Thursday, February 24, 2005

Coffee, anyone?

It’s getting hard to find a decent cup of coffee in this town any more. There was a time you could walk into any restaurant, order “coffee”, and be reasonably assured that you would get hot water that had been strained through some kind of coffee beans, was served in a cup, and cost less than a buck.
The only difference in coffee served in these establishments was that it came in varying strengths. Ask for coffee late in the afternoon, and chances were that the pot had been on the burner all day and would deliver a jolt of high octane coffee that could keep a truck driver awake from London to Moncton.
The best coffee in the world came from Tim Horton’s. Still does, as far as I’m concerned. I have no idea how they do it. I have tried making Tim Horton's coffee at home, and it just doesn’t taste the same. They are not paying me to say this, by the way.
The absolutely worst coffee in the world comes from those machines still lurking in the musty corners of aging bus stations and darkened hallways of ancient manufacturing plants, machines that were designed by some Frankenstein of an inventor to dispense coffee, hot chocolate and what was euphemistically called chicken soup, all through the same spout. Everything delivered by these machines looks like dishwater and tastes like cod liver oil.
Over the past few years there has been an alarming trend away from “coffee”. Go into coffee shops these days and order “coffee”, and you are likely to encounter a perplexed and slightly supercilious (from the Latin “super” meaning “you”, and “cilious” meaning “moron”) look from the “waitperson”.
“Would that be a cappuccino, double orange mocha-chino, café latte, regular, with or without cinnamon and/or chocolate sprinkles, single or double espresso, long or short, with or without foam, in a mug or glass with whipping cream…?”
“Coffee” is not even on the menu – and whoever heard of needing a “menu” to list coffees anyway?
It was OK when cappuccino and espresso started showing up as regular fare in restaurants and coffee shops. We’ve all had days when we’ve needed a little extra caffeine kick in the pants of the kind those drinks deliver. And a double espresso on a February Monday morning can actually make the sun come out and the birds sing, at least until the headache sets in. But we are talking coffee here, people, not desert!
A few years ago, a friend of mine was given a home espresso machine for Christmas, and he invited me over to try to figure out how the thing worked. By the time we had learned how to mix the right amount of water and coffee we had consumed enough caffeine that we decided to wallpaper the living room, build a deck on the back of the house and detail his car while we were at it. It was a great afternoon, but I would not recommend it as part of a regular diet.
The height of the current coffee-as-food craze in all the new specialty coffee shops that are popping up everywhere has to be the decaf cappuccino. This is an oxymoron by its very definition: high-test coffee without the kick - like gasoline that won’t burn, or cigarettes without tobacco. I don’t mind the fact that the stuff is being served, I just wish the restaurants would remember to put a pot of real coffee on in the morning as well – and then leave it on the back-burner for the afternoon when I really need it.
Wide awake and ready to go,
I’m Otte Rosenkrantz

Monday, February 21, 2005

Up in Smoke

So what's with all this cigar smoking that's all of a sudden going on everywhere?
For the past few years, smokers have been relegated to the absolute fringes of society because they pollute, cause illness and are a huge financial burden on the nation's health insurance system. Meat eaters at vegetarian restaurants were treated with greater kindness than smokers.
Then, suddenly, you pass somebody in a hallway somewhere, and what is that scent you detect in the air currents eddying in their passing? Could that be the fragrance of tobacco?
And then one of your golfing buddies is spotted late one evening, dodging out of "Ye Olde Cigar Shoppe", into a darkened parking lot. Does his wife know where he is and what he is doing? Suddenly the rich fragrance of expensive cigars is seems to be wafting through the air everywhere.
What is going on?
Well, what is going on is nothing short of a renaissance of cigar smoking. No, a revolution, because it is hard not to associate cigar smoking with revolutions, isn't it? Cigar smoking is the "in" thing to do just as jogging was 15 years ago, and surfing the WorldWide Web has been more recently. If you don't know your corona from your Lonsdale, your Arturo Fuente Torpedo from your Casa De Nicaragua Petit, you're out of the loop, left in the dark to kiln dry.
And this is not some brief, flash-in-the-ashtray passing fad. This cigar smoking phenomenon is taking on a cultural life all its own. And everybody’s doing it. Take a look at some of the magazines devoted to the cigar habit that have suddenly leapt into the literary forefront, and you'll see all sorts of shakers and movers on the covers, from the CEO's of multi-nationals, to major movie stars, posing, stogies in hand. From Tom Selleck and Tom Arnold, to Kim Cattrall and Pierce Brosnan, the men and women of Hollywood and the corporate community are coming out of the closet humidor and not just admitting to their fondness for the hand-rolled vice, but flaunting it.
And it doesn't stop with the cigars. No sir. There are humidors to be bought, at between $300 and $5000 per fancy box, and special lighters and "wax-less" matches to spark up the cigars, and special ashtrays to hold the venerable objects while they burn, and leather carrying cases at upwards of $100 per and so on and so on. And the cigars? A good one will run about $9.00 and a great one will cost as much as you are willing to pay.
Which brings us to the problem of where to indulge in this expensive little socially illicit activity. There is hardly a household left in North America where a person can come home from work and spark up something that will cause $20.00 to go up in smoke, and nobody wants to spend the 45 minutes or huddled in the garage to consume one of these things.
Not to worry. The aficionados have the situation well in hand. Smoking rooms are now springing up all over the place. Sporting the deliciously illegal-vice ambiance of Prohibition speak-easies, by-invitation-only cigar smoking evenings are becoming de rigeur among those in the know. There are even smoking rooms cropping up in the back of some cigar shops where customers can go to try out a new brand while sipping free cappuccinos.
So what is all this about anyway? A deliberate flaunting of the anti-smoking sentiment so prevalent in recent years? Hardly. The tobacco purists shun Cigarette smokers as social philistines. Is it a vice restricted to the few who still have money to burn? Not likely. Cigar smokers from all walks of life mingle at the $40 - $80 an evening cigar sampling events. Being a cigar connoisseur does not require a huge cash reserve - it helps, but the occasional indulgence won't put a fancier in debtors prison.
No, the cigar renaissance has more to do with nostalgia than snobbery. If you'll notice, there is no plastic involved with cigars - except for the plastic used to pay for them. Cigars are about the earth, wood and water, air and fire - all the essential elements. It is about enjoying a product that is not mass produced, can't be used in a hurry, has no "instant" version, that needs to be aged before it can be consumed, which has no expiration date and no built-in obsolescence, and which can never go into re-runs.
Cigar smoking is a rebellion against the modern times
For the Revolution, I’m Otte Rosenkrantz
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