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Without Reservations

Espresso from heaven

ALL I WANTED for Christmas was ... a new espresso machine. Didn't get it; the model I sought, though proclaimed on the company's Web site, wasn't to be found in any store or through any e-tailer. And so what, anyway, since my old workhorse, a Krups Novo, has been pumping and frothing every day for eight years, ever since I returned from my first trip to Paris determined henceforth to drink coffee the French way. French culture does tend to have this effect on people.

Of course I could have settled for a fancier number, one of those automated jobs that use pods of heretically preground coffee and whose intubated, idiot-proof frothing wands look like something you'd find in the back of an ambulance. Yes, designers of modern espresso machines proceed on the widely held assumption that most people are incompetent fools who can be trusted only to throw the on switch; every other task is better performed by the machine. But a huge part of the pleasure of coffee is the ritual of making it, and if you aren't interested in the ritual, you should just have the coffee made for you at Peet's or somewhere and dispense with the home machine altogether.

Clearly this thought has occurred to some people before today. Imagine my surprise when, biking home a few weeks ago, I found, sitting on the sidewalk with the rest of the trash, the very machine I had vainly been wishing for. I carted it home and plugged it in, wondering with some apprehension if it would explode in my face or electrocute me. It didn't. In fact, it worked, though it wouldn't blow steam, and that, it turned out, was just because the (old-style) frothing wand had become clogged with dried milk. Which is why you have to remove the wand every once in a while (by removing a single bolt) and dunk it in boiling water. That small fix accomplished, the machine blew steam like nobody's business.

I wondered about the people who'd chucked the machine. Was it a wedding gift they hadn't really wanted? (Newly married couples all seem to have – unused – espresso machines in their houses.) Had it become an unwanted symbol of their crumbling intimacy? Did they not know such machines need regular maintenance, or could they simply not be bothered to perform it? Did they not know that the manufacturer is unusually good about fixing or replacing its machines, even those long out of warranty, for a nominal fee? Or had they just grown tired of it and exercised their fundamental American right to pitch dull things out the door? I wondered: Would this happen in France? Could it possibly?

Paul Reidinger paulr@sfbg.com