The Coffee Grinder

© 1999, by Buck Meloy

For twenty years I ground my coffee by hand.

Nearly every morning when not away from home fishing, I would walk down to the kitchen, often in my bathrobe, and pour roasted coffee beans into the opening in the hand-grinder's domed top. Then I would stand there cranking the chromed handle by its enameled black knob until the beans had become grounds.

The cranking would take less than a minute, an almost sensual minute. The feeling of the grainy reduction of hard, useless beans into useful particles would reach up into my arms. The mingled harmony of their crunching teased my ears. Then their marvelous aroma would waft up to my nostrils as it fractured free from its prison of hardness. Right in my eager hands, they began to become what I love so about a cup of good coffee.

I would then grab the knob on the small drawer that had caught the grounds, pull it out of its place at the bottom of the grinder, and dump them into my coffeemaker. My method of brewing coffee had changed several times over the years, but my grinding routine had not.

And why would it? The old German coffee grinder had been a wedding present from an antique-dealing friend. Though at first I had trouble even remembering to buy whole beans, rather than grounds, I soon began to take pleasure in the simple act of grinding. The grinder's functional form and straight forward functioning were an eloquent testament to German engineering and craftsmanship. The grinder is really nothing more than a small box, its carefully mitered joints and varnished blond wood both sturdy and practical. In 20 years, it had required only a single adjustment -- the tightening of two of the four screws that held the chromed top, with its rotating rounded shutter, to the box of the base.

The only flourish or embellishment on the grinder, apart from the shapes of its two knobs, is the word "Dienes". It is engraved in script on the steel crank and printed on a small triangular decal, along with the tiny image of a buck's head and cross, above the grounds drawer.

My grinder has withstood the test of time and several household accidents. Its top is slightly dented where something heavy once fell on it. It collided with the floor at least twice, without apparent damage. And the warpage in its bottom, a result of standing several days in the liquid from a deteriorating pumpkin, has repaired itself. My relationship with this coffee grinder has been satisfying, full, gratifying.

Then trouble arrived.

It came in the form of a credit card offer: "a free gift if you charge only $500 using our card in the next 6 months!" As a red-blooded American, I was unable to resist. And only six months and four inquiries after my $500 in charges, a modern, white-plastic, electric coffee grinder arrived in my mailbox.

Though it, too, had a German name on it, it lacked the charm and simple elegance of its wooden forebear. Nevertheless, I was anxious to give it a try. Its package had been damaged in transit and, judging from the slight rattling sound it made when shaken, so had the grinder.

But when I plugged it in, added beans, and pushed the button, it ground!

Stunned by the harsh whine and grating screech it made, I released the button immediately. Seeing through the clear plastic top that the beans had been only partially ground, I braced myself and pushed the button again.

If the phone had rung or someone yelled "Fire!", I would not have heard them over the din, but the coffee beans were quickly reduced to a fine black powder. I inverted the grinder to spill the grounds into its plastic top, removed it, and dumped them into my french press coffeemaker. As always, I then poured in boiling water from the teakettle. Half an inch of black foam formed immediately on the surface. It would have overflowed had I filled the coffeepot to its usual level. I inserted the press. A squirt of gritty froth splashed onto the counter.

Nevertheless, when I plunged the press down, the result was fresh coffee, ready to enjoy. The coffee's flavor met my expectations. But the tacky layer of finely pulverized coffee bean that I later found at the bottom of the cup did not.

Instead of the subtle appellation "Dienes", the heavily black-inked word "KRUPS" blares from the white plastic housing. Pressed into the base are "Made in Mexico", a caution to read instructions before using, and the details of model # and electrical consumption. Because of its short cord, this grinder can only be used at the outlet near the sink. I must stand to use it, and it requires two hands to remove the lid and get the grounds from grinder to coffeepot.

Since I don't like its look, sound, feel, form, or function compared to my hand-grinder, why do I persist in using it?

Is it just the stubborn nature of fishermen?

Or can it be the 10 or 15 seconds it saves me each day? Or the pinch of loose grounds that occasionally spilled out of the wooden grinder and had to be wiped off the counter? Or worry that my image was becoming too antique?

Yet each morning, with jaws clenched in apprehensive anticipation, I remove the electric grinder's top, dump beans in, and push the button. Aiyee! The roar, the cold and sterile white plastic, the black froth! Am I doomed to repeat this unpleasantness forever?

I wonder whether this could be a potential metaphor for my marriage, which has now outlasted my use of the old coffee grinder. Would I as easily turn away from my wife for a shiny new model, one that promises all the benefits of the latter days of the 20th century? Do I crave new plastic? Am I sufficiently fickle to turn my back on familiar comfort, gratifying results, predictable performance?

If not about my marriage, perhaps this is a commentary on the sort of person who would actually charge $500 worth of goods on a particular credit card just to get something for nothing. Maybe my puritanical little soul will not allow me to accept something for nothing. It has doomed me, like Sisyphus, to struggle with this burden endlessly.

Or am I one with Coleridge's ancient mariner, now wearing this particular albatross around my neck, its cord occasionally splashing in my coffee cup? If so, I am also like the ancient mariner's doomed shipmates, staring at myself with a loathing so great that even death wouldn't staunch it, utterly becalmed by my lack of vision.


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