Coffee

Pam’s Pictorama: This weekend I am waiting for the US Post Office to catch up with my photo acquisitions, and so today I am heading down one of those personal tributaries. Earlier this week I had a number of reasons to contemplate my deep attachment to coffee. The first occurred when I accidentally left my morning coffee at the deli, several blocks from my new midtown, high-rise office perch. It was one of those (many) chilly wet days we had early this week and the idea of retracing my steps was dispiriting – but so was the loss of treasured coffee. I resentfully made due with a cup from the dreaded Keurig (don’t mind it for a strong cup of tea, but not a fan for coffee) and slunk, sadly back to my office.

The Jazz at Lincoln Center offices are equipped a large kitchen right off the reception area. It has two refrigerators, toaster ovens, microwave, coffee machines, soda and snack machines and – most surprising of all – a dishwasher which they run nightly. Really, I could cook a full dinner for a family with what they have as a staff kitchen. (And, not surprisingly, jazz music plays in the public space all day which means you sometimes find yourself passing on the way to a meeting and stopping to listen to an especially fine Louis Armstrong moment as happened the other day, making me late for a meeting. However it is the kind of place where people are willing to accept that.) An office manager makes coffee for two large carafes daily, but my timing is always off and it goes fast. I arrive too early and therefore with outside coffee in hand. On this particular day the wait seemed too long.

Meanwhile, I read several articles about cold brew this week – perhaps not coincidental as we are heading into hot weather and the ever-calculating media is ready to turn our attention to purchasing cold drinks. I considered cold brew briefly a month or so ago when Fresh Direct accidentally delivered a couple of cans of cold brew coffee to us and I liked them enough to consider adding some to our order – until I saw the price (ouch!!!) and decided I would stick with my cheaper methods of coffee consumption.

I have experimented with several methods of making coffee over time – electric perculators and machines, French presses, expresso devices and paper filters – tried ’em all. In the end I returned to the method I grew up with and which now seems to be pretty much sneered at, the old fashioned perculating stovetop pot of my childhood. (I had a young colleague at the Met who found the concept downright exotic in a steam punk sort of way which made me feel very old.) Frankly, it fills me with great pleasure to smell and hear a pot of coffee perking on the stove in the morning. My parents have long switched to a complicated machine (which I do battle with each time I spend the night at their house), but it brings me back to early mornings in childhood and evokes a sense of comfort and pleasure that few things do.

I remember when I started drinking coffee in high school. I was rehearsing late for a school play and someone brought me a cup with milk and sugar and I was immediately hooked. Oh nectar of the gods, where have you been? I did away with the sugar pretty quickly and stuck with the milk ever since. Shortly after, when I began drinking it at home my father would say, ever single morning, “You’re too young to drink coffee.” (He continued to say it well into my twenties.) And I have a dim memory of my grandmother said that it would give you black knees when I was kid – a statement that in retrospect mystifies me even more now. (She also would say that chewing gum was made of giraffe hooves – even odder.) My sister Loren was less partial to coffee and I have no memory of this exchange or a similar one between her and my father.

During my brief stint of cooking professionally one of the older chefs who did a lot of catering explained why much coffee produced in those giant catering urns is so awful. It seems that if you don’t unscrew it entirely and take the urn fully apart to clean it, which is an arduous procedure, over time the build up creates an unacceptably acid taste in the coffee. Most people are lazy and just wash out what is easily visible. I never worked enough catering to test this explanation, but I have had a lot of bad urn-made coffee which makes me consider it anew each time.

I recognize that I am both less effective and less pleasant when under-caffeinated in the morning (although equally less fun when over-caffeinated later in the day – it is a balancing act many of us know) and therefore these days I do not generally risk leaving the house without initial coffee consumption. It is made with the above method and there is generally some in heavy glass carafes in the fridge for cold consumption as well. Therefore, my work cup of coffee tends to sort of be the icing on the cake and the reward for having gotten to work.

