Yesterday was lovely. We took PalKid to her soccer game, and in usual Midwest fashion, a cold rain pelted and soaked us while the little ones ran around chasing the ball. This gave us an excellent excuse to find a warm coffee shop and get some hot chocolate. After verifying the nut-free status of the chocolate syrup, I ordered up a hot chocolate for her, and iced tea for Mrs. Pal, who really needed a palatable caffeine-delivery device rather than a warm-up, and then treated myself to something I hadn’t had in years.
My usual coffee drink are black espresso or black coffee. I’m not terribly interested in sugary, milky concoctions that come with more calories and GI distress than a simple doppio. But I was cold, wet, and wanted something I hadn’t had in years: a mocha, which in the usual cafe parlance is steamed milk with chocolate syrup (hot chocolate) with a shot of espresso. It’s not overly sweet, allowing some of the more subtle chocolate and coffee flavors to emerge. I expected a flashback to a cool, foggy day in the Richmond district of San Francisco, studying organic chemistry and enjoying a shot of strong Peet’s coffee in a cup of minimally sweetened hot chocolate.
Instead, it took me further back. When I was just out of college, I was living in Arizona, looking for a job in the last big recession before this one. I applied for teaching jobs, but the substitute pool was overloaded with the recently laid-off. There was a Greek deli across the street form my apartment, and I asked the old guy there if he’d hire me, but he wasn’t interested. I figured I’d better clean up a bit. I went to a local barber and asked him to cut my hair, which at the time was impressively voluminous. We were chatting, he heard I was looking for a job, and refused to take any money for the cut—he told me to just come back for more hair cuts once I had a job (which I did). I put out more applications for university jobs and retail jobs, and finally wandered back into the deli one day for a sandwich. The old guy, who I usually chatted with, said, “hey, kid, you want a job?” I said, “Sure, but you already turned me down once.”
“Impossible. Been lookin’ for someone for a while.”
“I had a lot more hair back then,” I reminded him.
“That was you? It’s a good thing you got a goddamn haircut. When can you start?”
He and his wife (both in their 80’s) taught me how to cook a variety of popular Greek dishes, and it wasn’t a bad job as these things go. The deli was at a corner where four postal routes met, so at lunch time four postal carriers would stop in and have iced tea and sandwiches, along side tar-stained roofers escaping the heat of the Arizona mid-day sun.
For lunch, I would usually throw a slice of feta and some olives on a plate, drizzle them with some olive oil, and enjoy with a piece of bread, maybe with skorthalia. But during the day I would snack on chocolate-covered coffee beans, something I’d never tried before. I felt like the apocryphal Ethiopian goat, nibbling on an odd-tasting fruit, getting a nice buzz, and going back for more. I hadn’t thought of that for years, until I finished my mocha yesterday. Left in my mouth was a nutty, chocolaty taste near the back of my tongue, identical to the chocolate-covered beans of decades ago.
The surprises that a taste-memory can bring are remarkable, even more so for being unexpected.