Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

30 MAY, 2013

Coffee, It’s a Man’s Drink: Esquire’s Vintage Rules for Brewing the Perfect Cup

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“No aspect of your cooking skill will bring you greater or more lasting pleasure than the ability to prepare the drink that stimulates wit and digestion.”

We’ve seen how coffee changed the world, inspired Bach cantatas, became 20th-century art, and came to dominate many writers’ daily routines. But how, exactly, does one brew the perfect cup? After George Orwell’s 11 golden rules for the perfect cup of tea, it’s time for a vintage guide to coffee bliss. From a section titled “Coffee: The Cup That Cheers” in Esquire’s Handbook for Hosts: A Time-Honored Guide to the Perfect Party (public library) — the same 1949 time-capsule of the era’s gender stereotypes that gave us this amusingly appalling questionnaire to determine your attractiveness to the opposite sex — comes Esquire’s guide to the art of coffee. The magazine, of course being in the business of selling men their masculinity and assuaging their gender-role dissonance over mastering the domestic sphere of cooking and entertaining, makes no apologies for depicting this as a decidedly man’s art. Imbibe and chuckle.

When coffee was introduced in Europe in the 16th century, people thought that it rendered women frigid and even barren; a law was promptly passed in Constantinople giving husbands the right to prevent the use of coffee by their wives. Maybe that’s why the average woman, to this day, can’t make a good cup of coffee. It must be that, basically, coffee is a man’s drink. When subjected to the economies of drugstore waitresses or the casual inattention of wives, the cup that cheers but does not inebriate is apt to become a mean, thin liquid with almost unlimited capacities for discouraging real coffee lovers.

So know ye this: no aspect of your cooking skill will bring you greater or more lasting pleasure than the ability to prepare the drink that stimulates wit and digestion. Coffee splices all loose ends, greets the cheese gladly, and spreads a mantle of aromatic warmth.

Here are some of the basic rules for making it properly:

  1. Use only freshly roasted, freshly ground coffee.
  2. Start with cold, fresh water — and if it is to be poured over the coffee when boiling be sure to pour it as soon as it boils, lest the oxygen be dispelled and the water be made tasteless by long boiling.
  3. Make sure your equipment is spotlessly clean.
  4. Always measure ingredients carefully and time the brewing-period exactly — so you can be sure to duplicate your method time after time once you have settled on the proper combination of water, coffee and time.

Beyond that, your own taste is boss.

The guide then outlines four types of coffee to play with preparing:

Using one of the following systems, experiment until you’ve reached coffee of the proper strength to match your memory of the best cup of coffee you ever sipped. The proportion usually recommended is 1 tablespoon of coffee to each cup of water, with an extra tablespoon of coffee “for the pot.” With men who ken coffee, 2 tablespoons to 1 cup is a more favored strength. And some, to avoid long perking or simmering and the consequent bitter taste, use even a greater proportion of coffee. But there’s as much variation in the strength of different coffee blends as there is in the tastes of coffee-drinkers, so suit yourself.

DRIP COFFEE
Coffee is put into the top part of the drip coffeemaker. Water is brought to a boil separately, then poured over the coffee — to drip through to the bottom part of the coffeemaker. Some fanatics insist that the water be poured over the coffee a mere spoonful at a time; others run the water through the coffee 2 or 3 times for added strength. The only certain rules are: preheat the coffee pot with hot water; use drip-grind coffee; stand pot in a warm place so coffee won’t cool during the drip process.

GLASSMAKER COFFEE
Water is put into the lower bowl, upper bowl is fitted in, complete with filter or rod, then coffee is placed in the upper bowl. When water is hot, it rises through the tube into the upper bowl. Then as soon as stream comes up through the tube and agitates the mixture, the fire is turned off. Gradually, then, the coffee filters into the lower bowl — from which you serve it. Or — you may prefer to allow the coffee to simmer in the upper bowl for 2 to 5 minutes, for a stronger brew. Or — you may put only an inch or so of the water in the lower bowl (enough to create a vacuum when it boils) and heat the remainder of the required water separately, to be poured over the coffee grounds as for drip coffee. In any case, pulverized coffee is used.

