We make our coffee on the stovetop using an Italian espresso maker. It’s the round and stainless steel version of the octagonal aluminum one you’ve undoubtedly seen. I could tell you that there’s one of those on nearly every stove in Italy. I could tell you that it’s been the subject of news magazine pieces, museum exhibitions, semi-nude photo shoots, tea towels and tattoos.
But instead I want to tell you about my routine. I can envision this routine, the actual making of the coffee, happening in the exact same way when I’m in my eighties. There’s no need for improvement, innovation, deviation. This works and it works perfectly. The liquid result is brown going on black and sits in a cup with regal dignity. When I take the espresso maker off the stove, where it’s been sitting all night, and carry it over toward the sink so that I can begin to make the coffee, I’m filled with the greatest amount of anticipatory satisfaction I’ll find in my entire day. This is one of the only pieces of my life that feels completely figured out. And the way the coffee maker has wedged itself into my being and my memory is the best testament to the object’s iconic status that I can think of.
We lavish so much of our time and attention on things. But this worship tends to ebb once the object has hopped out of the photograph or into our shopping basket. So it’s not always apparent what’s meant by ‘good design’ until an object has been truly sifted into our lives.
Our espresso maker has an elegant, round bottom that’s taken on a reddish, golden-brown patina over the years. This part screws into a straight upper portion which rises to a lip that juts out for coffee pouring, less pout than proud servitude. The lid looks like a beanie topped by a tiny, plastic pom-pom. Normally the espresso maker would have a plastic handle but ours is gone. My wife, Desiree, used it to pry something a few years back and the thing won. What’s left is a small, upside down, wide angled metal L that’s been spot-welded to the shiny upper portion of the coffee maker. To pour hot coffee in the morning I pinch this little L with towel-protected fingers. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
At the sink I unscrew the bottom. Inside is a little brown circle of yesterday’s used coffee grounds pressed into a crusted hockey puck, the sensual violence of stovetop steam tickling and squeezing out every last bit of flavor. My goal each morning is to keep this delicate puck intact while pulling out and emptying the little metal basket it sits in. It’s no easy task. The basket hovers in the rounded base of the espresso maker with half a fingernail’s tolerance on any given curved edge. A fat finger or an improper pluck will cause the caked grounds to collapse into shards.
Done right, though, it’s the feeling of sticking a perfect landing. It’s the notion of something falling your way. After I pull the basket up I open the compost bucket, hold the thin portion of the funnel that’s attached to the basket between thumb and two fingers, and thwack it on the side of the bucket using a quick sideways flick of the wrist. Out falls the puck and this little moment gives me complete satisfaction. Nothing for the rest of the day will compete with the feeling of seeing a perfect disk of grounds—squeezed, compressed and used to its fullest potential— beginning the journey back toward soil.
The espresso maker consists of five parts: Top, bottom, funnel-basket thing, a rubber gasket and an upper screen. The upper screen is loose and held in place by the gasket. Both are replaceable and are the only two pieces that require semi-regular maintenance. The gasket is supposed to be swapped out for a fresh one perhaps every four or so months. In our case, this stretches to six or seven or twenty. The screen, well, we’ve had two in more than a decade. This means the espresso maker, more than any other device in my life, is nearly infallible. It has an engineered stability that one only sees on things meant to be sent into orbit.
Compare this to the coffee grinder. I want to say this is our second grinder and I want to say it was a gift but maybe I’m confusing this with the first grinder, which may have been the same kind of grinder. I don’t know. These details escape me because I feel so little for the grinder’s place in my future. The grinder is an ergonomic hourglass design, complete with grippy rubber at its center in exactly the places I put my hand. To open it, I twist the top counter clockwise, giving access to the rounded cylinder where the blade does its work. At the bottom are gentle dunes of extremely fine coffee powder that must be held in place by static, or luck, or happenstance. I have no idea if yesterday’s powder is today’s or if it is one batch of extremely resilient dust from months ago. But I like the presence of the little drift because it is delicate and ephemeral and vulnerable, because it is there on the edges despite the hourglass design, as if saying that not everything can be perfectly plotted, planned and considered.
I pour two scoops of beans into the blade cylinder. The first beans fall in with wondrous, individual rattles. The top is then set back on with an audible click — the indication that it’s in a safe operating position. And on it goes. My hand is in the ergonomic sweet spot, my thumb holding down the large, soft button. There are three lights just under the lid that indicate the level of grindedness but I cannot tell you what their labels say because I do not observe this moment of action carefully. Nor can I tell you what the dial at the bottom of the grinder is generally set on or even what it means. What I’m waiting for is that third light to turn on and then I’ll grind for a few seconds longer, counting slowly to the number four. Perhaps this is when the dust is generated, who knows?
