The voodoo priest and all his po

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The voodoo priest and all his po Powered By Docstoc
					Mandy Catron Grind, Dose, Tamp, Flush, Pull, Drink

At six-thirty a.m. I unlock the shop. Now, in the middle of winter, this means rising to an alarm that buzzes well before dawn, trudging through snow, or ice, or D.C.’s biting winds, past dark row-houses and the homeless man in his sleeping bag at the bus stop. I fumble for my keys, grab a bundle of newspapers, a plastic bag filled with six dozen still-warm bagels, and push past the heavy glass door. Our shop is small and rundown, marked with the wear of the generations of shops that once inhabited this narrow space on Capitol Hill. In the back corner a light fixture hangs from the ceiling by wires. Several small square tiles are missing from the countertop. The stillness of the room, the machines, the traffic on Pennsylvania Avenue, are momentarily delightful if I stop to observe them, but remembering to stop is difficult in this state of half-sleep. In two hours we will be operating at maximum capacity, with nearly forty customers in our narrow store, the line snaking to the back exit. White paper cups with esoteric codes written in Sharpie will let me what drink I’m making next: NL for nonfat latte. 2x Mac for double macchiato. ½ D Soy M +w for a half-caf soy mocha with whipped cream. Fathers with strollers and old men with newspapers and students with laptops will shove past one another to fill nearly every seat. Alice, an elderly woman who cuts the tongues from her shoes, will buy an espresso cup full of drip coffee for a quarter, a bargain we’ve reserved only for her. She will sit at a table by the register making crayon drawings in a small notebook. Her drawing of three balloons with the caption “Happy New Year” hangs on the pastry case. It cost me three dollars.

I’ve learned that I can predict little about a shift before it begins, but choosing to have a good shift, to accept the impatient customers with the friendly ones seems to help. I know that in two hours, I will become a character in the background of my neighbors’ morning rituals. John will get a skim cappuccino, a sesame bagel with butter, and a Washington Post. He will sit by the window with Mark, Maggie and Frank, discussing politics or nothing. Mark will have tea. Frank, a medium latte. Maggie will have a drip coffee and speak so loudly that I can hear her British accent over the whirr of the grinder. Mickey will step out of the hair salon he manages next door for his first large skim latte with two Splendas. If we’re not too busy, he’ll show me photos of Daniel, his adopted baby boy. Around lunchtime he’ll be back for a second one.

My favorite drink is a traditional Italian cappuccino. At about six ounces, it is one part espresso, one part milk, one part foam. A perfect cappuccino will transition from espresso to milk to foam seamlessly, and have a smooth glassy surface. A perfect cappuccino will, when being poured, lift the espresso from the bottom of the cup, blending the espresso and milk in a visible flourish on the top of the drink. This is latte art. As a barista, I am perpetually trying for the perfect cappuccino. Each morning, when I open the shop, the first drink I make is a cappuccino for myself. After two years, the perfect cappuccino has become my holy grail.

It is not caffeine itself that makes my body rush, my fingertips sweat, that sends platelets charging through my veins like a whole crazy army. Caffeine does not tell my brain to burst forth in a rush of activity; it simply blocks another chemical from telling it


to rest. Adenosine, a molecule that waits in all of our brains, is tasked with giving our minds the signal to rest, effectively creating quiet in my mind, in everyone’s mind. But sneaky caffeine bonds to neuron receptors where the adenosine normally bonds. It fits snugly into the adenosine-shaped hole, but does not do the job of adenosine, that of singing lullabies to the nervous system. Nothing calms, nothing rests. Cells keep working eagerly. The heart thumps more rapidly. Muscles contract more readily. Blood vessels constrict. This is the trick of caffeine. It does not incite the nerves; it simply refuses them their peace.

I never liked soft drinks, never enjoyed the way Coke fizzed and burned at the back of my throat, never craved that syrupy aftertaste that coated my tongue. And though I always liked the smell of coffee, I found the bitter taste impossible. My parents, neither of whom drank coffee, seemed to see the beverage as a kind of evil addiction. They even bought decaffeinated tea and Coke. So for the first eighteen years of my life, I’d never really experienced a caffeine buzz. My love of caffeine began as many affairs do—an alternative to heartache. I’d known Josh since preschool. We were best friends in high school, and by the time we’d both accepted admission to Roanoke College—a small liberal arts school two hours from home—I felt sure that we were meant to be, if only I was patient just a little longer. I think I believed that romantic love was the big, ultimately redeeming thing my life was missing. Because I’d never been in love, it was easy to hope it was the elusive thing that would make life meaningful. At school we became closer, staying up late nights chatting on the computer in the dark of our respective dorm rooms. If we were at the same party,


