Ghosts of coffee hours past, part II

Wed, 07/13/2011 - 1:17pm

I left off last week on the verge of realizing, last spring, that the Harbor Church was in coffee-maker crisis.

For the uninitiated, it need be understood, this treatise is about things that should be simple: not ornate samovars or complicated cappuccino machines, just plain 40-cup percolators.

The matter of crisis came to the fore during the set up for a funeral we all knew would be very well attended, one for which there would be “real” coffee (as there is, it should be noted, at the Harbor Church's Friday night Soup and Song events). There had to be decaf as well, lots of both it was incorrectly thought (whoever needs lots of decaf?), and the two urns that had been in use every Sunday, one for coffee, one for hot water, were pressed into coffee service. A third would be needed for hot water, and I was dispatched to the basement, where there was a spare that could be used.

It seemed at first a good thing that the maker generally not needed was kept out of the way. In retrospect, it should have been a clue that something was amiss. But it was a busy day; I wasn’t thinking and was stunned to find in the dark of the basement, like some gothic novel, a coffee urn graveyard.

It is not that I am unfamiliar with the space and the peculiar physical science attached to it. To borrow from Interim Pastor Harry Bronkar, writing of his own basement, it is like the Dead Sea — everything goes in, nothing goes out. (The Fair and Auction aside, July 23, save the date!) It has long been the state of affairs in the depths of the old Adrian Hotel, beneath the Harbor Church — and in the third floor above it, as well. There is something Hogwartsian about the place; stuff flies in under the cover of night. “This is STILL here?” or “Where did THIS come from?” are commonly heard questions. It’s been going on as long as I can remember. We had, for decades, the old Boy Scout teepee, which a handful of readers might recall. Yes, THAT teepee, lugged all the way to the third floor.

So, down to the stone-walled basement I had dutifully trod, expecting an odd pot or two, spares kept out of the way. I found a veritable mountain. My favorite among the pieces were ruins with lids long ago having lost their glass domes, the hole in the center sealed with duct tape. Which also begs the question, whatever became of those domes? The number of glass carafes, survivors of defunct Mr. Coffees, was incalculable.

“But they work!” was the response when I protested at the keeping of these fallen soldiers who deserved a decent burial. “They just don’t make coffee.” They do gurgle, they can lull one into believing they are working, but in the end, when the water is clear and the grounds dry, the truth will out.

The machinations that keep the coffee flowing, not just on Sunday but for all the events hosted by the Harbor Church — of late especially for those other events — defy belief and belong in the realm of activities protected with the secrecy of the Knights Templar. Suffice it to say an extraordinary amount of man- (usually woman-) power and ingenuity goes into every cup. A Bunn-o-matic is a wonderful thing only if it has had a very long time to heat its reservoir, and whoever leaves heating units on with Block Island power rates? In time of crisis it is not a last-minute savior, it simply sits on the kitchen counter mocking all who look its way.

But back to Tercentenary Punch, where this all began last week. In 1962, the ladies of the First Baptist Church compiled a cookbook which today stands as a snapshot of the time in which it was first printed. It has a section devoted to butchering but none for hors d’oeuvres — the then-quite-exotic stuffed mushrooms are in the rather sparse vegetable chapter. There is a heading for pickles and relishes; another for beverages, all non-alcoholic. The Tercentenary Punch for which I had been searching (for 100 people, served at several functions in 1961, “including the reception for Mr. Albert L. Ford, President of the Council, Shoreham-by-the-Sea, Sussex, England) is on the page with Coffee for Forty.

There is no contributor listed, perhaps even then no one was willing to take responsibility.

From the old cookbook:

1 pound regular grind coffee

1 egg

1 cup cold water

8 quarts freshly boiled water

Mix coffee, egg (shell and all) and cold water thoroughly. Tie coffee in a cheesecloth bag large enough to allow coffee to swell to double in size. Leave strings long enough to hang over the sides of the kettle for easy handling. Drop the bag into the freshly boiled water. As soon as the water comes to a full rolling boil again, remove from heat. Lift the bag up and down several times and poke it gently with a wooden spoon. Cover the kettle and let it brew 3 to 5 minutes or longer. Tasting is the only sure way of knowing it is as you want it. Lift the sack out of the water, drain well and stir in half a cup or so of cold water to settle any grounds that may have worked out of the bag. Keep hot over low heat. Do not allow it to boil again.

While I do understand the egg shell, the “and all” baffles me, and it all sounds very complicated, unless, of course, one has dealt with, or been witness to, modern 40-cup urns undone by the haunting ghosts of coffee hours past.

It does make one wonder: had that wedding at Cana run out of coffee instead of wine, would the Lord have even attempted the miracle, or would He simply have told them to drink water, then taken His posse and skedaddled out of town?