24 September 2007

A conspiracy in every corner; Goodbye Mr. Peet

You can read a remembrance of Alfred Peet here as I did this morning -- he died about a month ago. I was lucky enough to land one block from his original coffee shop when I went to school in Berkeley and that is where I got the first notion of coffee being great, not just very good. I have many fond memories of huddling in small groups and communing with hot cups of fine, rich coffee, variously engaged at all levels of discourse, from befogged to brilliant. It is to his credit I think in this time of celebrity worship that I knew nothing about the founder of Peet's -- it was all about the coffee.

I dropped in at our local, new Peet's Coffee again the other day for an espresso tamper that turned out not to fit our machine: little did I know that there's a plot among espresso-machine makers and the manufacturers of those little stamp-like devices baristas use to pack the finely ground coffee into the filter baskets. The conspiracy is in making you go online to spend heaps of money on a lump of metal or wood or some combination thereof by making the filter baskets an obscure size for every different brand of machine. The effect is much like the way the prices of office supplies are inflated because most buyers are corporations, not individuals; and the way medical services and supplies are inflated because they are billed to insurance companies. Imagine what would happen to prices if people started declining to buy insurance and paying for their health care out of their own pockets. Well, astoundingly, it's the same thing with espresso tampers for the home coffee enthusiast: most people appear to assume this is a restaurant expense and charge $48 US for rosewood-stainless steel works of art that will be used thousands of times, rather than just hundreds.

Sure, I can find a handful of espresso tampers at the various foodie-supply houses and coffee temples around town, but none of them is quite right for our machine's parts. Grr. Maybe it's time to look for some substitute device not intended for this use that can be adapted for our purposes. Hmm. I'll have to think on that. Any ideas? I'm imagining a giant nail or the base of something...

While I was in Peet's buying one of those ill-fated tampers, I had that hopeful feeling for a moment: the cafe was full of people and felt like something of a meeting place. Perhaps, I thought, it has more life than I gave it credit for a season ago. Yet perhaps it was that every surface was so polished and gleaming and bright: it completely lacked that sheltering, cavelike ambiance of the admittedly cramped original cafe and lacked any of its intimacy as well. Despite the failings of the replicas to represent the experience of that first shop, I remain forever grateful to Alfred Peet. He showed me something not only about the quality of the things we savor the most (coffee, and by extension food) but also about something equally important: the quality of the shared rituals in which we engage every day.

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