I happen to be a tea drinker, but I do like the smell of coffee brewing, and when the coffee smells especially good I think of my mother-in law Hermine.
My mother was a very good cook, but Hermine was an extraordinary one. I, on the other hand, never prided myself much on my own culinary skills. (See COOKING WITH GAS, Oct 26, 2013.)
I did try however, and over the years turned out meals for our family of three with no memorable disasters. In fact I once made a roast chicken so moist and tasty that my son said, “This is delicious Mom, did you order it from Pastrami Queen or the Second Avenue Deli?”
But the truth is when we were newlyweds my husband assumed the meals at home would taste like his mother’s. When he realized they didn’t, he suggested I ask for her recipes. But Hermine didn’t have a shelf of cookbooks or a box of recipe cards, I don’t think she even had a set of measuring cups and spoons — she simply cooked by instinct.
I heard of a new bride who was shadowing her grandmother as she cooked and was taking copious notes. As the old lady began to season the pot, the granddaughter, with pencil poised, asked, how much salt do you add, Grandma?” “Just enough.” was the answer!
So I too shadowed my mother-in-law, and I did master a few of her great dishes. Legions of our dinner guests have had my version of her Hungarian stuffed peppers, and my sweet friend Renee, a very good cook herself, called them comfort food.
But the real bane of my newly married existence was coffee. I wasn’t from a coffee-drinking family, my folks drank tea, and I only drank coffee in college when it was de riguer. But my husband craved a good cup in the morning and I never seemed to get it right.
Hesitant to admit that to my new mother-in-law, I asked my friends for advice. But when I told them Hermine made coffee in a Pyrex percolator, they all scoffed.
“Forget the old Pyrex, get an electric coffeemaker and you can’t go wrong.”, said one friend.
“I can’t live without my Melitta.”, said my neighbor.
“Mon Dieu,”. said another friend, “you must get a French press!”
Taking their advice I invested in some serious coffee making equipment but with middling results, and so I asked around some more.
“It’s not the coffeemaker,”. said another friend who was obviously in the know. “It’s the coffee, go to Zabar’s.” And so I schlepped across town – more expensive but no great shakes,
More advice came from yet another friend. “For goodness sakes,”. she said in a derisive tone, “ never buy ground coffee, you have to buy fresh beans and grind them yourself!” So obediently I bought fresh beans and dug out a coffee grinder we’d gotten as a wedding present and had never been used.
But I was still turning out lackluster coffee. So I screwed up my courage, confessed all to my mother-in-law, and asked what brand of coffee she bought that always smelled so good.
“Whatever’s on sale.”, she said.
It turns out that old glass Pyrex was the answer after all. Hermine explained that you have to watch the coffee as it brews and judge by its color when to take it off the flame.
So I bought a Pyrex glass percolator and whatever coffee was on sale. But apparently I didn’t have the knack for coffee-color-judging, and anyway the damn thing broke in the sink the second or third time I washed it.
I think by now El Exigente is resigned.
Dana Susan Lehrman