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#27 in coffee we trust
December 2020. On coffee, snobbery, and dating.
Dear readers old and new, welcome to my newsletter! If you’re new here, I’m Flory Leow, and this newsletter is usually sent on a monthly basis, sometimes more, sometimes less. It’s like a repository for a selection of interesting things on my mind––you might find an essay about papier-mache, my beloved road bike Sardine, or a long interview with a really cool food writer, plus a list of reading recommendations from across the Internet, and a fun Easter egg or two.
Read the archives here! This is a public dispatch, so if my writing brightens up your day or makes you think, you should share this indiscriminately with lots of people. Especially people who might want to hire someone to write things! <3
Lastly, a very happy New Year to you, wherever you are, and I hope 2021 brings moments of joy and better days ahead.
Like every other addict, I start each day with coffee. I’m not sure when this habit began, but it was probably just over a decade ago when I moved to London for university, with several packs of ChekHup’s 2 in 1 instant Ipoh white coffee stashed away in my suitcase. From then on, each flight back to Malaysia meant a coffee resupply trip. I used to knock back one a day for as long as my supplies lasted—a month, tops—before resorting to anything else. I learned to drink flat whites, cold brew, and then black coffee, but for a long time instant coffee anchored me on many mornings like little else.
Each pack contains a dozen sachets or so, and every morning I would stir one into boiling water. It doesn’t taste anything like real Ipoh white coffee, which is smooth and velvety, almost butterscotch-like, walloping you with caffeine at the tail end of each mouthful. The instant stuff is acrid and tastes like cheap, burnt milk—or more accurately, non-dairy creamer cut with a touch of milk protein. It is the pinnacle of crap coffee, and I loved it to bits.
If I were younger and more self-conscious, I would point to this as proof that I’m not a food snob. Like the instant coffee, this claim is complete rubbish. A pointed out yesterday that we get along well because we’re the same kind of snob, i.e. the kind of person who keeps multiple types of salt in the kitchen. I briefly considered defending my choices but realised I do, in fact, have six different salts, seven kinds of hot sauce, a Microplane zester and a mezzaluna in my kitchen. (This sort of snobbery is a useful quality in a tour guide, since it tends to be perceived as expertise rather than mere wankery.) I am in all likelihood going to wind up on Overheard at Waitrose one day; thankfully, I am unlikely to ever have a child named Horatio or Felicity.
While I’m disgustingly particular about food, this is less true when it comes to coffee. (Maybe.) I don’t buy single-origin beans. I enjoy too-hot convenience store coffee on work trips. I used to pretend I liked espressos. I also used to call them expressos. I can’t stand sour coffee—why would you want lime and cherry notes in your morning brew?—nor do I enjoy paying eye-watering sums for a tiny brown bag of beans. I buy ready-ground because I cannot be arsed. I used to make pour-overs in the mornings, but now prefer the near-instant gratification of Aeropress. I am rather cavalier when measuring the grounds, and often forget that I’ve left the coffee to brew for 20 minutes at a time. It will have the taste and consistency of charred ink, which is precisely how I like it, and I’ll take about 5 hours to finish drinking it. Sometimes I forget about it until the next morning and drain the mug before using it again to make a new cup. Yes, I like half-finished cold coffee. What of it?
If you drink coffee, you’ll understand just how it anchors the day. During the brief part of my twenties when I worked in an office, the best part of each morning was the first sip of coffee at my desk. In this job we often fielded calls and emails on weekends and late into the night, and on the worst days coffee felt not like a luxury but a survival mechanism.
One of my colleagues would take breaks to brew us a large jug, which would invariably be too weak, and for a short period of time I took over the making of mid-morning coffee. I liked the shared experience of addiction, the camaraderie that came with sipping a cheap blend out of IKEA mugs in a too-small office. Everyone drank theirs black. Black coffee felt like the only appropriate way to prepare for a call with a customer in response to their email full of inane questions. (I worked at a tour company, and 90% of queries could have been (but were not) answered with “read the website” or “look at a map”.) Sugared coffee doesn’t provide the same austere fury one needs for dealing with customers on a daily basis.
Either you are a coffee person or you are not. Frappuccinos and pumpkin spice lattes do not count—like I said, I'm a snob—and on balance, I prefer dating coffee drinkers.
Don’t get me wrong; I love tea as much as the next person, and I love all my tea-drinking friends—yes, even those who add milk before the tea bag, you absolute heathens—but I often think of someone I briefly dated a few years ago. As far as I remember he drank only tea, beer, sake, cocoa, and fruit smoothies. Beverage choices probably have nothing to do with how often someone name-drops their Ivy League credentials, but if you’re regularly seeing a tea drinker and they never, ever bother to keep any coffee in the pantry for you in the mornings, well, you might want to reevaluate your life choices.