The new job required figuring out where my all important morning coffee would be acquired. Several places that were adequate for food acquisition were immediately eliminated for sub-par coffee. The issue with the purveyor of current favor is a tendency to set the purchased coffee down in an odd spot, away from the food I am buying, in a spot where I am likely to forget it. (I will add that I was fascinated to discover that the man who makes the coffee at this establishment has such a lovely singing voice that he is periodically pulled away from coffee making to sing a rather memorable Happy Birthday to seated clients on request. Clearly not a coincidence that he works with Carnegie Hall beckoning across the street.)

At home my preference is to drink my coffee from one of two substantial Starbucks labeled mugs that were given to me by a software vendor I worked with at the Met – or another wonderful, enormous Felix mug given to me a year ago by Mary Allen and Morgan Bakerman, my much missed colleagues at the Met. I was deeply fond of an equally large mug that Nickelodeon mag had given Kim years ago which sadly got broken. It is mostly about quantity for me – I prefer fewer trips to the pot. However, I also favor the mug shown here above was given to me many years ago by another former colleague, Bernie McCormack, many years ago, when returning from a work junket to Buffalo. Clearly those work with me understand my deep love of the stuff.

Felix mug

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Setting up for Christmas, 86th Street and First Ave, NYC

 

Pam’s Pictorama Post: If you are going to live in a city like New York you should have a pretty thick skin about change. After all, cities are constantly evolving, building new on top of old and on a relatively small island like Manhattan the land grab means constantly shifting vistas. Having said that, change is somewhat anathema to my nature – I have a catlike love of continuity and routine. Therefore, in some ways, I live in a state of discomfort here. And, until recently, Yorkville the tiny post-German enclave hanging over the edge of the Upper Eastside was somewhat beneath notice. However, it has started to catch up with us.

With some dismay I have been watching and waiting for the dissolution of the southwest corner of 86th and First Avenue in favor of ridiculously expensive condos. (York Avenue is undergoing a similar demolition at 86th, curling around a building housing a diner and a newsagent, 86 on one side, York on the other.) For the handful of you how follow me on Instagram or Twitter, you have seen some of these photos as I started to record it.

When I first moved to the ‘hood, back in about ’88, the diner shown here on the corner was my diner and in many ways it stayed my neighborhood diner. (To be clear, I also have a diner near work and perhaps some day I will outline this complex relationship which is very special. Kim once visited and remarked that it was like I was Mayor of a small town there.) In those early years when I was cooking for a living and this diner was a daily stop for a (large) pre-dawn breakfast before a day of cooking in midtown. In Manhattan (and perhaps elsewhere, but I have never really lived elsewhere as an adult) your diner is the place where they know you on sight and generally know how you like your coffee and your eggs. As a recent grad new to the city this seemed like a miracle of friendliness. The owner once asked me on a date in those early years which took me quite by surprise – I was more easily surprised at that age. I said no thank you. I believe I was already dating the crazed fellow chef as mentioned recently in my post of Catskill remembrance, The Wigwam.

This diner actually moved to Second Avenue as the dissolving of the corner began, taking over an existing lesser diner’s spot and it’s name, and where they are enjoying the long anticipated Second Avenue subway boom. Although I have not needed a local diner for a long time I have fallen into the habit of meeting a friend there on weekends and, low and behold, the waiter remembered our orders this weekend. Nothing short of a miracle. Seems I have a diner in the neighborhood again.

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Diner in its new incarnation on Second Avenue and 86th Street

 

The corner in question has been where Christmas trees have been sold in recent years. (When I first moved here they were sold on an empty lot on First – can you imagine an empty lot! Highrise there now.) I especially enjoy when the Christmas tree folks set up camp for a few weeks. They come right before or immediately after Thanksgiving. Their fragrant pines create a temporary forest. Part of me objects to the idea of growing these trees just to cut them down and serve them up for a short-term sentence of decoration in someone’s home – but the smell is glorious and our out-of-town guests a nice change of pace.

