deliciousness and plop it on top of milk. Basically, foam makes everything better, and I figured it was worth a slighlty-adapted shot.
Day 27: Latte breakthrough! It’s not great, and I probably can’t even call it a latte, but there’s caffeine, and milk, and since there are no coffee shops open in downtown Northampton anymore, it’s all we’ve got. Since you’ve made it through 1200 words, here’s my recipe for Sad Pandemic Latte. Bottoms up!
Sad Pandemic Latte
Or, A Warm Coffee Drink That Will Take Long Enough to Make You Forget It’s Not a Real Latte But Not So Long You Get Distracted by Pandemic Anxiety and Crawl Back into Bed to Read News Updates.
1 Teapot of Boiling Water
2 Tablespoons of Instant Espresso
(And when I say “Tablespoon” I mean whatever you call the “big spoons” in your kitchen drawer, because all my real measuring spoons are trapped in my old condo, and what does anything mean anymore anyway?)
1 splash of granulated sugar
(If I didn’t have a crumbled little coop grocery brown bag with “75” scrawled on it from however many months ago I would not have any granulated demerara sugar. This is to say that your Sad Pandemic Latte doesn’t care if you put sweetener in it, but I can’t predict how sadder or less sad it might be with something like stevia or honey)
8-10 ounces of milk
(I can say this with certainty because we actually have a measuring cup! Sometimes this milk is 1%, sometimes it’s skim, and sometimes it’s 2%. Sad Pandemic Latte doesn’t care about fat content.)
1 splash of half-and-half
(Except I never think to put the half-and-half in the measuring cup, so use your judgement.)
P R O C E S S
Warm up the milk however you would normally warm up milk (in a pot on the stove, in the microwave, or with the fiery feminist rage that bubbles up every time someone else suggests women stop doing paid work and sit at the kitchen table sewing masks that will end up in a hospital storage room).
Put the espresso and sugar in a mug and add a little bit of boiling water. Start beating it with a fork or a tiny whisk and it’ll get bubbly and then kind of foamy. Don’t throw out your back vigorously whipping it into the solid peaks that are on the internet. Sad Pandemic Latte has no time for that.
*If you’re feeling fancy* Take out your hand-blender and go to town on the milk. If you want to use less milk, cut it with boiling water, then go to town on it. It will also get foamy and lovely. Again, do this for as long as you need to feel like one day life will be normal again, but not so long you forget how many millions of Americans are food insecure and unemployed because Republicans have systemically dismantled our social safety net.
Pour the foamy milk into the foamy espresso, put on some pants, and do your best to help yourself and your community get through this weird, weird, time.