(That said, coffee drinkers don’t always get it right. I once dated a smoker who drank coffee instead of water, which meant kissing him was always a bit like snogging an ashtray filled with Nescafe.)
When I first woke up next to A two years ago, he touched his nose to mine while I was still half-asleep, then made me coffee in a moka pot. I had never drunk this style of coffee, and found myself more than a little charmed. An inveterate coffee addict who made great puns! Sure, he’d invited me over to his place by suggesting we watch Interstellar on our first date, but on the other hand, I said yes, so really, who was the bigger nerd here?
(We never did watch Interstellar that night.)
We’ve drunk hundreds of coffees since, and likely pedaled the same distance in kilometers in search of beans. Not all the coffee has been good, but I’ve loved them all the same. There was the coffee we drank at Fuglen while tapping away at our laptops, me writing and him translating. The dark, kissa-style pour-over at my favourite jazz spot in Kyoto. A burnt coffee sipped out of a dangerously hot plastic cup outside Family Mart, a brief respite from cycling in the rain as the typhoon raging through Shikoku grew stronger by the minute. Iced lattes on a sweltering July morning at Turret Coffee. Two cups sipped out of a thermos on a snowy trail in Kamikochi, the metal warming our hands as we waited for the instant ramen to finish cooking.
(Incidentally, if you have never slurped on instant miso ramen while standing ankle-deep in snow, you are missing out. It is spicy and salty and perfect for snowshoeing.)
Then there’s the coffee we make when staying over at each other’s places. I am not one for routines or rituals but the one constant is coffee, the promise of which will eventually lure me out of bed. When I stay over he makes mine first, and vice versa. He is far more meticulous about brewing than I am. When I’m half-asleep, the sharp, snarling sounds from the kitchen tells me he’s putting the beans through his manual Porlex grinder. I like how he measures out exactly 18 grams into the Aeropress tube but invariably spills some onto the table, how he times the brew for a minute and 30 seconds, how my coffee always comes in the bright orange Pantone mug.
For my part, it usually takes an hour after the alarm to extricate myself from the duvet and stumble over to the kettle. I eyeball the coffee so it’s almost always too strong; his mug at mine is a delicate ceramic thing painted in shades of indigo. Sometimes when he’s being especially cheeky I threaten to swap out regular grounds for decaf, but fortunately I’ve never had to make good on that.
Making coffee reminds me, every time, how much I like waking up next to him, how lucky I’ve been to have had someone to make coffee for this year. I love the easy, companionable intimacy of a half hour lingering over breakfast and coffee. Things weren’t always easy; I wasn’t always easy to be around, particularly during the first half of this pandemic, but—as we joke—we haven’t thrown each other into a pit of spiders yet, so things must still be alright between us.
There was a brief period this year when I thought my coffee-drinking days were over, when I began taking antidepressants in October after 15 years of undiagnosed anxiety and depression. The best part is that they worked: I am far more light-hearted and sanguine about life than I can ever remember being. The worst part, besides the temporary weight gain of 2.5kg over two weeks (holy shit), was being told to give up coffee or switch to decaf.
On one hand, these are great problems to have. On the other hand, I love coffee.
“I don’t think I can associate with you anymore,” joked A.
“I’m not sure I can associate with myself,” I said, wincing a little.
Decaf is the consolation prize. Decaf says, you tried. Decaf is like asking for parmesan cheese and getting pencil shavings. It is a facsimile, a sad and often tasteless approximation of the real thing. Some decaf tastes better than others, but the good stuff has a nasty tendency to burn a hole in your wallet and still manages to taste like very little.
As it turns out, I didn’t need coffee anymore. I’ve struggled with mornings my whole life, but the combined magic of bupropion and sertraline was such that for the first week or two, a lesser person than A would have flung a book at me for being so annoyingly chirpy pre-coffee.
(This didn’t last long. I’m still groggy in the mornings.)
Even though I didn’t need coffee anymore, I wanted it. The entire point of waking up is to burn your mouth on that first sip of coffee. A morning without it is bereft, a mug-shaped void where coffee should be. I grudgingly took to decaf for several weeks, even packing a Ziploc bag of grounds for a long cycle through west Japan, nursing pots of tea and wistfully watching A drink double-shot lattes. Then I began testing the waters again: I stole sips of the real deal, and my heart did not explode from palpitations. Mixing regular and decaf in my morning mug had no discernible effects. A mid-afternoon latte only kept me up till 2am, when I would have been awake regardless. Against my better judgement, I’ve now returned, more or less, to regular caffeine consumption.
Time alternately crawled and raced by this pandemic year, the streets grew quieter and then returned to their busy selves, words like ‘quarantine’ and ‘pandemic’ gatecrashed our daily lexicon and refused to leave. I loved the certainty of coffee this year. It was the thread that stitched my days together, hundreds of cups blurring into one another. There was a time, pre-medication, when I thought I would not make it through this year, that my body would destroy itself from the sheer anxiety of existing. Amidst the turbulence of 2020, A stayed, and made me endless cups of coffee. I loved each one. I still do.
