Wow, how about a cup of coffee? If we were having coffee, it might be time for me to tell you a little about my time as a barista. It seems only fitting because, depending on where we were having coffee, the subject would come up sooner or later.
Throughout the nineties, I was an old-school barista at a gourmet food store in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I admit it, I was a coffee snob back then. Ah, but we got a discount, plus … we ground beans fresh every day for the coffee bar, so whatever dabs of coffee were left for the day were free for the taking. I drank high-quality beans every day for YEARS.
Okay, it’s our turn … you know what I’d order? A coffee.
Internally I’ll smirk if you ordered anything else. Although I don’t insist on pricey gourmet beans anymore at home, I’m still a little bit of a coffee snob out at a coffee bar. Especially at that Ess-place. Sure, if I’m dragging and need a cup of coffee and it’s the only place around I’ll pop in there but to me they’ve both popularized coffee and ruined coffee at the same time.
I worked in a simple, traditional coffee bar environment. We had a full range of coffee drinks but nothing fanciful or made up. We served drinks in real glasses and cups with real spoons. It was thought that you’d sit down and enjoy your expertly made coffee drink so you could appreciate the skill and care that went into it.
I’m going to tell you a secret that most of the current crop of baristas don’t know. That latte that you pay $$ for in a paper cup? You’ve just bought a shot of espresso and a lot of milk in a paper cup.
Here’s the secret: a latte is a visual drink, meant to be served in a tall glass … meaning one actually made out of glass. A cappuccino? The same … It is also a visual drink, although it is a bit more subtle than a latte, it should be made in a large cup with a saucer.
The artistry in my lattes was in using the glass itself as a canvas, ending up with three distinct layers of milk, espresso, and froth, with the espresso just beginning to cascade down into the milk like an ever-changing sunset of subtle hues and swirls until the unwitting customer drops a glob of sugar into it and swirls it into oblivion. Brownian motion, I guess. A cappuccino has a slight dome of froth that is ringed with a halo of thick crema. I would serve them and point out the beauty, proud of my work.
Sigh. A traditional barista lives in such moments, each instant replaced by a stir and then you move on to the next order. It reflects in the tip jar … I made a lot of tips, but not on to-go orders in paper cups.
What about all those fancy artistic flares places do these days, like drawing with the crema in the froth? I’d never make it because as a visual artist I am a total flop. I might be able to do a Bob Ross thing, you know, “maybe add a little log cabin over there,” but your drink would be stone cold by the time I finished.
At our bar we didn’t make up new drinks like frapa-whatever (a pet peeve because people would come in and order those and since it is a proprietary item we’d have to pretend we didn’t know what it was) or reinvent a drink with a traditional name, like macchiato, forcing us to ask you if you know what that really was, a specific drink that is totally NOT like at that other place.
There isn’t much else to espresso drinks. When you are training, you learn to froth, you learn to make shots. Good froth and good shots. There is a process to do it right. The rest is really just recipes using those building blocks along with things like flavorings. Don’t get me started on flavorings. But those are really all the tools you need.
I always almost laugh out loud when I see a thermometer on the frothing pitcher. Thermometer? You hold a stainless steel pitcher in your hand … you froth by feel, by smell, and by sound. If it gets too hot, it is too hot to hold. Really. You can smell it if it scalds. It happens. You throw it out. A froth that sounds bad is like fingers on a blackboard to me. Something is wrong. Try again. There is an artistry to it and it takes a while to master but like riding a bicycle, once you have it, you have it.
My advice to anyone who likes coffee drinks? Get what you like, as long as you understand you are paying for a glass of milk. Oh, and if there are several of you, count shots. If the place has two double spout espresso heads and you’re ordering five or six shots remember that they can only make four shots at a time and the time between means several drinks are sitting getting cold. There are four of you but only you are getting a double … everybody loses. And keep an eye on that barista. If they draw espresso first, then froth they are doing it wrong. The milk will stay hot longer than the espresso, so they should froth first, then pull.
Ah, our coffee is done, time to get on with the day. Thank heavens we didn’t have fajitas, Lord knows, I could go on and on about fajitas …
Writer Thomas Fenske is author of The Fever and A Curse That Bites Deep (due out in September) … read more about him at http://thefensk.com
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How far would you go to feed your FEVER?
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If we were having coffee, I’d have to tell you about the kitten. “Yes, another cat,” I’d say.
We already have eight but this one just showed up about a month ago, living in the crawl space under the house. I was afraid we had a litter or something, it was so tiny. But it was alone. I waited a few days after I first saw it, just to check for more, or to see if it found its way home. We have one outside cat, Buddy, abandoned by a family who moved away. He basically came with the house. He was the source of food for the kitten. So one night when I fed him I pretended to go into the house and here she came, right on cue. I was shocked at how tiny she was, I estimated she was no more than three months old. Smart too. She already had the food routine down pat.
I have some experience with feral cats and I knew one thing immediately, this cat, although wary, was not feral. She had been handled. Once the ice was broken, it took very little time for her to let me pet her and pick her up.
Was she cute? She’s a kitten, how could she not be cute.
