My first cappuccino came from Peet’s. It was my first buzz. My ears rang. Birds sang. The cloudy skies of San Francisco opened and I heard the singing voice of God. When my kids want to give me a present, they know I’ll always squeal over a bag of beans from Peet’s or, more recently, Blue Bottle. There is a little sack of roasted love in my kitchen right now, even though I’m a thousand miles from the nearest store.
The founders of Starbucks were personal friends of Alfred Peet, and for the first year they were open in Seattle they used Peet’s coffee beans. Peet’s was the first coffee shop to brutally train its staff to be expert baristas. My daughter Kate can attest: she can taste your coffee, tell you what kind of bean went into it and where it came from. I am so proud.
Starbucks continued that tradition of excellence for a while, but I think now they just catch you at their booth in the grocery store or Target and hand you coffee flavored sugar in a paper cup like everyone else.
I was in San Fran last weekend. One of my favorite tourist stops is the Ferry Building, kind of an indoor strip mall with boats in the parking lot. I go there because they have a gourmet baguette store right next to a gourmet cheese store right next to a gourmet wine store. The wine store has tables, because of course they know exactly what you’re going to do.
I also discovered a Peet’s coffee shop. I haven’t been to an actual store since my first visit twenty years ago. It was a shiny mall place, not the frumpy dark little shop I first visited, but still.
“A double-shot cappuccino, please.” I have never really tried anything else. Why would I?
“What size?” the barista asked. Okay, I don’t want to call him a barista any more, because a barista wouldn’t ask that question. Let’s call him Ed, because it’s better than the name I called him in my head, which rhymes with boron.
I smiled as kindly as I could. “A double-shot, please.”
“Small, medium, or large?”
It’s like ordering a dozen oranges, and having them ask how many gallons you want. Almost the right question, but not quite. I felt that I didn’t really have the right tools to communicate with him, so I tried again meekly. “You know how big one shot is?” I asked. “Big enough for two of those, with a little steamed milk on top, please. Like a cappuccino.”
“Our ‘small’ has two shots in it,” he said helpfully.
“Small it is, then!” I clapped happily for him, elated to have arrived at my goal much sooner than expected. I went to the “pickup” counter and watched the Keeper of The Steam expertly work a pitcher of cream into a cloud-like froth. Then to my horror she dumped the entire pitcher’s contents into my mug. I wouldn’t have been more startled if she had thrown the hot cream on my shirt.
Stunned, I headed for the exit, grabbing a plastic spoon on the way, and frantically shoveled cream out of my cup as if performing the Heimlich maneuver. When my strip-mining operation eventually hit coffee, I stopped and took a hopeful sip. It tasted like what it looked like: a mug full of beige cream. The time has passed in my life when I could drink a pint of cream for lunch, so I dropped it in the garbage on my way out, and it hit the bottom with the thud of a small pig.
There is a happy ending. Hours later, in the neighborhood of beat poets and blow-up dolls, I ducked out of the rain into Caffe Trieste, where I watched a large, dark, bitter man tamp grounds by hand and coax out the most extraordinary cappuccino ever, caramel-colored coffee oils staining the foamy cap’s edges like a tiara. “That is the most perfect cappuccino I have ever seen in my life,” I told him in honest awe. He raised his eyes long enough to imply, “Who cares what you think, Tourist Boy?” Wow, even his attitude was perfect for a barista.
The even happier ending was the reminder of how full of fortune my life is, that I can whine over coffee. The day after I returned to Omaha, a baby was found dead of starvation next to his mother, who had died a week earlier. Nobody looked in on them during three weeks of Christmas season. I know how lucky I am, and how fluffy soft is my place in this world.
Alfred Peet, the coffee shop’s founder, died last August. I paused to celebrate the special man I never met, and I raised a cappuccino in his honor.
Of course, to get it right, I had to make it myself.