we’d end up kissing. He’d tell me I was pretty; he’d play with my hair. Then he’d tell me about the girls he had crushes on. I waited to be that girl. I started taking caffeine pills as way to stay awake through my eight a.m. Christian Ethics class. Immediately I loved the high, the buzzing words that ran through my head, the way class discussions developed a new urgency. I didn’t tell anyone about the pills. I hid them in my desk drawer. It seemed wrong to depend on a chemical for awakeness, unhealthy to keep depriving my body of the sleep it clearly needed. But on caffeine, my mind was clear and focused. I didn’t pine for that something that would be ultimately redeeming. I could decide not to make out with Josh again; I could write and write in my journal. It was as if someone had condensed the feeling of a poetry reading or candlelight Holy Communion into a round yellow pill. Walking around campus with a caffeine high felt like keeping a secret.

An espresso machine is an instrument not unlike a cello or saxophone. That is, when a well-constructed machine is used by an exceptionally skilled barista, it can be made to sing. I’ve been lucky enough to use some beautiful machines: the LaMarzocco Linea, the Synesso Cyncra. I have seen these machines sing. Though I can make a good shot, I cannot yet make music of espresso. Intellectually, I understand what makes a good shot. And in the environment of my shop, I know which factors I can control in my effort toward the elusive perfect shot: the coarseness of the grind; the amount of ground espresso in the portafilter; the pressure I use to tamp the espresso into a puck; the evenness of my tamp. If I judge any one of these factors improperly, a shot will be ruined. My goal as a barista is to achieve both accuracy and precision in controlling


these factors, and to develop the ability to adjust to the factors I cannot control: humidity, micro-changes in the water temperature, the inconsistencies of an espresso blend, the pressure to produce drinks with economy and efficiency. Current thinking in the barista community suggests that a proper ristretto—or short—shot will produce just under two ounces of espresso in 20-30 seconds. Though many will, and do, argue the finer points of an ideal shot, what most baristas know is that a fast shot will be bitter, a slow shot will be flat. What I know is that when I manage to pull a shot properly, what arises is a sweet thick odor, like the smell of fall. It is earthy and dark and enveloping and it begins to rise when the first heavy drops fall into the shot glass. The flow of espresso into the glass will streak in varying shades of brown, blonde, and auburn, and crema—or head—will form, making the shot viscous and slightly sweet. What I know is that espresso grounds are fine and even and dark. They are smooth and so tiny as to get into the weave of your jeans, to remain under your fingernails through several hand washings, to stain the creases of your right index finger indefinitely. In my barista education, I have learned that proper technique is a necessity—and that control is an illusion. I have seen excellent baristas pull three or four sets of shots to serve the best possible double espresso. If I do everything correctly and with great care, what results may still be a disharmonious imbalance of acidic, sweet, and bitter. A beautiful shot is still part devotion, part mystery. In this way, I wonder if espresso can be compared to love: the simplest of elements interacting in the most temperamental of ways.


I drank my first espresso drink in London, as concession for not being a tea drinker. I started with a mocha, a pale brown-gray drink that was automatically pressed, pulled, steamed, and poured by a single machine in my school refectory. My first sip tasted of wet ashes and chocolate sauce. Chocolate flavoring, I discovered, was not an adequate mask for the bitter drudge of espresso. But I wanted that high. I added three sugars and finished half of it. The next day, I drank a little more, developing a taste for bad espresso before I ever suspected better might be available. It was almost two years ago that I moved to Washington, DC, got a part-time job at my local coffee shop, and stopped drinking my lattes with sugar, though I feel as if drinking, and making, and wanting coffee has always been a part of my day.

Coffee as ritual existed long before national retail chains brought espresso east from Seattle and into even the smallest towns. If I were an Ethiopian woman living today, I’d treat my guests to an elaborate coffee ritual. I would begin by washing the dried green beans, beans picked from the trees in my yard, and remove their thin silver skins with the delicate motion of my fingers. Over charcoals in my kitchen, I would roast the beans on a flat iron plate, then pound them to powder with pestle. I’d add boiling water, cinnamon, cardamom, until the whole house filled with the heady scent of coffee blooming. We’d serve the first round to the men, saving the second and third rounds for ourselves, the women, and the socializing that comes after the men have gone. This is the ceremony I would have learned from my mother, a ceremony she would’ve learned from hers, a legacy from the generations of women who performed this ritual for


centuries. Though there have been many rituals associated with the making of coffee, the Ethiopian coffee ritual was the first, born where coffee was conceived.

