Cup of Joe

In lieu of real or meaningful content, I thought I’d take a moment this morning to discuss coffee cups. Those of you who know me in the real world are aware of the fact that I had a coffee cup surgically implanted in my hand at the age of seventeen. (OK – I only WISH I did. I spend half my life wandering around wondering where I left my coffee cup on weekends.)

On your average morning – like this morning – I make myself a pot of coffee. The pot is thermal. The coffee is Starbucks Sumatra, but at about half the recommended potency. I will drink between one and three of these pots a day. On a work morning, I make my pot, give my husband a teeny cup, then fill a 16 oz mug and a 16 oz thermos. During one summer job during college, my commute was so long I made a 16 oz mug, a 16 oz thermal mug and a 16 oz thermos and would have all of it consumed by the time I got to work. During college – at which time you could tell my relative poverty by the fact I was drinking Maxwell House (although I would cut it with Starbucks if I could get any) – I used to store my coffee cup in my coat pocket. For one class, I’d have my 16 oz mug, my 16 oz thermos and a 16 oz mug for a friend in my pocket. I was a good friend.

Let us speak for a moment of the platonic ideal of the travel coffee mug. I give you this one:

Starbucks Coffee mug c1997

This might be my very favorite coffee mug (although the one with the dancing skeletons I use during Halloween is a close second).

Prime attributes:
– Perfect size
– Perfect shape
– Plastic thermal mug is ideal temperature wise (more on that in a bit)
– Lightweight
– Relatively durable (this mug is – cough – 18 years old)
– Beautiful design

Starbucks used to make these mugs all the time. They were all the same basic design, but with different pictures. I have an impressionist one, a red hispanic themed one, the aforementioned dancing skeletons… I had an extensive collection. They cost five or six dollars and came with a free drink. (For reference, my current drink costs $4.44 so that would be an excellent deal for me. Plus it’s $.10 off every drink you get in your own mug!) It’s a good thing I did since five or six years ago (more?), they stopped making them. They branched out to different designs – every mug having a different profile. They’ve innovated themselves out of something I loved!

The back of the mug, with the Space Needle in the background. 1997 represents the period where Starbucks was just beginning to explode as a global company, but was still strongly rooted in Seattle.

Right now Starbucks is basically only offering stainless steel travel mugs, to my sorrow. My problem with that is that I drink my coffee black. I pour it the second it comes out of my Mr. Coffee (not because I’m a purist – because I’m late for work). So it’s near boiling when I put it in my stainless steel mug. It stays near boiling for a looooooong time. I’m guessing the people who love these mugs add milk or creamer so they don’t burn their tongues off.

Which brings me to my last idiosyncrasy (I swear, half of my externally visible oddness has to do with my coffee habits…) I drink my coffee from these travel mugs with a straw. Always have. I learned to drink coffee and to drive at literally the same time. (Coincidence? I think not.) When I fell in love with java was when I was putting nearly a thousand miles EVERY WEEK on my parents car. (Loving parents!) I was in the car 2 to 3 hours a day, every day. Maybe more. Often first thing in the morning. If you drink out of a mug regularly in the car, you have to tilt your head back to finish it (briefly taking your eyes off the road). You also have to be more coordinated than I am, or you spill coffee on yourself. (Personally, I consider au de caffeine my personal perfume.) I neatly solved both of these problems by grabbing a straw from Starbucks and using it in mug until it breaks. In a positive innovation, Starbucks has recently started selling durable straws (for use in their cold beverages, they claim) which do not break. This is a bonus.

Thus, the on-the-go coffee.

When I’m home, as I am today, I prefer my coffee in a non travel mug. (At which time I do not use a straw, if you’re curious.) I’d never had quite a favorite, until about a year ago. I inherited a few small things from my paternal grandparents. Some pieces of jewelry. The melamine plates and bowls my grandma served me cookies on. A handthrown clay coffee mug with birds.

My grandmother’s cup
I particularly like how the birds are actually etched into the pottery. You can feel the design with your fingers. I bet this mug would be lovely to a blind person too.

I don’t know why I like it so much. I’m not even – on calm reflection – sure how I know it came from my grandma. (Relatives, can anyone confirm, or remember it?) But it’s perfect. It’s warm to the hands, but doesn’t lose heat too quickly, or scald. It conforms perfectly to the proportions of my hand. It holds just the right amount of coffee for consuming at my pace without getting cold. And the three birds on it look cheerful. There’s a name of the artist neatly signed on the bottom in bell hook-esque cursive: “betty belle”. It’s as though the fifties blew me a kiss in the shape of a coffee cup. I love it.

