From time to time people come to my home. When they visit, I offer them coffee. If they accept the coffee offer, I give it to them. Once I’ve given it to them they sip the coffee and say, “Wow. That’s good coffee.”
They often want to know what kind of coffee I use. I hem and haw about it, not because the coffee I use is embarrassing— I buy Chock Full o’Nuts. I buy this brand because I like the labeling and I like the jingle. It also comes in gigantic cans. I hem and haw about it because if I start discoursing on my preference for canned coffee, I sound like one of those guys who despises modernity as an affected quirk. This hits a little close to home. I do affect this quirk. Worse, in bashing home-ground, whole bean exotic coffee, I’m implicitly saying that you are a sucker. The way you make coffee is qualitatively worse than the way I make coffee. All this is true, and you will know it if you’re sitting in my kitchen drinking a cup of joe. The delicious coffee in your cup is proof that whatever gourmet blend you buy isn’t giving you much flavor mileage. You will feel a sinking sense of shame and inadequacy all on your own. If I start talking about it, well, that’s just not gracious.
Nevertheless, you’ve been lied to. People have impressed upon you the need to drink coffee that costs 29 dollars an ounce because it was grown on the volcanic hillsides of a remote African land, harvested by virgins, roasted by eunichs and sold to you by some pasty-skined trust-fund heroin addict with a face riven by peircings. You do not need to do this. Just go to the supermarket and buy a can of coffee.
But before you do that, throw out your stupid coffee maker. Whatever kind of coffee maker you have, it’s probably wrong. Space-age electronic drip coffee makers, coffee presses, those plastic funnel filter single-serving doo-dads that you put on top of your coffee mug, I call bullshit on all of them. The fancy electronic drip coffee makers bust all the time, and they often cost more than a hundred bucks. Coffee presses are probably the best of the lot. I dissaprove of those on strictly aesthetic grounds. The hot water should drip through the ground coffee rather than sit on top of it. The one-off filter doo-dads make a mess and brew treacley brown water. We won’t even discuss the coffee bags that major hotel chains place in their rooms.
Go and get yourself a coffee percolator. The first benefit of the coffee percolator is linguistic. Coffee percolator is a euphonic expression that nearly matches “ice box” in its poetic potential. You can use the term coffee percolator in a song. You cannot sing a song about a “French Press” unless it’s a dirty song. You can barely say the names of many modern electronic drip coffee makers. Perhaps this lends them an air of mystery and power. I say it’s a cover for the fact that they suck.
You can still buy an electric, plug-in percolator. That’s fine I suppose. I prefer my stove-top percolator (pictured). It’s got a couple of obvious benefits. First, it has no electrical components, so I don’t have to worry too much about leaving it in a sink half full of dirty water when I go out of town. Second, it has no electrical components, so I can make coffee if the power goes out. Third, it has no electrical components, so if I go camping I can take it with me. Also, if civilization grinds to a stand-still and all utility service is cut off, I will have coffee so long as my supply of Chock Full o’Nuts lasts. You will stare mournfully at your four hundred dollar, now useless combo espresso, cappuccino, latte’ making back massager and wonder where you went wrong. And when the zombies come to feast on our flesh, you will be too lethargic to run. The undead will devour you and I will live. But go ahead and buy the electric percolator. It’s fine.
So where do you get a stove-top percolator? I highly recommend George’s Variety Store on the corner of Meserole Avenue and Manhattan Avenue in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. George carries a couple different varieties of percolators. I’m partial to the stainless steel one, because it’s basically unbreakable. For a long time I had a pyrex percolator and that was cool because you could watch the water turn into coffee. But the pyrex broke one day, and I imagine that happens to everything made from pyrex. If you don’t live near George’s, try Wal-Mart.
So once you have your percolator, clean it or whatever. Then place the stem funnel in the pitcher. Pour water into the pitcher until the water is just below the notch on the stem. Place the basket onto the stem. Put your index finger on top of the stem. You do this so that coffee grounds won’t plug up the works. Scoop coffee into the basket until the basket is full. That’s the first tricky part. You have a little lid that goes on top of the basket, and it needs to fit in easily. So don’t overfill the basket. When the grounds are soaked with hot water they swell. Then they either spill out of the basket or they gum up all the works and make a muddy mess. It may take a few tries, but you’ll get it.
So you’ve got the coffee in the basket. You’ve put the perforated lid on top of the basket. Now put the lid on the pitcher. If you wussed out and bought the electric percolator, you’re done. Plug it in, the electronics handle the rest. If you’ve bought the stove-top percolator, now is where the alchemy really begins.
It’s best if you have a gas stove. This is because gas stoves rule and electric stoves are a common household perversion. (Have you ever seen an electric stove in a professional kitchen?) At this point, if you have an electric stove, you should probably just call the gas company and have them come by to install a real stove. If the gas company won’t come, or if you can’t afford to have a gas stove installed, just follow along. The instructions for a gas stove should work just fine. Place the percolator on a burner. I always use a back burner in case I want to cook something for breakfast. That way I’ve got easy access to the front burners. Once the percolator is on the stove, turn on the gas beneath it. Put the gas on low, but not too low.
What happens next is a bit tricky to describe. You are not boiling the water. This is important to realize. If you boil the coffee, you burn the coffee and it will taste like swill. You are heating the water so that a convection current will form. This current will push water up through the funnel. When the water runs out of the top of the funnel, it will filter over and through the coffee grounds—this is the eponymous percolation of the percolator, the filtering of water through the grounds. In order to prevent boiling the coffee, be attentive. Once the percolation begins, turn the gas down as low as you can. You want it to percolate slowly.
How long should it percolate? I usually let it go about five minutes from the point at which it began to perc. You can go longer or shorter, depending on how rich you want your coffee. Sometimes I let it go a while, and this yields a coffee that’s almost viscous like espresso. Other times I’m in a rush and I pull it off the stove as soon as the stuff percolating in the little glass bubble is faintly brown.
Now here is the last benefit of a stove-top coffee percolator. When the coffee is done, you shut off the gas. Then when you want another cup later, you can reheat it, carefully, and it will be good. The reason old coffee tastes like bile when you buy it at the deli or get it at your office is because the coffee has been left on the hotplate all afternoon. The unending heat of the hotplate messes with the delicate composition of the coffee, and so it tastes awful and bitter. But if you only heat it up as needed, it’ll taste just fine for the rest of the day.
That’s it. Enjoy your coffee.