I turn the grinder upside down, tap it on the counter with a quick pop-pop and rev the blade a quarter second to drop as much of the ground coffee as possible into the lid. When I tap the lid on the counter I notice how solidly the plastic meets the hard counter but I still recognize there will come a day when I do this and the lid cracks. That is the grinder’s inevitable beginning of its inevitable end. That or the blade mysteriously not working. And while we’ve had this grinder for quite some time, long enough for me to have forgotten its origin, I still relate to it as something that will necessarily fail in a fixable way and end up leaving my house in useless pieces.
Still upside down, I unscrew the top of the grinder and gently lower it, revealing the ground coffee. The lid is just slightly bigger than the espresso maker’s basket and so I cup my left hand over the bottom of the espresso maker and lightly tap in the grounds. It’s an easing process that leaves tiny dustings on the edges like chocolate milk on a child’s cheeks. I’ll wipe those grounds into the basket, an act that’s half not wanting to waste and half needing the seal on the coffee maker to be as perfect as possible.
From there the top portion of the coffee maker is screwed to the bottom, a clockwise turn until I can feel it snug up to the rubber. I then tug it just a little more, assuring the seal is as good as I can get it.
When I was in graduate school in Tucson, Arizona and more interested in professional cooking than my studies, I picked up the octagonal version of this coffee maker at a garage sale. This was before the search algorithm, and exact replacement of the missing rubber gasket in that Tucson at that time was a difficult task. What I did instead was take a larger gasket from a glass canning jar and cut it down, hoping that pressure from a tightened bottom and top might overcome the very tiny gap created by joining the sides where I’d sliced the gasket to make it fit the smaller diameter. It didn’t work and no matter how I engineered it, the espresso maker would envelop itself with errant steam, disappearing in a cloud on my stove and producing a paltry amount of coffee.
So I am, in a way, scarred by this and will, for the rest of my life, attempt to get the best seal possible on the espresso maker. It’s funny the way these little moments change us in small ways. Behavioral tics that are less relegated to logic than a lifetime’s worth of learning the hard way.
I set the coffee maker on the stove and adjust the flame so that it curls just under the bulbous underside. The water in the bottom begins to boil, and the pressure rises, forcing itself up that funnel bottom and into the basket of coffee grounds. From there it steams through the grounds and up another center tube where it condenses and then falls out little slits at the top into the waiting upper chamber. I know the coffee’s done by the pitch and tempo of the gurgling.
It’s difficult to fake excitement when someone tells me about their new pod coffee maker. Inevitably they’ll talk about convenience, how darn easy it is, you just pop the pod in there, put your cup right here, press this little button and blammo. It just doesn’t feel right to me. Part of this is the plastic pod that moves ever so quickly from pantry to trash with only the smallest of meaningful transactions between. Tremendous waste is a phrase that comes to mind. But above that I think about what is missing when one surrenders to this. We are, after all, somewhat defined by our rituals.
After the gurgling has called me to the stove, I’ll snap off the flame, noticing steam rising gently from the steel lip. The smell at this moment is rich, filling the air in front of me. The espresso maker gurgles a few seconds more and then settles into quiet waiting. I set out two cups on the counter, grab a towel and fold it in thirds the long way. Pinching my fingers about two inches from the top of the towel, I grip the smaller portion of the hot stub of the handle and lift the pot from the stove, using the rest of the towel and my other hand to support the operation. I’m not bothered by this slight inconvenience, by the way; the coffee maker has reduced itself to its essential parts and I’m okay adapting.
This is a 6-cup espresso maker, which translates in my house to two wonderful cups of coffee. The cups I’ve set out are actually ten-sided jelly jars that seem like jewels to me and tinkle when I stir the sugar. Desiree likes her coffee ten shades lighter than I like mine, so I pour the requisite amount of milk into each jar. Hers flops from deep brown to silky cloud almost immediately as the milk muscles the coffee aside. In mine, the milk is a quick on-off of a pour, dropping tentatively into the brown pool below.
My morning after this will unfold as I sit down to work on whatever is before me. The empty coffee maker will be back on the stove where it gradually cools and watches and waits for tomorrow, the day after that and every day that follows.