I have been thinking lately of the indefinable security that comes of repeated action, the significance in the way muscle can recall memory. It is often said that humans are creatures of habit, but we are also creatures of ritual. Why is it important for us to have something to come back to? In college, it was the weekly litany of Holy Communion, the words that were so familiar they no longer carried a particular meaning, but still served to reassure, to envelop me in safety. Every Wednesday night, I’d enter the dimly-lit campus chapel. Our pastor, Paul, would arrange the chairs in a semi-circle by the altar. There’d rarely be more than ten of us. In unison we would confess our sins against the Lord in thought, word, and deed. Though I did not always feel regret for my unholy actions, did not always feel filled with the grace of the Lord, I was drawn to the words, the repetition, the predictability of it all. This is my body given for you. This is the new covenant in my blood. Though I did not believe in the transubstantiation, the conversion of bread into literal flesh, of red wine to blood, I did pause to observe the tingle of the liquid at the sides of my tongue, feeling apart from the fluorescently-lit world. I don’t think grinding and tamping and pulling espresso necessarily make me feel safe, but these actions make me feel capable, skilled; it is an action, like that of wrapping your mouth around the same words each week (Peace be with you, And also with you, Let us give thanks…), that never changes, that occurs without my being particularly conscious of the movements: grind, dose, tamp, flush, pull, drink.


* * * Recently scientists have discovered what are known as mirror neurons. These brain cells are far more complex than most single-function cells, which respond to a single frequency, sound, or image. The same mirror neurons fire when we pick up a mug to drink from it, when we see another person drink from a mug, when we think about drinking, and when we say the word “drink.” The discovery of these cells helps to explain why we can predict the actions of others, why when a violinist picks up her bow we expect to hear the resonant whine of violin music. They help explain the success of pornography, the problem of violence on television, the reason that envisioning yourself hitting a hole in one might just help you do it. When, in Dirty Dancing, Patrick Swayze says, “No one puts Baby in a corner,” our mirror neurons respond the same way they would’ve if he’d spoken those words to us. They are the cells of empathy, of intention; they allow humans to navigate the world of social interaction. Mirror neurons make us exquisitely deliberate creatures. Knowing this, it seems possible that ritual acts could satisfy an innate physiological need. Does the repetitive quality of ritual send our mirror neurons firing? Does the action of muscles moving from memory reinforce our conception of the world as a place with predictable rules? Am I better able to navigate the unexpected in my life when the sound of the grinder is constant, the weight of a portafilter in my hand always the same? When I can return to a candle-lit chapel and join the incantation? My friend Ryan says that ritual prepares us for change. Perhaps he is right. Perhaps when we are able to operate within the prescribed parameters of a ritual, our


bodies can better accept that which operates outside of prescription. If we can seize control of the smallest actions, can we then encounter that which is beyond our control?

It’s late Friday morning and there is an unexpected rush of customers to the shop. Nick runs the register, taking orders and lining coded paper cups along the top of the espresso machine. I fill the metal pitchers with cold milk, line them on the counter, and start pulling shots. When I am working on the machine alone, I can settle into an efficient rhythm. Though I am doing many things at once, if I tune into my surroundings I have a sense of how fast or slow the shots are running. I can guess the temperature of the milk by the feel of the pitcher and the tone of the hissing steam wand. I know how many customers are waiting at the register, what drink I am making currently, and what three drinks I need to make next. For some it is while driving or dancing that the body feels as if it were designed to occupy the space surrounding it. For me, it is the moment when I am steaming milk and know intuitively to reach over and stop the shots from pouring. I swirl the milk for only a moment before pouring a latte with a heart-shaped flourish on the surface. Spoon and saucer are waiting on the bar where I place the cup, and call out “small latte,” before filling the pitcher for the next cappuccino. These moments are rare; such synchronicity with the universe can never be coerced. But when they do happen, I can eliminate the mundane—I can eliminate nearly everything. I am rewarded with the specific pleasure of the uncorrupted attention, the dissolution of the self that comes in kissing or praying or poetry.


I’ve had shifts where customers have yelled, stormed out angrily, promised me they’d never come back. I’ve broken saucers and shot glasses and spilled entire gallons of milk. On my first Saturday morning—the time when the nearby open-air market is in full swing and customers form a perpetual line out the door—I didn’t sit down or eat or go to the restroom for six straight hours. In my first months as a barista, I sometimes became so overwhelmed by the mounting entropy of the store I ran to the restroom to cry. Sometimes now when espresso grounds cover the counter and the floor, and the sink is full of dishes, and the coffee urns are low, I still escape to the relative silence of a bathroom stall. I become angry and exhausted, carelessly making drinks with one shot too many or two too few. No other job has left me feeling as physically and emotionally drained at the end of the day, and in no other job have I met so many people I genuinely adored. Today is Friday. The customers are generous, I am singing along with Stevie Wonder, and the challenge of producing the perfect cappuccino lures me into that acute awareness of everything around me. At the steam wand milk whirs and I feel warmth rising to the tip of my nose. I breathe the baby smell of milk sweetening. The white whirlpool leaps at the sides of the pitcher as the bubbles drown under the glassy surface.


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