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Tree seller settled in with his cell phone

 

Beyond that, heading across 86, was what had been our grocery store for years, a Gristedes. I cannot really mourn the loss, it was poorly run, grimy and you always had to watch the register and your change for mistakes. However, there was (and I am so very sorry not to have a photo of it now) a VERY large green pear (we’re talking human-sized) attached to the front of the store which christened it as the Pear Store in the Pam/Kim vernacular of daily life, as in “Yeah, I’ll pick it up from the Pear Store on the way home.” Replaced in our house largely first by Fresh Direct, then Fairway and then the addition of a Whole Foods, we also cling to a Gristedes on York for general grocery needs. However, this store is a wondrous single story – yep, nothing above it, a row of brownstone walk-ups peering over it. We knew we were on borrowed time as Manhattan hates nothing so much as the opportunity to build upward, and I understand the air rights went for a mint. In general, the loss of this corner will mean a loss of light on the ground for us daily denizens of the neighborhood, as what is likely to come will be hulking and light obscuring for sure.

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First and 86th Streets NYC

 

Inching further down the block I will add that there once was a splendid hole-in-the wall Russian restaurant on the far side of the grocery store. It must have housed about eight tables. They made heavenly blini for a bargain price. If you weren’t careful however, they gave you large servings of kasha with your entree and the middle-aged Russian proprietress would yell at you if you didn’t finish it. I didn’t realize that kasha was a smell from my childhood – Russian Jewish grandparents on my father’s side, Sunday lunches – and I hate it. Probably hated it as a child too. No kasha for me. (I had my last date with my ex-boyfriend Kevin there. We ate there frequently and had gone there after returning from a trip to a wedding in Maine where he broke the news that he was calling it quits after seven years.) The storefront has since become a high-end drugstore and I believe is not being torn down.

Zipping back around to the First Avenue side of the block, there was briefly a rather interesting store that sold nothing but pickles and olives. They relocated to Lexington Avenue where frankly they seem to do a better business. Then there was a sort of pop-up dollar store where Kim purchased some dubious readers (eyeglasses I mean, you can still see the sign for it), a fairly traditional barbershop, a bar, and most recently a sort of city-run residential halfway house of some kind. While I do not especially bemoan much along that stretch, I will mention that the apartments above the diner on the corner were long coveted by me. Corner views are always especially nice and look at that top floor – that must have been lovely – there are skylights and a glassed in room at the top. Sigh. Can’t really envy it now because if I lived there I would be looking for a new perch here in Yorkville – and unlikely to afford it!

 

Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Co.

 

Pam’s Pictorama Post: This is the only Victorian trade card I own of this variety. It is a bit hard to see, but the top says, Ha! Tis Me. The Maltese Me Rival. I do not claim to understand it – I just liked the image of this great frowning striped kitty forced into this very flat perspective – look at his claw paws and an angry puffy tail! On the back, in tiny type, is an exhaustive list of The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Co.’s Branch Houses in the U.S. – with almost a third of them in New York City – and a notation at the bottom that the Principal Warehouse, 35 and 37 Vesey Street, N.Y.  P.O. Box 4233. It is a tiny card, about the size of a playing card.

The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, founded in 1859 as The Great American Tea Company selling tea and spices at discounted prices in New York City, changed its name in 1869 to commemorate the first transcontinental railroad. Much to my surprise, the company morphed first into the A&P tea company and ultimately A&P supermarkets of today. (Kim seems to have known this all along – fascinating man my husband.) All I can say is, they sure would get more of my business if they had kept this ad campaign. They were generous in their distribution of Victorian trade cards and there seem to be more than you could imagine once you go looking. Scores for sale on eBay at any time – their survival rate a reflection of their popularity during their heyday.

Our friend the Internet supplies us with much information on the specifics of the cards and story. The folks over at http://www.thepethistorian.com have a nice little essay on the subject. The cards were printed by A.B. Seeley, copyrighted 1881. This one appears to be the second in a group of six and represents the story of a girl cat, romanced by the street cat, but who waits for an upperclass Tom to come along instead. He beats up poor Mr. Street kitty – who ends the series bloody, but not bowed and trying to convince us that he won this fight. (I am snatching just that final image for your entertainment below – wouldn’t mind adding that one to my collection.) The language on the cards seem to be references to poems and other things that would have been recognized by people of the day – but overall it is a recognizable cat tale of love and love lost that is pretty easy to follow and appreciate.

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