OLD FASHIONED COFFEE POT
For this method, favored of our forebears, coffee should be coarsely ground. Dry coffee goes into the pot (or ordinary saucepan) first, then cold water. Bring to a boil, simmer 5-8 minutes, then take it off the stove. A dash of cold water will settle the grounds — or an eggshell thrown into the brew at the outset will have the same effect. Even so, you need a strainer for pouring.

PERCOLATOR COFFEE
Use same proportions as for pot coffee, but use medium-ground coffee — halfway between drip grind and pot grind. Coffee goes into the basket in the percolator, water into the pot; then the water “perks” through the coffee until it is the strength you like: about 8 minutes. With a glass percolator, you can see how you’re doing throughout the process; others have a glass piece on top so you can get a glimpse of the brew as it perks.

Whatever the method used, coffee is best when freshly made. ONce you’ve got your own coffeemaking timed, you’ll know just when to fade from your dinner table in order to have fresh coffee ready by dessert-time or maybe you’ll latch onto an electric coffeemaker that can do its fragrant work right at the table. Ben Jonson said, “as he brews, so shall he drink.” Good drinking!

Esquire’s Handbook for Hosts: A Time-Honored Guide to the Perfect Party goes on to offer a toolkit for entertaining spanning from the fine points of sauces to the art of conversation to after-dinner dirty tricks.

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30 MAY, 2013

Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Playfully Lewd Self-Portrait

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Poetic amusement from the only woman who can get away with calling Edmund Wilson “Bunny.”

Edna St. Vincent Millay may be one of the most celebrated poets of the twentieth century and the recipient of the 1923 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, only the third woman to win the award, but she also possessed the rare — especially in literary circles — talent for not taking herself too seriously and knowing how to infuse her craft with the proper dose of playfulness and lighthearted creative revelry. Much of that shines through in The Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay (public library) — the terrific out-of-print tome that gave us Millay’s stirring love letters to Edith Wynn Matthison and her lyrical ode to the love of music — but nowhere more brilliantly than in a letter from the summer of 1920.

One evening in July, Millay and two of her friends, poet John Peale Bishop and legendary literary critic Edmund Wilson, at the time managing editor of Vanity Fair, amused themselves by writing poetic self-portraits. Hers bespeaks in equal measures her playful spirit, keen self-awareness, and relaxed acceptance of sensuality, as well as exuding a healthy confidence in the merits of her own naked body:

E. St. V. M.

Hair which she still devoutly trusts is red.
Colorless eyes, employing
A childish wonder
To which they have no statistic
Title.
A large mouth,
Lascivious,
Aceticized by blasphemies.
A long throat,
Which will someday
Be strangled.
Thin arms,
In the summer-time leopard
With freckles.
A small body,
Unexclamatory,
But which,
Were it the fashion to wear no clothes,
Would be as well-dressed
As any.

In an August 3 letter to Wilson — whom she addresses as “Bunny” (a nickname charmingly incongruous with the critic’s famously curmudgeonly literary persona) and who would eventually come to propose to her, only to receive a polite declination — Millay writes of the semi-scandalous verse:

I have thought of you often, Bunny, & wondered if you think of me with bitterness.

My sister is amused & disgusted by my lewd portrait of myself. At her suggestion, which I now feel to be a wise one, I beg you not to circulate it. If you have not shown it to [Vanity Fair editor] Mr. Crowninshield, please don’t. If you have, it doesn’t matter, but do shatter at once, in that case, any illusion he may have as to publishing it.

The Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay, though sadly long out of print, is a feast for the heart and mind from cover to cover.

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28 MAY, 2013

The Power of Process: What Young Mozart Teaches Us About the Secret of Cultivating Genius

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On the “powerful blend of instruction, encouragement, and constant practice.”

