My Café Life: Memoir as Cultural History

Reading Time: 12 minutes
Town Hall Coffee, Merion Station PA photo: © Howard Dinin

As a boy, I never liked coffee, or thought I didn’t. Dark, bitter, mysterious, and forbidden. It was for adults somehow, and the last thing I wanted was to be an adult. Some things don’t change.

Café du Grand Cour, Aups, Provence, France
photo © Howard Dinin.

Liking coffee did change for sure. And as it did for so many people in so many different ways, going to college—the mythic “rite of passage” aspect we like to anoint ourselves with—made me a coffee lover.

Coffee houses were de rigueur back then—maybe it was just Boston and Cambridge, but somehow going to a coffee house meant more than a hot hopefully complex beverage – a brief safe immersion into a vaguely bohemian experience. And all without the price of being maybe labeled a beatnik. In short it was romantic. And it’s never lost that quality for me, even in such a manifest violation of what is basically a term of art: “coffee house,” as Starbucks.

It was Starbucks that eradicated, really incinerated (the process they seemed to use to roast their beans back in the day), what to me was the platonic ideal of a coffee house, innately though, the legendary Coffee Connection of the nearly godlike (in the Greek sense of there being a pantheon in this particular sphere) George Howell. It was he who conceived of the coffee house (never a shop, never a mere pedestrian cafe, with maybe a tray of chicken and tuna salad sandwiches) as a place of solitary contemplation, while engaged in the simultaneous act of slowly, methodically savoring, with an air of worship, a mug of perfectly brewed elixir, concocted of perfectly roasted beans, and for sure, only of single-origin.

I’ve never forgiven George (more or less a contemporary of mine) for selling his wonderful shops, now 25 years ago, to the corporate titan. It still rankles and doesn’t go down, like cold coffee and dregs.

The Biscuit Café & Bakery, Somerville, Massachusetts
photo © Howard Dinin

Loathe as I would have been to admit it back then, in my adolescence, which dates back to the last days of the 1950s, it was my father who handed me what has turned into part of his most valuable legacy. Because of him, I entered Coffee Connection for the first time in 1975 already as something of a coffee sophisticate. The Harvard Square store, his first, was George Howell’s revolutionary conception of a place to retail and brew (for consumption on the premises) the single-origin coffee beans he offered for sale.

As for how this affected me, it did in the most mundane ways. Homely ways. It wasn’t my dad’s intention to do anything but deploy the purest – and as it happens happily the simplest – method of brewing a great cup of coffee; an ideal kind of product to drum at conventions. It was coincidence that he bought his first Chemex coffee maker at the time I was at the peak of my teen-age interest in exotic gadgetry.

favorite cuppa' joe
My favorite cuppa’ joe when I’m in France. A café Amèricain in my own kitchen, from a Nespresso machine… shown here sitting on my ancient Godin stove, the Chatelaine model.
photo © Howard Dinin.

A pharmacist by training, by temperament my father was the embodiment of an Enlightenment scientist. Raised as a devout Jew in a shtetl in eastern Russia, by the time my father arrived in the United States, he was a devotee of the scientific method. A frustrated doctor – he never finished his training – he remained someone who embraced the ethos. That lifestyle included many high-end products suitable for doctors, who had plenty of discretionary personal funds to spend.

And thereby, it included my father, who did business with and continually rubbed shoulders with medicos. He attended conventions. He had access to the products aimed at them. Not just the exotica meant to facilitate medical practice, but the devices meant to give physicians a sense even at home of their privileges.

Chemex Coffee Maker with handle
Chemist Peter Schlumbohm invented it in 1941. The characteristic wooden “handle” held in place by rawhide was an original touch. photo By Fletcher6 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27392654

The original “pour-over” technology, utilizing a uniquely designed piece of tempered glass lab-ware (and an offspring of the ubiquitous Erlenmeyer flask design used universally in labs), with proprietary paper filters made thicker and more absorbent than commercial coffee makers used, to absorb more volatile oils and other things that masked the unadulterated flavor of the pure ambrosia.

Chemex was invented in 1941, and has been used by those in the know ever since. It was added to the permanent design collection of the NY Museum of Modern Art in 1943. Not even a world war prevented aficionados from recognizing a landmark in domestic science and art.

The very model of a modern major pour-over station. This one was in Town Hall Coffee in Merion Station, Pennsylvania. Since closed; they were better coffee makers than business people. photo: © Howard Dinin

My sense of the ritualistic and mythical roots of the vaguely ceremonial act of sitting formally and having a strongly brewed cup of the heady beverage known as coffee was formed, as I’ve mentioned, in college. A greater part of the education occurred appropriately enough in Harvard Square—a Mecca for students of a great variety of institutions, and not just the eponymous university.

