“The Past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”
–L. P. Hartley
When I was a kid I can remember clearly that whenever we had someone stop by our house (we always called it “company” in those days) my mother would serve coffee and some kind of cake or sweet, but never candy, unless it was the holidays and we had an abundance of those long, striped ribbons of confectionery goodness. She learned this type of hospitality from my paternal grandmother who always had cake or cookies, always homemade and always fresh. Whenever we had company over, whether it was announced or not, coffee and cake became a ritual of hospitality that seems to have been forgotten today. There was something more formal about the coffee and cake service, a service that has been replaced now by a much less formal, and one could argue, less caloric intake.
The first thing I remember when we had company is that the coffee pot would come out. My family called it the percolator on account of its way of brewing coffee and never the coffee pot or coffee machine. It seemed to take a long time from start to finish to make a pot of coffee in those days. Our CorningWare percolator was of medium size and light green or pea green in color. I used to love to watch my mother make coffee (I do not recall ever seeing my father do this until much later when I was an adult and we switched to a more modern drip-coffee machine or the fast and efficient Keurig they have now). The best part was when she plugged the machine in and I would sit and watch the small clear plastic or glass capsule-like tube at the top begin to bubble with the hot water. The sound of percolating coffee is still one of those sounds that I associate most closely with my childhood. It’s strange, but I have no memory of the smell of coffee brewing from these machines; all of my memories of the coffee percolator are visual. The coffee was always served in china cups complete with a saucer to place one’s spoon on after sugar or milk (but more likely a cold bottle of Half and Half) after stirring those additives into the coffee. If I remember correctly, no one in my family drank their coffee black like I have always done. Moreover, in those days my mother always drank hot tea, never coffee. She became a coffee-addict much later in life.
When we had cake, it was always a sheet cake and more often than not a chocolate cake with Cool Whip for icing that we placed in the refrigerator before and after serving. This type of cake is ubiquitous in my childhood memories, and when I make it for my own family today it seems to stay in the refrigerator a little longer than it did when I was a kid. When I eat it now I do not experience a flood of memories rushing back to me. It’s not like Proust’s madeleine, but it’s more of a sad reminder that the person I used to be has passed on, or has vanished into the person I am now. The other type of dessert served was a particular favorite in my family: my grandmother’s custard pie. This was also in a “sheet” version, rather than a typical round pie. I, myself, never cared for this, but it was a hit with my parents, as well as my aunts and uncles.
Now that I am an adult and have my own family and home, whenever we have company I do not offer coffee and cake, but a beer, a glass of wine, or something stronger. My sense of hospitality revolves around alcohol, and has for some time. This does not mean that I do not offer my guests coffee, I always do, but as an afterthought, or if the visitor is a non-drinker, or after we have had dinner. I also own my own percolator now, but it’s different from the one we had in my childhood home. My percolator is the Italian-made mocha express by Bialetti. It works the same way as the percolators from my childhood, but this one is steel and serves espresso rather than Maxwell House or Folgers. The coffee I prefer now is also more sophisticated. No more Maxwell House for me. Instead, I drink LavAzza or pods from my Nespresso at home. When I’m out, I always try to stop by the independent coffee houses. In Salisbury, Maryland, where I currently live, that means Rise Up, an excellent café and coffee roaster.
I wonder if society is somehow less sophisticated without a coffee and cake service. A few years ago, I was in Budapest, and while there I tried to visit as many coffee houses as I could. Each time I would also order a pastry to go with my coffee. It’s only now that I think this might have had something to do with my childhood, and being so far from home (although Budapest is in Europe, it has a very different feel for me from the other countries I’ve visited in the western part of that continent, especially its café society) I was attempting to reach for something familiar, something safe, despite its existence far down the corridors of my memory. Nevertheless, it’s always coffee that seems to bring me home.