Instant coffee, saudades do Porto, and the infinite hospitality of Mary Tyler Moore

Having recently relocated to the middle of nowhere in the North Georgia hills, I have adopted the habit of shopping at Wal-Mart.* The new tenant of an older home, I find myself frequently thinking things like, “Crap, we’re out of cereal, and we need a door knob.” Well, that’s just two birds who’d better watch out, because they’re about to be totally killed with one stone. Unfortunately, these trips have been taking place right after jogging, at length, in the Georgia heat, so I spend half an hour staring at ten dollar lawn chairs wondering dehydration induced things like, “Is plastic waterproof?” This is how I came home with a gigantic jar of instant coffee yesterday. Having replenished my electrolytes and lowered my body temperature, I took it out of the plastic bag and thought, “What the hell is this?” Then I retraced my sweat soaked steps and remembered why it had been so appealing, sitting there on the jumbled and mislabeled shelf, an orphaned form of caffeine.

I’ve spent long periods of my life working as a barista – serving the kind of organically grown, locally roasted beans that are like catnip for yuppies, who ask questions befitting a wine connoisseur even though they’re just going to choose whatever country they last visited on safari or whose former dictator was most recently in the news. The neo-colonialist implications of “I’ll take the Tanzania” really keep me up at night. No joke. And I like good coffee. I do. A well roasted espresso (and they rarely are) is such a treat. During one of these periods of employment, I took a break to study and work in Portugal. Little known fact – Portugal has the nicest coffee in Europe.** I promise, I met many Italians when I lived there who swear by it, forsaking their own country’s claims to perfection. But this surprisingly delicious beverage is strictly reserved for the cafés, which are located on every single street corner and packed with the neighborhood residents at certain times of day. In Portugal, if you made coffee at home, you made instant, and presumably, nary an eyelash was bat at the difference in quality.*** During the two months that I lived there, I found nothing more comforting than to haul my lonely self up to my dorm room in the afternoons, after getting beat over the head with Portuguese grammar rules, make myself a cup of instant coffee with super-duper-ultra-homogenized-pasteurized milk, crack open Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet,**** and stare at the Douro until the sun went down.

And then I went back to the working at the coffee shop, though with several new beverages in my inventory (meia de leite in the morning and pingo in the afternoon) and continued to grind my own beans.

Five years later, however, I developed the habit of watching the Mary Tyler Moore show before falling asleep. Nothing is more calming to a literary theory harassed graduate student than that wholesome smile, playing angel’s advocate to Rhoda’s constant dieting and cynicism.***** One of the many charming qualities of Mary is that she always has a pot of coffee ready, at any given time. In the three seasons I watched, Mary drank enough late evening cups of coffee to put every smoke stained aspiring poet, every microbiology student cramming for the MCAT’s, and every cross country truck driver to shame. I think she must have been a recovering alcoholic. Rhoda comes home from an awful first date. Put the kettle on. Lou shows up at midnight, waking Mary from what could only have been a vague semblance of sleep. Get out the mugs. Pushy gentleman caller that she’s too hospitable to leave at the door with a handshake. “Well, if you’d like to come in for a cup of coffee…” And usually she disappears into the kitchen behind that stained glass window fixture and comes back with one of those chic, hourglass-like pour-over devices. But every once in a while, when there’s an important bit of dialogue that simply must be captured from within the kitchen, you see it. Mary with that nervous, giddy smile, spooning out generous lumps of brown powder straight into the cup. To emphasize the very fact that she was not at all expecting company, Mary has no choice but to serve her guests instant. That is Mary’s life. You never know who is going to drop in for advice, for a laugh, for a desperate flirtation. But no matter who it is, they will have coffee. And they will have it instantly.

Sitting here on my porch after a cooling rain (plastic is waterproof by the way), I’m pretty sure I got my dollar’s worth, merely in the satisfaction of knowing that, should I ever find my copy of The Book of Disquiet in one of these unpacked boxes, or should Phyllis suddenly drop in to brag about her husband’s dermatology practice, I will be ready. At the very least, this warm brown liquid is worth the knowledge that not everything is supposed to taste good, or to even taste like anything at all.

* Generally, this is not an establishment I frequent, and it breaks my heart that there no longer exist the kind of Mom & Pop shops where I could swing by on my shiny red tractor to pick up a bottle of milk for the family and a box of nails for the barn-raising. But, so it goes…this is not the issue at hand.

** France probably has the worst.

*** Despite having some of the most fantastic wine around, in addition to the whole coffee thing, Portugal does not have a foodie culture. This is probably different in Lisbon, but in Porto, they eat cabbage soup and tripe, and have an unexplained fascination for cakes made out of jello and surrounded by a fortress of prepackaged madeleine cookies. They famously consume something called “fransesinha,” which consists of about eighteen layers of ham and bologna, separated by pieces of white bread, smothered in processed yellow cheese, and soaked in a can of tomato soup.

**** I now see this book as the clear explanation for an overwhelming bout of loneliness and depression that summer, rather than my total idiocy in the Portuguese language, of which I still firmly (and somewhat truthfully) claim “reading knowledge.”

***** Rhoda is the coolest – isn’t Rhoda the coolest?

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