The Magazine

Uncommon Grounds

Jonathan V. Last, Java man

May 12, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 33 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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The affair ended as suddenly as it began.

Jori Bolton

Jori Bolton

Twelve years ago I purchased a mid-grade espresso machine. It wasn’t the sort of thing they sell at Macy’s, but neither was it one of the beautiful, artisanal devices that start north of $1,000. It was, I told myself at the time, firmly in the range of acceptable indulgence. In the ensuing years, it was put to use—at roughly 6:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m.—pretty much every day. And what espresso it made.

I used only Illy grounds. Illy is a fancy Italian coffee, and while you can find the beans in most supermarkets today, it was different when I first started using it. When Illy came into my life—this was back in 2001—it was packaged in beautiful, silver canisters, and you could only get them by striking up a relationship with someone who imported Italian food and could special order the stuff. My friend Scott introduced me to Illy. He, in turn, had been brought to it by his wife, an elegant woman who spent a good chunk of her twenties in Italy and spoke the language fluently.

Illy and I were happy together. It accompanied me through bachelorhood and into marriage, when it served as a delicate elixir on quiet mornings, and then past the arrival of children, when it became something more like a legal and medically necessary drug. 

One day last year, while strolling down the coffee aisle at the market, I stopped to pick up another can of Illy—at my house we go through them at a frightful rate. Next to the familiar, gleaming cylinders was an ugly, squat black can of Lavazza. I had seen it before a thousand times, but never really noticed it. For no good reason, I picked it up and took it home. And discovered that I liked it. Preferred it even. To Illy.

Scott was not amused. When I told him of the switch a few weeks later, he compared me to Tiger Woods. “It’s like you’re married to this beautiful Swedish model,” he said. “She’s given you her best years, and then one day you decide it might be fun to step out with some waitress you met at Perkins.”

He wasn’t wrong, exactly. The Illy was expensive and sophisticated. The Lavazza was cheap. But it was different. And exciting. “Do you know what ‘Lavazza’ means?” Scott asked. “It’s Italian for ‘Maxwell House.’ ”

A little less than a year later, Lavazza and I were through. I went crawling back to Illy and—here’s the good news—she took me back. Taste will out.

The chief problem with acquiring good taste is that it can become expensive. Over the years I’ve tried consciously to keep my tastes at a proletarian level. In some realms I’ve succeeded. I drink little enough that I find it difficult to tell the difference between a $7 bottle of wine and a $35 bottle. When it comes to liquor, I couldn’t distinguish between an 18-year-old, single-malt scotch and something brewed in a bathtub. And never having owned a car worth more than $20,000, I have a vague appreciation for fine automobiles but no real interest in them.  

It’s easy enough to avoid getting acclimated to a Ferrari. Cigars have been harder. There are few pleasures in life more sublime than smoking a cigar on the beach during that magic hour just before the sun sets, and I indulge every so often. But I’ve had to be careful to avoid the good stuff, because once you’ve developed a taste for high-end cigars, middling smokes become abhorrent. Or so I’ve heard.

Aside from the money, I’ve always had the vague suspicion that there’s something morally questionable about cultivating taste. The hippies disparage it as soulless consumerism; Christians view it as giving this passing, fallen world an undue hold over our hearts. And even if you’re not a hippie, or a Christian, or a Christian-hippie, everyone hates a snob.

Except the French. In France, a certain degree of snobisme is to be respected—a mark of the discriminating mind and something to aspire to. Un snob is a person who, rather than clodishly giving the world power over him, has taken the time to cultivate an appreciation for the finest. Squint hard enough and you might even call it your Christian duty to embrace le snobisme.

Which is why I’ve made my peace with Illy. For now, anyway. I’ve got my eye on a home roasting machine and have begun talks with a Hawaiian coffee farmer to buy raw Kona beans direct. Maybe I can get away with trying a little home-roasted Kona on the side.

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