I was four years old the first time I drank coffee and smoked a cigarette.
We were in a restaurant in Boston eating lunch, me, my mother and Marielle the sophisticated and beautiful French au pair who stayed with us for a year. I was sitting on my mother’s lap. Marielle sat across the table from us smoking. My mother and Marielle spoke exotic-sounding French while I tried to follow along. They taught me some new words (s’il vous plait, merci, au revoir) while my mother let me drink spoonfuls of her milky, saccharin-sweetened coffee.
“How do you say coffee in French?” I asked.
“Pee pee de chat,” Marielle joked, pointing at the weak American coffee. Cat pee. I thought that was hilarious and referred to coffee as pee pee de chat for a long time after that.
Marielle showed me how she could make circles of smoke come out of her mouth. It was mesmerizing.
“Can I try?” I asked.
My mother’s eyes twinkled when she said, “You want to try? Ok. Go ahead.” She must have known what was coming.
I crawled into Marielle’s lap and she held the cigarette for me. I leaned forward and squeezed it between my pursed lips. Then, just like I’d seen her do, I sucked in, raising my eyebrows a tiny bit, showing off for the family at the next table.
Before I could blow out any smoke rings, though, I sputtered and coughed. My lungs felt like they were on fire. I thought I was going to die. We had to leave the restaurant. That was the last time I ever tried smoking.
The coffee, however, stuck with me. Over the years I’ve tasted some pretty good coffee. But there are those few, special cups of coffee that stand above the rest. And where good coffee exists, great memories do as well.
My Top Four Cups of Coffee
4. Café mocha from Ocean Coffee Roasters in Providence, RI. On a cold night returning from the Sciences Library at Brown University after an evening of studying, a stop at Ocean was like a tiny bit of sunny paradise in the middle of a blizzard. It may have been the one thing that got me through Economics 101. Plus, I usually went with my boyfriend after we studied together. Our relationship grew over dozens and dozens of café mochas. All we had to do was say, “Ocean?” and we both knew that meant: do you want to go with me to get a cup of coffee? Now that we’re married we still share a love for good coffee and often reminisce about the great coffee at Ocean. Apparently, Ocean Coffee Roasters no longer has a shop on the Brown campus, but they’re still a fixture up in Rhode Island. If you’re ever up that way, don’t pass it up. It will be one of the best cups of coffee you will ever drink. Hands down.
3. The bowl of café au lait I had every morning while staying with a family for the summer in rural Levier, France when I was 16. My host mother would place a steaming bowl of milky coffee in front of me as well as a freshly baked baguette. I don’t think there is anything in this world better than a warm French baguette slathered with butter and dipped into a bowl of café au lait. Seriously. Of course it helps to be eating it in France. I’m not sure I could replicate the exact experience in Texas.
2. Madras coffee at Madras Pavillion, a vegetarian and kosher Indian restaurant in Richardson, TX. When I first moved to Dallas, I met my friend Priya at the local YMCA where both our kids were taking swim lessons. She talked about as fast as I did and we bonded immediately. You know when you meet someone and you just click right away? That was how it was for Priya and me. We learned that we had a lot in common, including a love of Indian food. It was Priya who found Madras Pavillion and over the years it has become a tradition for us to go there for the buffet lunch, stuff ourselves with curried vegetables, naan, many kinds of rice, spicy soups, lentil donuts and sweet rice pudding or mango ice cream, and then linger over a cup of creamy, aromatic Madras coffee while catching up on each other’s lives. Since we don’t get to see each other often anymore, the Madras Coffee tastes better every time we go there.
1. Café con leche at the Gran Hotel in San Jose, Costa Rica. It was the first trip we took after my mom died. Traveling was one of the things my parents enjoyed most and in the aftermath of her death, it was the only thing my dad could think to do: take my husband and me on a trip to a place they always wanted to go together. That first morning, we were excited about being in Costa Rica and the white-water rafting trip we were about to embark on, but we were also sad that my mom wasn’t there to enjoy it. Plus, there’s no other way to say this, it was awkward being with just my dad. But when the waiter at the hotel poured the strong coffee out of one pot and the steaming milk out of a different pot at the same time into my mug, the awkwardness drifted away along with the rising steam. The creamy colors quickly mingled. The trip was off to a delicious start.
What is the best cup of coffee you remember?