Hand-Ground Coffee, Home-Made Music

Originally posted April 28, 2008

One of the greatest day-to-day pleasures in my life is coffee.

There are others, of course: The love and companionship of the Texas Gal, certainly, and the joys of music, writing and reading. In terms of the order of those five pleasures entering my life, coffee came third, after learning to love reading and music. I learned to love writing a little later, and I encountered the Texas Gal and all the riches she brought to my life most recently of all.

I have written and will no doubt write again of various aspects of all five of those pleasures. Today, coffee is on my mind.

A couple of weeks ago, the Texas Gal and I drove to Maple Grove, the suburb on the northwestern edge of the Twin Cities where my sister and brother-in-law live. For her birthday, they’d given the Texas Gal a gift card for Trader Joe’s, a chain of fascinating grocery stores, one of which had opened in Maple Grove. Our plan was to shop there for a while, check out a few of the other stores in the newly developed shopping area and then meet my sister and her husband for a Chinese dinner.

All went as planned. We bought some interesting groceries, among them some breads without white flour, some snacks, two Spanish side dishes with, respectively, white beans and lentils in tomato sauces, and a few other things. I also pulled from the shelf two canisters of whole bean coffee, one labeled “Dark Sumatran” and the other “Moka Java.” And we went to a bookstore and then on to dinner.

At dinner, we heard tales of the trip to Hawaii from which my sister and brother-in-law had just returned and then we discussed the goings-on in all our lives. The food was delicious and the conversation fun. As we were leaving, my sister handed to me a half-pound bag of Kona coffee beans from Hawaii, which are among the most expensive beans in the world.

So I had plenty of coffee beans when we got home that Saturday evening just more than three weeks ago. I also had about a half a can remaining of my regular coffee, French Market, a brand sold out of New Orleans. Since then, I’ve been experimenting, trying to determine the best amount of beans to grind of each of the three types to make ten cups of coffee. (My coffee maker holds twelve cups, but my thermos bottle only holds eight; so I brew ten cups, drink from a large mug and keep the remaining eight cups hot in the thermos bottle. If you leave brewed coffee on the hotplate of the coffeemaker for more than a few minutes, it burns the coffee.)

The Kona beans are the best of the three types, a dark roast with some almost sweet undertones. The Sumatra is darker, with a heavier body. And the Moka-Java – the Moka beans coming from Ethiopia and the Java beans from the Indonesian island of the same name – is lighter. And in the back of the coffee cupboard, I found some beans I got as a gift shortly before we went to Maple Grove, a pretty standard blend, but better as fresh-ground than are grounds dipped from a can (although the French Market is pretty good for canned coffee).

So I’ve been having a pretty good time each morning deciding which of the four coffees to grind and brew. I use an electric grinder that I’ve had for a few years; it has a whine that irritates the cats. And I guess it irritates me, too.

Years ago, when I began to dabble in grinding coffee, I got a hand-cranked grinder as a gift. A few years later, when it began to break down, I got another. They both worked well, but in 1999, I became highly sensitive to tobacco smoke and quit smoking when my throat closed up one Saturday evening. After that, I learned that being in an environment with a lot of smoke had contaminated the coffee grinder (and lots of other things, too, which I may write about at other times). So I went without a grinder for a while.

A couple years later, I got the electric grinder as a gift. It grinds exceedingly fine, even when set on coarse, and that’s – not to make a joke – fine. I don’t dislike it, but in the years I’ve owned it, I’ve found that I don’t get as much satisfaction from pushing a button and hearing the grinder whine as I used to get from turning a crank and feeling the resistance of the beans as they were turned into coffee grounds. I think a lot of people will identify with that feeling, that satisfaction gained by doing something by hand that more often than not is these days routinely done by machine.

So when the Texas Gal asked for suggestions for my birthday – which is still some months off – I said I wanted a hand-cranked coffee grinder. She asked for suggestions, and – being the thoroughly modern fellow I am – I emailed a suggestion to her. We’ll see.

Why discuss this today? Because first, I’m once again grinding my own coffee every day after going some time without doing so very frequently, and even using an electric grinder, that brings me some satisfaction. And second, when I listened to today’s album share, I closed my eyes and thought: What does this remind me of, make me feel like, put me in mind of?

And as I heard The Joy, a 1977 collaboration between Toni Brown and Terry Garthwaite, I thought of things being done by hand: playing acoustic instruments, sewing quilts, making tables and, yes, grinding coffee. The record has that same hands-on homemade feeling as do the three records that Brown and Garthwaite made with Joy of Cooking in the early 1970s.

There’s some electric instrumentation here, certainly: John Blakely is credited with electric guitar, Elvin Bishop adds slide to “Till Your Back Ain’t Got No Bone,” and William D. Smith is listed as playing electric piano. But the bulk of the record’s sound – from the first strains of Van Morrison’s “Come Running,” through the end of Judy Mayhan’s “Wrap the World” – is of music being made by hand, of music that could have been made at home. And it’s a very sweet sound to hear.

Highlights? The flowing unselfish love song “You Don’t Owe Me Spring,” the funky “Morning Man” – a tribute to a disk jockey – and “Maybe Tomorrow,” with its sweet optimism, are favorites of mine. The mellow “Feel Like Heaven” has its moments, and Bishop’s slide guitar and the horns of Steve Madaoi and Jim Horn makes “Till Your Back Ain’t Got No Bone” about as driving a workout as you’re going to find on The Joy.

Production was credited to Michael Stewart, with James Gadson co-producing “Beginning Tomorrow.”

The credits list Brown on piano and vocals; Garthwaite on vocals, guitar and voice box; Reggie McBride on bass, James Gadson on drums; Steve Mitchell on drums (“Spring” and “Feel Like Heaven”); Smith on electric piano; Blakely on electric guitar; Bishop on slide guitar (“Till Your Back Ain’t Got No Bone”); Taj Mahal on harmonica and dobro (“Come Running” and “Morning Man”); J.D. Mannis on pedal steel (“Snow”); Steve Madaio and Jim Horn on horns; Jimmy Roberts on sax and flute (“You Don’t Owe Me Spring”); Bill Napier and Johnny Rotella, clarinets (“On the Natch”); and the duo called Honey Creek (Michelle Harris and Marjie Orten) on dulcimer and mandolin (“Wrap the World”).

Come Running
You Don’t Own Me Spring
On the Natch
Feel Like Heaven
Till Your Back Ain’t Got No Bone
Morning Man
Beginning Tomorrow
Steal Away
Wrap the World

Toni Brown & Terry Garthwaite – The Joy [1977]


One Response to “Hand-Ground Coffee, Home-Made Music”

  1. “How Deep The Dark . . .’ « Echoes In The Wind Says:

    […] (I’ve written about a few of those post-Joy Of Cooking releases; those long-ago posts are here and […]

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