It seems to me I’ve always been friends with poets. Even in the midst of graduate school--when people sometimes picked teams—you could find me at the poet table waving at the fiction writers.
I am, I should note, a fiction writer and a food writer. So I feel like a bit of an imposter guest blogging here, but I also feel at home.
Hello friends! Poets! Hello. Sit down. Would you like something to drink?
For 10 years I served as Artistic Director for the Gist Street Reading Series in Pittsburgh. There, we hosted a prose writer and a poet each month on the third floor of James Simon’s sculpture studio. Heading out for drinks with the writers after the reading was one of my favorite things to do. Friendships formed over stories and laughter. Beer, cocktails, wine, coffee. It didn’t matter.
For this week I've decided to recreate that moment to a degree by taking a series of poets living in Pittsburgh out for drinks. Ideally, these posts will serve as an introduction to a host of great poets with a bonus tour of excellent places to get coffee and cocktails and beer in Pittsburgh (poetic drink insight included). --Sherrie Flick
The Extra-short Americano: Your Brief History
By Heather McNaugher
"Roomy 8 oz. Americano made with the scalding hot water, not whatever tepid, lukewarm bath water comes out of that machine." Commonplace Coffee Co., Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh
When you’re a housecleaner who covets a career change to a high-end artisan espresso roasteria in Seattle in 1995, you had better make sure your drink is in order. No more Venti Vanilla Half-caf Soy Latte with Whip. You need to streamline and taste coffee, not obscure it in so much cotton candy.
There are many ways to order this drink. Most involve hand gestures for maximum control over the barista who in lamb-chops and National tee is, by nature of his craft, a perfectionist and control freak. He doesn’t need your help. You point to the tower of 8 oz. to-go cups. Staying or going, the to-go cup gives you options. With your thumb and index finger you make a letter-C, about six ounces high. “Extra-short 8 oz. Americano to go.” Next, using the full and impressive length of your left arm, you point to a little-used machine in the corner. “Made with the scalding undrinkably hot water from over there, not whatever tepid lukewarm excuse comes from this thing.” Here you chin-point disdainfully at the primary machine, calibrated for perfect espresso; not so much, apparently, for even reasonably hot water.
In recent years you’ve had to adjust your ordering. Amidst the patter of telecommuting bloggers, early Cat Power on Spotify, and the hiss of steaming cappuccino milk, “extra-short” has more than once been misheard as extra-shot. This has middle-of-the-night ramifications involving cold sweats and racing existential doubt. So you’ve taken to saying “roomy”—“a roomy 8 oz. Americano”—which, well, it’s not your brother in his Bucknell sweatshirt whose back you’re slapping—“Hey, roomy!” It’s just not the same at all.
At this point you turn away so as not to micro-manage the actual shot. Here’s the dilemma: while it’s true you are devoted to the approximately three shops in Pittsburgh that specialize in ristretto (restricted), you in fact prefer a slightly lungo (long) shot. The end of the shot, after all, is where the deliciously sharp full-impact lives. Pour it too long, of course, and all that infra-white acidity overwhelms the bean’s flavor. It’s a delicate operation they run, our neighborhood baristas, with as many variations as there are customers in line. Utterly subjective. The result: you can’t watch.
The extra-short Americano at Commonplace in Squirrel Hill comes closest to the shots you made at Vivace in Seattle’s Capitol Hill, where David Schomer literally wrote the book and set to work patenting a device to control water temperature as it hits the coffee. When you mention to the Commonplace barista that you once worked for David Schomer, you are no longer just some 40-year-old-way-past-cool-high-maintenance customer. You are a connoisseur trained and mentored by an espresso king. You don’t play the Vivace card on every new barista. Just the ones you sense might listen a little more closely, take that crucial extra second or two toward a drink that has no place to hide.
From 1996 to 1997, after several months on dishes and register, Heather McNaugher was finally trained and permitted to pull espresso at the Vivace Roasteria in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. These days she pulls poems from students at Chatham University.