If you have any leeway to support this newsletter, I’d love it if you considered a paid subscription. I write to find readers to connect with, a personal, intimate readership like friends in a living room, without having to rely on large media publications.
Top 5: The best soup curry restaurants in Tokyo: Soup curry is the culinary love of my Japan life. I first wrote about soup curry back in 2013, and in 2020 it made up probably 50% of all my takeout meals. A dear friend told me she’d never met a soup curry she didn’t like, which is as good an endorsement as you’ll get. Not all soup curries are great, but it’s rare to find a terrible one. And that’s saying a lot.
Why local communities are important to the future of Japan’s ailing tourism industry: My first long-form front page feature for the JT! This took hours and hours of interviewing and far too much time to write. I’m pretty proud of it.
SpeakHer wants to end the all-male panel and bring women’s voices into a range of discussions: Where I was able to interview the delightful Yan Fan and Ann Kilzer, and chat with Robin Lewis on the subject. Down with manels!
Raise a glass to better days ahead with spiced winter sake: Otoso is Japan’s answer to mulled wine. It’s incredibly delicious, especially when made with good sake. Cannot recommend enough; go start 2021 the right way.
Our critics’ favorite books published in 2020: A book critic is I? A sharper critic would have remembered that the English translation of The Memory Police was published in 2019. Still, a fantastic and always-relevant read.
Top 5: Food trends our critics want to see Japan embrace in 2021: Despite over a decade of food writing, I’m not sure I can seriously call myself a food critic, but I’ll take it. Grateful to Linda and Terumi INOW for bringing plastic problems back into focus for me. (Another story for another time.)
Many thanks to Elliott Samuels, Alyssa Smith, Shaun McKenna, and especially Claire Williamson for commissioning these pieces and trusting me to write something reasonably readable for The Japan Times.
[In the past] you read it by grace […] and you can regain it by work. […] Your reading will be even better then, after a lifetime of thought and effort, because it will come from conscious understanding. Grace attained like that is deeper and fuller than grace that comes freely, and furthermore, once you’ve gained it, it will never leave you. — Philip Pullman, The Amber Spyglass
For long stretches of time in 2020 I thought I’d lost the will and ability to write, especially after I began medication. I’d recently reread His Dark Materials prior to watching the (excellent) BBC adaption. These words in particular stayed with me, and I had a nagging fear that my love for writing, the act of which once occupied the entirety of my waking thoughts, had faded to a shadow of itself. I was still writing, but much of it was work-related, with a specific purpose and a sense of what I needed to produce at the end of it. Cars, insurance, films, soup curry. Quote, collate, conclude.
Creating ‘content’ is palpably different from the sense of expansiveness that comes from, as Didion famously wrote, writing “to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.” Sometimes I wondered if it had only been the lifelong undercurrent of fear and pain, the constant fight-or-flight response, that had enabled me to respond to the world in words. Who was I without the (unfounded) crises that had dominated my psyche for all of my twenties? Did I have anything to say, really, after all that?
The longer you leave something or somewhere, the harder it is to return to, and for a time I found myself consciously choosing not to try, not to write, to instead attend to the million little mundanities demanded of a functioning life. I facilitated Zoom workshops, failed to pitch magazines, binge-read detective fiction, cycled a few hundred kilometres, unpicked a kimono, saw my therapist, dyed a shirt. It was a relief to find myself on the eve of New Year’s eve, in front of my computer for an 8-hour stretch, chiseling away at notes and paragraphs, not knowing where I was going until I’d finally reached the last sentence and looking out of the window into a sunless sky. Let no one say that writing is not work; it is like unravelling the threads and stitching them back together, it is thought, concentration, revision; it is from start to finish an act of grace. I hope it never leaves.
LONG READS, GOOD THINGS
[Folio] These Precious Days, By Ann Patchett (Harper’s Magazine)
How We Survive Winter (The New York Times)
Why I adore the night, by Jeanette Winterson (The Guardian)
What If You Could Do It All Over? (The New Yorker)
How to Be a Husband (Catapult)
A Bleed of Blue (Granta)
For the Love of Orange (The Paris Review)
Silence Like Scouring Sand (Orion Magazine)
Returning to Mandarin, on my own terms (Substack)
How The New Yorker Fell Into the “Weird Japan” Trap (The New Republic)
Hotel California (Kill Your Darlings)
The Joys of Frivolous Sex (The New York Times)
Castles in the Sky (Atavist)
Britain’s Covid Response Is Graphic Confusion (Bloomberg)
The Joylessness of Cooking (The New Yorker)
Yo-Yo Ma and the Meaning of Life (The New York Times)
The Breakup Museum (VQR)
Fucking Like A Housewife (The New Inquiry)