One of the great curses of using beautiful objects is that they are exposed to risk in the use. That platonic ideal Starbucks mug hasn’t held coffee in over 10 years because it has a crack. If I put coffee in it, that design will be gone forever. I suppose I should just throw it away, but I don’t want to. Wandering around the house doing chores in my slippers – one day I’ll move wrong and drop my grandmother’s mug and it will shatter. It is pottery, thrown and designed by hand. It is breakable. I will mourn, but I’ll have the memory of a hundred hot cups to console me. I’ll take the great memories of a mug loved and lost over an intact cup in the back of my cupboard any day of the week.

I’ve Googled betty belle and come up with nothing. I like to imagine she was a Boeing housewife who did pottery in her spare time to supplement her income. She was almost certainly a Seattle area artist.

What’s your favorite coffee cup? What’s that object you touch every day that brings you pleasure every time you use it?

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5 thoughts on “Cup of Joe

  1. I still have the Starbucks mug you gave me when I graduated. It really is the perfect travel design.

    I now bring a thermos to work every day. After about the fourth price increase on the Green Mountain swill they serve downstairs, I could no longer justify buying my afternoon fix…

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  2. I came late to coffee drinking…30 when Mike was on a business trip and Terry Culpan our artist friend would check on the boys and myself on his evening walk. I would join in a cup and became addicted. (there are worse )Brenda, you started me on the starbucks cup with straw and I sit here now with the same.

    One of the things I most love about your posts is how you take everyday objects or occurrences and hold them up turning them about like a crystal in light to spark various musings. It gives me both pleasure and insight to then hear your thoughts and by reflection to see YOU revealed. As always hugs and love.

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  3. Ah, Coffee! As I respond to your post I am on my first cup of the day. Since I am a day sleeper, this is a very important moment. All those old commercials about Folgers being the best part of waking up were true- Folgers is my wake-up coffee. I will progress to more robust blends later, but Folgers is my ‘baby load’, something to help the synapses fire until I can think of things other than coffee.

    I did not grow up liking coffee. Like a large segment of the population I consumed soft drinks for my caffeine, usually with an unhealthy dose of sugar. I was hooked on a drink that had double the caffeine and sugar long before Jolt or any of those short lived experiments before Red Bull started to clutter the airwaves with those silly adverts. It was called Double Cola. It was cheap and could kick start like a defibrillator! But one cold day (cold for California, a chilly 45 degrees) I was working in an orange packing house for extra cash and I hit bottom. I did not have money for the vending machine to get a soft drink, but noticed the coffee urn. You were supposed to make a donation, but I grabbed a large cup of whatever, loaded it with sugar and creamer to make it palatable, and jugged off to load a boxcar with boxes of oranges.

    There are times in your life when you have an epiphany- when my first child was born, when after being raised in church and straying you realize that the faith of your parents and childhood was the only thing you really believed and dedicate yourself again- stuff like that. That first cup was one of those moments. After the best morning of my life, I have tried to repeat that safe wonderful moment for the last 30 years. It never grows old! Ah, coffee, sweet ambrosia! I like everything about it. I like the smell of the grounds, the sound of it perking. I like all the paraphernalia, the cups particularly. I have several that are my ‘favorite.’ I get attached to my cups and all have a certain place. I have two for the car, one for waling around, one for outside, etc. I suppose I am a part of the ‘Coffee Culture’, yet I do not experiment much in the realm. By that I mean I am fairly pedestrian in my choices. I like Dunkin’ Donuts as much as an expensive Kona or Kenyan blend. I know enough about the bean to discuss the virtues of Aribica vs. Robusta and various locations where it is grown, but I really don’t care. I am firmly entrenched in middle age, and as Picard said I have more days behind me than in front of me. I don’t have time to waste on frivolous or hip blends. Each cup must perform as it is meant to. I don’t have the time to become a trend setter! Having said that, I am partial to Caribou. I was a Starbuck’s man for a very long time. I spent a lot of time in the shop in Visalia, California. At the time- the late 90’s- I was transporting some fellows to classes and as they were closed Mental Health sessions, I had hours to kill. Starbuck’s is where I spent them. It was a wonderful experience. I still remember the music they played fondly.

    At any rate, thank you for the post! As I have said before, an old fellow like myself appreciates following the antics of a young family a lot like my own 20 years ago. We share a lot of the same enthusiasms, and it does me good! Keep on brewing.

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