Why I Spent $700 On A Cappuccino
I broke down this week and bought a burr coffee grinder for espresso and a new espresso machine. Together they cost around $700, which when I think about it is absurd. A ridiculous amount of money for a home coffee machine. Never mind that it is possible to spend as much as $4000 for a grinder and many times that for a machine if you are so inclined. But I am not rich, nor am I a spendthrift. So, why?
I spent six months reading reviews and justifying this purchase before I could pull the trigger. I did the math: I drink two to three espressos, both cappuccinos and shots, daily. That’s nearly a thousand in a year and if I bought one a day in a cafe and it cost $3.50…you get it. So money sort of justified it though I do not buy one in a cafe daily. But I still did not have a concrete justification for spending 700 bucks. Until last week.
I worked in an urban mall in my twenties
This was when coffee was an eight oz cup bought in a diner for 50 cents. Given what I was making in my record store job, it was a good thing it was cheap. Now that I think about it we did not even have a coffeemaker in the office, which is unimaginable to me these days. My last job had a German superautomatic espresso machine and the owner drove across town weekly to buy bags of special beans (the German machine, though very expensive, was a piece of crap. Do not buy espresso machines from Germans. They do not know how they are supposed to look or work. That’s why all the good ones come from Italy where they look fantastic, make great shots, and are ridiculously unreliable. But the business owner was German. I digress.)
In the mall there was a tiny kiosk-type Italian snack place that sold three things: Italian cookies, tiny grilled cheese sandwiches that I still crave and cannot duplicate, and espresso. A nice, diminutive Italian man of indeterminate age and broken English operated the stand. That was where I had my first cappuccino, a real European style one, not those huge cups of hot steamed milk with a dab of coffee lost on a grey cloud. A true cappuccino is a double espresso shot with a small amount of foamed milk. Coffee, not milk and sugar, should be the dominant flavor. I won’t accept any arguments about that.
I’m going to digress again, sorry. I’m thinking about that grilled cheese sandwich he made in his little panini press. It was made of thin yellow sandwich bread, some kind of non-American cheese, and a thin slice of a cold cut, probably mortadella, which probably would have scared me if it wasn’t so delicious. Mortadella, which I now love, was not the baloney I grew up on. It had scary white blobs in it.
In any case, they were delicious sandwiches, cheap and fast and I would very much like to have one right now. But what I really wanted was his espresso.
Now, you have to understand that this was the seventies in upstate New York and espresso was unimaginably exotic and rare, unless you lived in one of the Italian American neighborhoods on the west side of my city. They simply didn’t exist except in books and movies about beat poets in NYC and San Francisco. But I inhaled those books and movies and I was ecstatic to drink my first bitter elixir. I felt cool.
As a writer in his sixties, I have a thing about memories, their unreliability and their meaning. I think this is unavoidable when your lived experience is dense and stretches back a long way. You learn not to trust everything you recall. But that sandwich and cappuccino seem pretty solid in my mind. I think I figured out that my quest for a great coffee at home was driven somehow by that distant sensory memory.
The interesting thing about something like this is that a memory of a meal from another life automatically links to other memories connected to that time. A short-haired girl I was crazy about. Being in a band with dreams of making records. Writing and reading book after book. Being broke and not caring. Etc.
The short haired girl turned out to be a painful mistake, we made records that someone else paid for, and I’m an actual writer. Being broke and not caring might have been the most important and practical lesson. I learned that I could get through almost any financial situation and I’ve had a few (see: being a writer).
So a cappuccino from many years ago encapsulated an entire chain of memories which led me to my justification for my $700 splurge. I was investing in memories which, like coffee, are fuel for writing. And it makes really good coffee.