Even the smallest acts, like having a coffee, gained the status of rite, only needing a context. The romantic overlays of cinematic representations of the exotic locales to which the World War had led our troops colored the most mundane acts. Overlooking the vagaries of the actual lives of the colonized, Hollywood seized on the iconography of the casbah, the coffee house, and the casino.

The 50s and 60s, decades of recovery and stupendous growth of the US economy for the sake of the children—boomers—of “the greatest generation” that had fought and won the War (referred to as if there had been no others before). Boomer parents suffered the greatest hardships of the Great Depression, came of age and assimilated the customs of other cultures, newly liberated along with the nations of the imperium who had thrown off the threat of totalitarian oppression.

Harvard Square became almost a stage set. Brattle Street, was the staid old essentially colonial (a different sort of British colony; the American sort). Brattle Street, site of the Old Blacksmith Shop and the home of the quintessential poet for crafting one facet of our national mythology became ground zero, through the dedication of an old brick theater to themed entertainments tailored to the post-adolescent imaginations of Ivy League collegians. Longfellow; whose house, inescapably, was in the tractor beam of our privileged history, having been Washington’s headquarters for a time—is now a museum, and the gradual evaporation of the essence of Harvard Square as a real place, a there with a sensible there there, continues in the process that long since was designated as its mall-ification, a further regression of commercialization. Somehow to drive the point home, like a dagger which you see before you, the Café Algiers has closed.

The Algiers was a classic coffee house, with a variety of what we’d now call curated beverage choices, and entirely non-alcoholic. Sophisticated espresso machines and, later in its history, a pour-over station, provided the means whereby in a single order of modest cost, one could lease a seat for the entire day if you were so disposed. There was a menu, of modestly priced essentially North African and Mediterranean plates, with an emphasis on vegetables and greens. In effect the modern incarnation of its ancestors in the Middle East dating back to their beginnings in the fifteenth century.

The Café Algiers shown on the cusp of what was a hopeful reopening, The original owner, after 45 years continuous operation had fallen ill, and closed the doors. Business partners and owners of the sister café, the Adalan, in nearby Central Square stepped in and reopened the beloved venue for meeting and personal restoration. But the revival was not long lived, and a year later, with a landlord unwilling to compromise on the lease, the Algiers closed for good.
photo: courtesy of the website http://harvardsquare.com / copyright being determined.

In continuous operation for over 47 years, first in the basement, and then in the street-front entry of the Brattle Theater, the Algiers was one of the chief venues for the students, one of the substantiations of the idea of their Mecca. In a typical comment, recorded by a reporter for the student paper at Harvard, “The Crimson,” covering the historic closing in 2017, a student lamented, “The environment and the group of customers it brought together was interesting. You would hear people discussing philosophy, people talking in other languages—I hope that whatever replaces it will have a similarly cosmopolitan environment.” As cynical counterpoint to such a sentiment is to be recorded the fact that in its place, future celebrity chef Michael Scelfo, who has won many significant awards for his food and first restaurant in the venue, has extended the franchise of his flagship Alden & Harrow restaurant (which is best known for its “Secret Burger,” which, even at 17 dollars, is deliberately on the basis of limited availability). The name of his new bar and laboratory for him to explore his culinary whimsey, Longfellow.

However, with a flair for the kind of millennial misdirection that allows earnestness and faux erudition to mask the liminal insensitivities of a new kind of entrepreneurship, this Longfellow is a different one. This is the Alexander Wadsworth Longfellow, an architect who, with his partners Alden & Harlow, designed the original landmark building in which this burgeoning empire is housed. That’s like the twin progeny of a rape being named for the grandfathers of the victim.

The Brattle Theater revived movies that even Hollywood had forgotten. It housed the Café Algiers, a cleaned up evocation of a bustling market stall serving cheap but savory refreshments. It didn’t hurt that the name resonant with all the exoticism of a foreign port of call, was also the venue of possibly the most significant, because it was the first, uprising of natives throwing off the yoke of their Western conquerors and oppressors. All of this, of course, deep sub-text to the menu of espresso coffee drinks and herbal teas, to accompany legume-based hearty dishes as alien to the typical American palate of the 50s as whale blubber.

