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No Ordinary Joe

Respect the bean

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Like most days, today began with a big cup of coffee, which I drank from one of my favorite of mugs, the one with the line-drawing caricature of 'ol Count No-Count himself, William Faulkner. Now, perhaps Bill liked to spike his coffee with a little something stronger, and perhaps he would roll over in his grave if he knew his visage was affixed to a coffee cup. However, the two things (Faulkner and coffee) somehow seem to go together in my mind. How to face a day -- how to crank out that new Light in August -- if my synapses aren't firing properly?

Since my regular barista (my girlfriend) was out of town, I broke down this morning and made a pot myself. I'm not what you'd call a morning person, you see -- unless, of course, you count staying up real late the night before -- and a good cup of quality joe is a must-have when starting my day. (A few hours later, another cup is key to keeping my day going.)

On days when I wake up late (which is Monday through Sunday), I'm usually forced to stop at a local gas station for my morning fix on my way to work. The one I favor has your garden variety glass coffeepots kept warm by heated plates, those lovable little plastic stirrer straws and enough powdered creamer to render Lake Norman milky.

Sometimes I get lucky and there's a fresh pot already burbling when I arrive. Too often, however, the coffee is burnt, lacks all but the basest aroma and has the all the consistency of a jug of Castrol Syntec 5W-40. (Admission: Occasionally, I like gas station coffee. As with motel room java, there's a certain rakishness in clutching a Styrofoam container of the oil-black stuff, a certain acknowledgement of one's carefully attended addictions. The poet Gary Snyder once called the experience "playing at being destitute.")

Fortunately for me, coffee shops are springing up everywhere, and some of them even have names that don't begin with a celestial body and end with what the company's shareholders are surely raking in. I've noticed three new ones in the last four months. Most of these places make a pretty good cup, which figures: If all you're going to sell is coffee and the occasional newspaper or cream cheese danish, you'd better make sure your game's tight. Once again, the key is freshness, which means the beans have to be freshly roasted and ground.

Coffee, when prepared properly, is the most complex beverage on earth, containing 800-plus different compounds. Compounds bearing unwieldy names like pyrazine, thiazloes, guaiacol and pentanedione. Compounds that, truth be told, I know absolutely jackshit about. But they sure sound cool, don't they? Next time you see a wine aficionado swishing a glass of pinot and remarking on its hints of "moss" and "earth" and "cedar" -- really, now, what does earth taste like, pray tell? -- feel free to bust out a couple of these bad boys and watch them swoon with envy.

Other than taste-related coffee indicators -- sweetness, bitterness, acidity, etc. -- most of the true complexity of coffee is found in its aroma. Unlike wine, which in theory gets better with age, coffee's wonderful complexity suffers immediately if not fresh-brewed. Which means you need to buy it fresh. And keep it fresh. And use it in a reasonable period of time.

Coffee, I recently read somewhere -- a somewhere I can no longer find with a Google search, incidentally, so just trust me on this -- is now the second-most consumed beverage on earth, trailing only water on the worldwide hit-list of must-drink liquids. Many cultures, including Middle Eastern and African countries, even make a daily ceremony of its ingestion. Good for those folk, I say. I don't so much make a morning ceremony out of the stuff as I do a morning certainty, but I respect the respect those cultures show the bean.

Whether as a tonic for the tired or as a conversation/community inducer, a cuppa joe is one of life's simplest (and simple to screw up) culinary pleasures. It's also an apt metaphor for life, methinks. Start the day fresh, and you're a step ahead of the game.

It Was Fun While it Lasted Dept.: Chow magazine, Amazon's Best New Magazine of 2005, has suspended publication. To quote the magazine (which yours truly recommended a few months back): "We're taking a break in order to focus on creating our new Web site, the online companion the magazine has always deserved." Which, of course, has nothing to do with creating an actual paper-and-ink rag, and probably means they're out of greenbacks. In happier news, the Oxford American is once again publishing regularly after yet another funding snafu, and continues to be a quality read cover-to-cover. John Grisham, Chow needs you (or at least your money).

Timothy C. Davis is an associate editor of Gravy, the official newsletter of the Southern Foodways Alliance. His food writing has appeared in Gastronomica, Saveur, Christian Science Monitor and the food Web site www.egullet.com, among other publications. He may be contacted at timothycdavis1@gmail.com.

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