“The trick to creativity … is to identify your own peculiar talent and then to settle down to work with it for a good long time,” observed Denise Shekerjian in reflecting on her insightful interviews with MacArthur “genius” grantees. “Success is the product of the severest kind of mental and physical application,” attested Thomas Edison. “It is the man who carefully advances step by step, with his mind becoming wider and wider … who is bound to succeed in the greatest degree,” Alexander Graham Bell proclaimed. And yet our culture continues to perpetuate the notion that genius is a “God”-given blessing.

In The Genius in All of Us: New Insights into Genetics, Talent, and IQ (public library), David Shenk presents a rigorously researched blend of historical evidence and scientific data to debunk the myth that genius is a special gift serendipitously bestowed upon the chosen few and shows, instead, that it is the product of consistent, concentrated effort, applied in the direction of one’s natural inclination. But beyond the familiar argument for the power of process, Shenk stresses the importance of early childhood experience in recognizing and cultivating the inklings of talent, and building the right framework for achievement. He gives “the mystifying boy genius” Mozart as a prime example:

Anonymous portrait of the child Mozart, possibly by Pietro Antonio Lorenzoni; painted in 1763 on commission from Leopold Mozart (public domain)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart [was] alleged to be an instant master performer at age three and a brilliant composer at age five. His breathtaking musical gifts were said to have sprouted from nowhere, and his own father promoted him as the “miracle which God let be born in Salzburg.”

The reality about Mozart turns out to be far more interesting and far less mysterious. His early achievements — while very impressive, to be sure — actually make good sense considering his extraordinary upbringing. And his later undeniable genius turns out to be a wonderful advertisement for the power of process. Mozart was bathed in music from well before his birth, and his childhood was quite unlike any other. His father, Leopold Mozart, was an intensely ambitious Austrian musician, composer, and teacher who had gained wide acclaim with the publication of the instruction book A Treatise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing. For a while, Leopold had dreamed of being a great composer himself. But on becoming a father, he began to shift his ambitions away from his own unsatisfying career and onto his children — perhaps, in part, because his career had already hit a ceiling: he was [assistant music director]; the top spot would be unavailable for the foreseeable future.

Uniquely situated, and desperate to make some sort of lasting mark on music, Leopold began his family musical enterprise even before Wolfgang’s birth, focusing first on his daughter Nannerl.

[…]

Then came Wolfgang. Four and a half years younger than his sister, the tiny boy got everything Nannerl got — only much earlier and even more intensively. Literally from his infancy, he was the classic younger sibling soaking up his big sister’s singular passion. As soon as he was able, he sat beside her at the harpsichord and mimicked notes that she played. Wolfgang’s first pings and plucks were just that. But with a fast-developing ear, deep curiosity and a tidal wave of family know-how, he was able to click into an accelerated process of development.

The Mozart family on tour: Leopold, Wolfgang, and Nannerl. Watercolor by Carmontelle, 1763 (public domain)

But buried in Shenk’s argument for the power of nurture is also a subtle but menacing dark side that speaks to the power of how social norms and gender expectations shape the investment in nurture:

As Wolfgang became fascinated with playing music, his father became fascinated with his toddler son’s fascination — and was soon instructing him with an intensity that far eclipsed his efforts with Nannerl. Not only did Leopold openly give preferred attention to Wolfgang over his daughter; he also made a career-altering decision to more or less shrug off his official duties in order to build an even more promising career for his son. This was not a quixotic adventure. Leopold’s calculated decision made reasonable financial sense in two ways: First, Wolfgang’s youth made him a potentially lucrative attraction. Second, as a male, Wolfgang had a promising, open-ended future musical career. As a woman in eighteenth-century Europe, Nannerl was severely limited in that regard.

From age three, then, Wolfgang had an entire family driving him to excel with a powerful blend of instruction, encouragement, and constant practice. He was expected to be the pride and financial engine of the family, and he did not disappoint.

How many genius-level female composers never received this “powerful blend” we’ll never know. But the bigger point in The Genius in All of Us resonates loud and clear: To reap the fruits of genius, we must plant the seeds of practice and process.

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