Of course we don’t need another cat but understand this … all our cats are rescues, most from a feral mother who turned our detached garage into a nursery before I finally trapped her and had her spayed. Then I released her back to the wild. She came and went in the years after that, always coming back to hang around a little. Sadly, after about five more years she was hit by a car. I found her in the road not far from our house. She probably lived longer than she might have as a permanent unwed mother, but it was sad.
That’s the thing about five of our cats, since they were her kittens we know their story. Two others were adopted from a local shelter, so we know at least part of their story too.
But this kitten is like Tex, our other cat. He showed up one day about nine years ago. He was smallish but the vet thought he was full grown based on his teeth. What a cute full-grown 8 pound cat we thought. His life on the road had obviously been long and hard. He’s a monster now, pushing 20 pounds, paws almost twice the size of any of our other full-grown cats. I assume his development had been interrupted by the rough conditions of his life on the road. He wasn’t feral either.
That’s the thing about strays like Tex and the kitten … you wish they could tell you their stories. I mean, she’s still a baby. How did this tiny thing appear at our house, barely weaned? How did she figure out how to survive? How did she find her way into our crawlspace, then find a warm cubbyhole to sleep, then find food, and so quickly learn the routine? She probably started out getting Buddy’s leavings, but pretty soon I think it was Buddy who was dining on her leftovers.
She’s headstrong and assertive and smart as a whip. She’s a survivor.
“And,” I would add as I drained the last of my cup, “she’s found a home.”
I’m a writer living in North Carolina … for more information about me and my current and upcoming publications go to http://thefensk.com
Enter below for a chance to win a free kindle edition of my novel,The Fever
In the spring of 1972 I embarked upon my first cross-country road trip. Well, not so much cross-country as much as it was cross-Texas. That was far enough. I was young and naive and was tired and lonesome as I spied two vagabonds on the side of the road just outside Odessa, TX. Yes, hitchhikers. In 1972 it seemed a viable way to get around. And for drivers, the reality of serial killers hadn’t quite seeped fully into the collective mind quite yet. I wonder now if we matured as a society or if the foolishness has been weeded out of the genetic pool much the way dogs with a penchant for chasing cars seem a rarity now. Anyway, I picked these guys up. They had no set destination but I ended up dropping them off in Carlsbad New Mexico where, somehow, one of them had some distant acquaintance with someone there where we all snagged a place to sleep in a gazebo. Yes. A gazebo.
The trip was uneventful except for the talkative one. He talked almost non-stop. The blurb I remembered most was his bucket-list item to go to Memphis TN so he could spit on Elvis Presley’s fence. It seems he had once seen a picture of Elvis’ house and he thought the fence with musical notes attached to it was the tackiest and most obtuse thing this guy could imagine so his undying wish was to spit on it. Remember, this was 1972 so Elvis was still alive. The best I can remember, this happened right around the Texas/New Mexico border.
That part of my trip was over and I got up the next morning and bid the vagabonds a hasty farewell and I headed back to Texas to continue my trip.
Advance about 18 months. Back then I used to visit some friends in Austin quite regularly. On one of these trips I had met a young woman I took quite a fancy to. Although our meeting was brief and mostly involved me giving her an innocuous ride home, she had invited me over “the next time you’re in town.”
About three weeks later I had planned another trip and I decided to take her up on that offer. She answered the door, quite surprised and flustered to see me. If it wasn’t a party, it should have been since there was quite a crowd over at her house. Although she invited me in it was not quite what I expected and from the look on her face I don’t think she was too thrilled with the way things had progressed either.
Anyway, my elusive dreams of a possible romantic interlude had evaporated and I decided to sit down for a few minutes to avoid giving the impression that I was being too hasty in my departure, even though THAT was what I wanted to do. There were numerous conversations going on, with one person across the room dominating. Then he said it, obviously intoning what was probably for him a standard spiel.
“Some day I want to go to Memphis and spit on Elvis’ fence…”
Frankly, if I had picked up two murderers hitchhiking and had later been asked to identify either one of them in a police lineup I wouldn’t have been able to. But THAT COMMENT, it was like deja vu all over again. The realization hit me like a lightning bolt and even though I would have been quite content to have never seen (or heard) this guy again, here he was, in the most random of random places. I did mention the coincidence, and he was just as amazed as I was. Somehow fate had thrust us together twice, 600 miles and 18 months apart.
That was just before I looked at my watch and said, “oh, my … look at the time.”
Sometimes fate indicates providence and sometimes it is a warning. I got the heck out of there!
I was amazed at the parallels between between this real-life drama and some of the situations I wrote about in my novel The Fever. The novel was published long before the tragedy of this man’s disappearance but his apparent fixation with his treasure parallels the trail of obsession for the Lost Sublett Mine my main character Sam follows in the book. As I explained while detailing Sam’s fictional quest, such an endeavor is extremely dangerous. In Sam’s case, no one knew exactly where he was headed. He almost died within the novel’s pages and I made it very plain, it would have been quite a while before anybody found him. If ever.
My heart goes out to this family. Even though I concocted and imagined a similar scenario, I can not help but feel sorry for their plight … I know how helpless they feel. Here’s hoping that he turns up soon, hopefully alive and well.