In the days before the pandemic, I would occasionally duck out of the office in the midafternoon and pedal the three miles west and then north to meet My Lovely Wife at our favorite coffee shop. We’d enjoy a beverage together while pecking away at our laptops. This was more of a routine occurrence on the weekends. Around 2 p.m., the sun would begin to peek through the skylight in MLW’s studio and create a glare on her screen — a signal from the heavens that it was time to seek a change of scenery — sending her downstairs with her backpack in tow and an invitation to join her for a cup.
I’d generally tag along, more for an excuse to climb on my bike than for the allure of coffee-shop culture. Like MLW, I’m a morning tea drinker by nature, and, unlike her, I couldn’t quite understand why people would go out of their way to set up shop in a cacophonous caffeine parlor and shell out $5 for a dose of java. Only when that outlet became unavailable was I able to discern its real attraction: It’s all about the ritual.
A week or so into our now monthlong confinement, MLW ordered a bag of beans from our now-shuttered coffee purveyors. While she waited for the shipment, a lovely pot and matching dripper arrived in the mail. A few days later, I found her in the kitchen preparing the beans for brewing with our hand-grinder — a culinary process that doubles as a fabulous upper-body workout.
She heated water in the tea kettle and carefully poured it over the grounds in the dripper. The aroma drifted across the kitchen to my outpost near the sink. “You’ve become a barista,” I observed.
“I’m just making coffee,” she replied. “Want some?”
“Thanks, but I think I’ll pass.”
The next day, when the sun had made its way to her skylight, MLW was again down in the kitchen heating water and grinding beans. “Can I help you with that?” I ventured.
She handed me the small glass container attached to the medieval cranking mechanism, and I spent the next several minutes trying to hold the contraption in place while turning the beans into a powder. I could feel the sweat beading upon my brow. “I’m going to want a cold beer, not hot coffee, by the time I’m done with this,” I huffed.
I settled for some version of a café au lait, which I dutifully sipped (I’m more of an espresso guy) while we chatted at the dining room table. The next day, I ordered my own bag of beans.
Meanwhile, we gradually settled into our afternoon coffee klatch. MLW baked a loaf of banana bread and I studied the workings of our ancient Italian espresso pot. When the beans finally showed up in the mailbox, I tried unsuccessfully to contain my enthusiasm. “They’re here!” I cried, as if announcing guests. “Let’s have coffee!”
The novelty of espresso brewing has since worn a bit thin (though my lattes have proven surprisingly palatable), but the ritual has endured. Every afternoon between 2 and 3, we seem to find ourselves in the kitchen cranking through the grinder workout, boiling water, frothing milk, and admiring the results of our labor. But it’s not really about the coffee anymore. It’s become a brief slice of the day that reminds us that life is more than work and worry.
“Ritual is an ancient and inextricable part of human nature,” writes University of Connecticut anthropology professor Dimitris Xygalatas, PhD, in The Conversation. “And while it may take many forms, it remains a powerful tool for promoting resilience and solidarity. In a world of ever-changing variables, ritual is a much-needed constant.”
Someday the plague will lift, the coffee shops will reopen, the sun will send its glare on MLW’s computer screen, and we’ll probably once again rendezvous at a place where somebody makes the coffee for us. But maybe not quite as often as in the past. Maybe we’ll occasionally choose to craft our own cups, put aside our cares, and revisit the ritual beyond the days of our confinement.
Part of me really likes that idea. The other part wants to buy an electric grinder.