too many words by laura lemay

more coffee grinders

When I posted about coffee grinders a couple weeks ago, Eric reminded me that I had neglected to mention the hand-crank coffee grinder. Actually I had discussed the hand-crank coffee grinder in an earlier draft of that post, but there was kind of a long-winded story attached to it, so I deleted it. But I can’t let a long-winded story go to waste, so here it is now instead.

As you may have gathered, I live in a kind of a rural area in the mountains outside of silicon valley. There are advantages to living here: nice view, quiet, lots of space to grow tomatoes, can walk around naked in your own back yard. Disadvantages: 20 minutes to a burrito, no broadband internet access, people sometimes run meth labs or dump bodies in your backyard. Its a tradeoff.

The biggest issue is that two or three times a year the power goes off for a while. You would think that the power would go off during the really horrific thunderstorms, or when we get eight inches of snow (yes, we get snow here.) But normally things are just fine during the storms. Usually the power will go off for no apparent reason on a lovely still day sometime in February when there isn’t a cloud in the sky. And it’ll stay off for a day or so.

We have a generator, but its kind of a pain to set up and even when its on you have a choice: you can have heat or you can run computers. And often by the time we get the generator set up the power comes back on again, so often we just say screw it and leave it off and wear a lot of sweaters.

The first year the power went off for more than a day we awakened in the morning with no power to realize that we had an entire freezer full of coffee beans…and an electric coffee grinder. How is one supposed to make coffee if there is no conceivable way to grind the beans? And the answer is: you don’t.

Well this was a horror that could not stand. And so later that morning uncaffienated and woozy I went into town in search of a non-electric coffee grinder.

This was just prior to the year 2000, and survivalist furor was in full bloom. I found I could get a non-electric wind-up DVD player, a solar powered DSL modem, a 50 year lithium battery weed whacker and a fuzzy-logic sushi rice cooker that ran on butane — but I could not find a non-electric coffee grinder. Until I went to Sur La Table, a high end cooking store that just opened up in Los Gatos that year. And there I found the hand crank coffee grinder.

I must point out again in my defense that I hadn’t had any coffee that day and I wasn’t thinking straight, and the coffee grinder was really pretty: brass and stained wood with dovetail joinery. It had a big crank on the top and a little drawer on the side to collect the coffee. It felt good in the hand. It was really pretty. And so without thinking much about it I went and plunked down $79.99 for the hand-crank coffee grinder.

On the second morning the power was still out but this time we were prepared: I had an $80 tool with dovetail joinery. I filled up the hopper with beans and set the grinder for the finest setting and then I turned the crank. And I turned. And I turned. And turned and turned and turned and turned. I opened the drawer. There was a very small bit of coffee grounds in there. A very very small bit. I re-adjusted the grinder for less fine and cranked some more. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

After 20 minutes or so I had managed to grind enough coffee for a very small cup of espresso. In this time I could have driven into town and gotten a very large cup of espresso. And minus the cost of gas driving into town would have saved me $76.49. Suffice it to say I realized I had made a really dumb mistake.

So of course the answer to the no power == no coffee problem, which should have been obvious, is to grind the coffee ahead of time for emergency use. Of course this is anathema to a coffee snob, but in a choice between stale coffee and no coffee when the power it out it is OK to have the stale coffee. It is like putting on extra sweaters and not having access to your email for a while. You can rough it if you have to.

I still have the hand-crank coffee grinder; it sits in a decorative position on top of the fireplace mantle. One of these days I will put it on Ebay. Eric noticed it just the other night as he as walking by. “Oh,” he said suddenly, pointing to a lovely engraved brass plate on the front. “The coffee grinder is made by Peugeot.”

“That explains why it cost $80,” I said ruefully.

“And also why it doesn’t work very well,” he said.