A Shot of the Dark

A Brief History of an Espresso Obsessive

By David Claude Bailey

It was at Friendly Shopping Center’s Potpourri gift shop that I purchased the shining brass apparatus that turned my yen for European espresso into an obsession. It was a flip-drip, Neapolitan coffee maker that I fueled with Medalgia D’Oro, which always smells ever so slightly — and invitingly — of burnt anchovies.

A gruff Frenchman pulled my first cup of espresso in a bar in Cherbourg, where the rising sun fell on dock workers throwing back shots of espresso and something vile in tiny, little glasses. Hitchhiking across Europe at 16, the intensity of Europe’s café experience and the potent black jets of java rocked my world.

But my mother had prepared me for espresso in my hometown of Reidsville by keeping a percolator on our stove reheating and re-perking coffee. As the day progressed, a dark slurry coalesced so potent it triggered endorphins before I knew I had them.

Since then, I’ve led a coffee-centric life, preparing gallons of the stuff in a succession espresso machines and pots, one of which I backpacked into the Grand Canyon. I remember in the ’60s and ’70s when espresso in fancy American restaurants was accompanied by a lemon peel and cube of sugar that you dipped into your brew. I had espresso in Greenwich Village and Pike Place Market before Starbucks existed. I spent a week in Trieste at Illy’s Università del Caffè learning barista skills for an article for Delta’s in-flight magazine, Sky. Later, Dennis Quaintance kindly did not fire me after an enthusiastic coffee consultant and I recalibrated the machines at Green Valley Grill, triggering a fire storm of complaints from regulars whose coffee was suddenly kicked up several notches. I’ve had inexpressibly bad espressos traveling in Peru, Malaysia, Greece, and, yes, even in Italy, France and Spain, from self-serve machines in gas stations.

But the oddest cup of espresso I’ve ever had was in Reidsville. A few years ago, I’d discovered that McDonald’s has decent espresso for $1.38 if you can coach the cashier to find it on the computer screen. For the longest time, the manager had to be called over to make it, but nowadays, most of the burger flippers are sufficiently cross-trained to realize all you have to do is hit the right button.

So one day on the way home from taking my sister hiking at Hanging Rock I informed her I was stopping at the Lucky City’s McDonald’s to have an espresso. “This is Reidsville,” she said. “They won’t know how to make it.” I countered, “If they serve coffee, which they do, they’ll have it.” She gave me that look that said, “you’ve always been bull-headed.”

I was able to help the cashier put in the order and got my endorphin receptors ready — as I waited and waited and waited. I noticed a gaggle of employees around the coffee machine. Finally, the manager came over to say that they were working on my order. After an eternity, a chagrined clerk came forward with my espresso. “Something’s wrong with our machine,” he said. “It took forever to get your cup full, but here it is.” It was luke-warm and instead of an ounce and a half of java, the cup brimmed with at least ten espresso shots pulled one after another.

You can go home again, but you might not get a decent cup of espresso.  OH

Contributing Editor David Claude Bailey concedes that you can get an excellent cup of espresso in downtown Reidsville at Sip Coffee House.

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