The Brattle was also home to blatantly named Club Casablanca, exploiting a trope of the pure devising of entrepreneurs catering to the avid fancies of American young adults, for the first time on their own, and flush with the wealth of a now well-to-do middle class. The atmosphere was craftily ginned up to be both murky and intriguing, yet somehow familiar. And it made a myth and an icon, if not a shrine, of a previously obscure American film from early in the War, when it wasn’t at all sure we could win, which featured A-list actors, for sure, and a competent director, but above all a masterpiece of a script, provided from the stable of wholly unsung screenwriters who contrived, nevertheless, to create a litany of memorable touchstones—trope after trope—of American indomitability immured in a confusing narrative that embodied something otherwise inchoate about our ability as a nation to wing it in the face of adversity and somehow come out still on our feet.

It might be noted by the skeptic that a kind of selective cynicism infuses certain invidious remarks above about the encroachments of Chef/Entrepreneur Michael Scelfo on the spaces at the Brattle Theater—as instrumental as any other agency at reviving the film and establishing its iconic significance to our culture —formerly occupied by beloved places for gathering and dining and, to use a rapidly aging vernacular, chilling out; beloved and venerable for their continued patronage across three generations of students. And I would tell the skeptic, not denying the obvious animus, that the feeling derives from seeing the action of exploitation. Whereas those who restored the ancient Brattle Theater building were saving an historic venue that had fallen into disuse and succumbing slowly to decay. I simply can’t see the sensibility that energizes the current campaign of a new phase of gentrification of Harvard Square as apposite to the one that had persisted until the great old cafe and bar that formerly occupied the building closed their doors—the one that celebrated the essential triumph of our native ability as a nation of immigrants to band together against a common enemy, and beer or wine or coffee, or even our mint tea (one of the favorites at Algiers) in hand raising a virtual cheer to our continued survival. A bespoke cocktail over a small plate of mortadella musubi is somehow just not the same thing.

But back to the movie, as we used to say at the concession stand in the lobby of the Brattle.

One of the less iconic, but for me still memorable, scenes from the movie “Casablanca” occurs late in the time line of action – I am reluctant to call it a plot, as there isn’t much of one when you think about it. Rick has gone to The Blue Parrot, a typical coffee house on the casbah and the headquarters of his rival cafe owner, Signor Ferrari.

To signify his serious intentions, which we have been led to believe is his departure with Ilsa using the precious inviolable “letters of transit” allowing them to escape to the west, out of the clutches of the Nazi regime, Rick agrees to sell Ferrari his “Café Amèricain.”

As the two men go to a back room, away from the hubbub of the Blue Parrot’s salon, the camera picks up a waiter and tracks his transit across the dining room to the two men. He carries a tray with the full regalia for what has long been called (using a well-worn term that in these days of heightened sensitivity sounds almost like a micro-aggression—almost) Arab coffee. The tracking, while we overhear the opening remarks of their conversation, is deliberate and draws out our sense of ceremony. The tray is delivered to Farrari, and he does the honors. There is a cut in POV, and we see him pouring their drinks from the wasp-shaped brass ewer with a characteristic spout.

At the Blue Parrot, Rick and Ferrari prepare to negotiate the price of the Café Amèricain over a demitasse of Arab coffee.
At the Blue Parrot, Rick and Ferrari prepare to negotiate the price of the Café Amèricain over a demitasse of Arab coffee.
Movie still: from the commercial release of “Casablanca,” © WarnerMedia, fair use.

The coffee poured, the negotiations take on the stamp of being official and contractual.

An Arab coffee pot is called a “dallah.” The correct term for the beverage itself is, from the Arabic, qahwah arabiyya. Accepting that qahwah means “coffee” then the type of coffee is what is known to English speakers in the Latin as coffea arabica.

Once brewed – a process entailing boiling ground lightly roasted beans with water and cardamom for 20 minutes directly in the Dallah – it is poured into demitasse size cup, called a finjān. The coffee is bitter (and the method involving cardamom in the brew was intended to lighten the bitterness – as well as the color – somewhat). Sweeteners are not added, and when not brewed with cardamom, which is the method preferred in Persian Gulf and Arab Peninsula regions, the coffee is much darker, almost black. The latter is what is drunk in other locales, such as North Africa.

To be continued in future installments

We welcome your comments, and especially want to know if you want more, and at what pace. Should we include more illustration? Less?
These installments are drafts of a book length work planned for future publication, in both digital and print formats.
Please also note that portions of this text appeared in a different form previously as brief contributions to random blog posts on the site called “Existential Autotrip,” whose blog master is Dom Capossela.

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