Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Wading Into The Teeming Masses

I have been a fanatical Diet Coke drinker for 35 years. It's been a lifelong obsession, nearly, and a constant accompaniment to my daily doings. Decades have gone by where I did not fail to have one in hand or ready-to-hand, 24 hours a day. I carried my mug upstairs with me to bed and a quick sip was the first thing I did upon waking. Really. Not surprisingly, I'm very particular about my DC, preferring fountain soda over cans or bottles, and the fountain soda requires good water and a careful mix to achieve soda nirvana. For this reason (much more than their food) I am a frequent habitué of McDonalds; they filter their water, and they sell more DC than probably any other chain (maybe more than any other single outlet). So they have it figured out. I can barely drive past without swinging thru the drive-thru--unless, as is likely, I already have one in the cupholder.

After my bariatric surgery 18 months ago, I had to swear off carbonated beverages. And because this was potentially such a trauma for me, I began three months before the surgery to find alternatives to DC--and indeed to see whether I could even live without it. Turns out, much as I love it, more of my love of DC was the habit, like the person who likes the movements and paraphernalia of smoking as much as the actual cigarettes. After an exhaustive search, I found I was able to substitute Crystal Light diet raspberry iced tea for DC, and I have subsequently become nearly as obsessed with that as I was about DC (though in the interest of full disclosure I have gradually resumed my DC habit post-surgery, having one or two per day mixed in with my Crystal Light).

This history makes my latest development, well, unexpected.

I'm currently in the midst of a monthlong experiment to see if I can't make friends with coffee. Yes, yes, this is the most mundane plot twist in all of recorded human history, but it's a shock to ME anyway. After 52 years of basically hating the stuff I've decided to give it a chance.

But why, you say? WHY??

I flew a 9-day trip recently with a fella who is a self-described coffee fanatic. He has a gazillion-dollar, do-everything coffeemaker at home that starts with filtered water and whole beans and spits out any of a hundred different products at the touch of a button. He talked a bit about this, and I found--as I always have--that the smell of his brewing coffee as we began our flying legs was quite alluring.

One of our stops on this trip was Incheon, a suburb of Seoul. The airplane gets restocked with basic supplies each time we land, and in Korea, he informed me, we are typically stocked up with an especially great instant coffee (instant coffee, he told me, is generally abominable, though of course it's what the airplane requires). This stuff was so great that he collects the unused packets for later in the trip.

He convinced me to try a cup. And, shockingly, it was delicious. This was maybe the first time I could connect the aroma of coffee--which I have always loved--to the taste. I noticed on the back of the coffee packs, amid the Korean writing, there were little graphics that placed the caffeination, the sweetness, and the creaminess content of the coffee on a scale. And the sweet and cream were, not surprisingly, pretty high. Just the stuff for someone wanting to transition gently into the camp.

And so the idea of giving coffee in general more of a chance sprang into my brain. So often I've heard the claim "It's an acquired taste," and I realized I've never attempted to acquire the taste for anything--which might explain why my tastes are so narrow, and getting narrower. What if I tried in a systematic way to acclimate myself to a new taste: would it work? So the plan: I would drink a cup of coffee each day for a month and see where it led me. I began on my trip with four days of Korean instant coffee--which continued to be delectable on successive days. And then I sampled coffee from our hotel in Almaty (quite nice, despite being unadorned), from a coffee shop in the Hauptbahnhof in Cologne (icky--too bitter) and, when I got home, from McDonalds (mild and consistent and quite good--and, of course, very easy) and the house blends of a couple local coffeehouses. My current taste is to add a bit of cream and Splenda. This past weekend I was in Chicago, where there are Starbucks on every other block, and some private coffee concerns on the alternates. Lots of opportunity to try things.

And I daresay I've come to like the stuff, even to crave it! Today I even broke my rule and had another half cup after my first was finished.

A couple friends have steered me toward the Aeropress as a means of making a great cup of coffee when on the road, but I think the social aspect of going to a coffeehouse is part of the allure--that, plus the fact that an essentially similar product is available everywhere I travel.

Anyway, being a creature of habit I now find myself looking forward when I wake up to going somewhere for a cup. And the smell just hooks into something that goes all the way back in my memory, of metal percolators and white Corelle coffee makers and Mr. Coffees and of church basements and early morning wake-ups from childhood and my mother at the kitchen counter. And now of stopovers in Korea.


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