A lot of people who come into our restaurant have no idea what Greek coffee is. When I ask these people if they have ever had Turkish coffee and they reply in the affirmative, I can simply say, "Well, it's just like that, only we don't say 'Turkish' much around here." If they reply in the negative, well, that's a different story. I explain that Greek coffee is made from a fine, powdery coffee grounds, that sugar is added to suit the drinker's taste and that, after it has come to a boil, the coffee-- grounds and all-- are poured into a little, white cup. And, of course, that it is an excellent beverage to consume if one has a lot of house cleaning to do in the immediate future or if one is about to go out dancing-- it's that caffeinated.
When guests see the huge, heated cauldron of sand we use for making the coffee at the end of a hallway that leads into the main dining room point and ask "Oooh! What's that for?", most of the time I will cheerfully tell them it is where we make the coffee. Other times, when I have tired of answering that question for the twentieth time that evening, I remain polite, but tell people it's a repurposed baptismal font-- a sad reminder of how everyone seems to have lost their faith these days or, more commonly, that it is a more sanitary place for the cats who roam the restaurant after hours to do their business.
When people read our dessert menu and see the coffee advertised as heated over hot sand and ask, "So there's sand in the coffee?" I tell them that Greeks, like most birds, need to eat sand and small rocks to help them grind up their food. It's a genetic fluke, but it they make it work for them.
And then I might tell them the truth-- that, traditionally, coffee was heated over hot coals and that, since placing the boiling vessel (briki) directly over the coals would burn the coffee, sand was used to diffuse the heat and provide stability for the wide-bottomed, long-handled thing. I then mention that most people now boil their coffee on their stove tops (as pictured above), but that wouldn't be nearly as attractive as doing it in the sand, now would it?
Apart from the caffeine, the best thing about drinking a cup of Greek coffee is knowing that, as you drink it, you are sealing your own fate-- from how you sip, to how you swirl the cup-- you are influencing the placement of the grounds that settle into a sort of mud at the bottom. It is from this mud that one's future can be divined. It's an old tradition that dates back to the Turks (who introduced their own, slightly darker-roasted coffee to the Greeks), of course, but one never mentions that.
I've been reading Greek coffee cups for years. Not that I'm Greek, mind you-- I just work in a Greek restaurant where, unsurprisingly, Greek coffee is served. And I look just Greek enough that people don't think twice about asking me to tell their fortune.
"You want me to read your fortune?" I'd say when people first started asking. "Oh, I'm not Greek. Let me go find a Greek person who can do it for you." Of course, this irritated the hell out of most of the ethnically Greek staff. It's not as if they weren't busy enough what with chain-smoking outside, eating in the back hallway, or overwhelming their bussers with work.
So, one day, I just pretended I knew what I was doing and started reading peoples' coffee grounds. And I quickly found out how good I was at it.
My foray into cafeomancy (the reading of coffee grounds) began when I was stuck serving a private dinner in our downstairs dining room-- where one is fairly isolated from the main action of the restaurant. Two members of the party were drinking Greek coffee. When one of them asked if I could read her cup, I thought, "Well, why not?" I just might be able to bee-ess my way through it.
As I examined her grounds, mindful of the fact that I had absolutely no knowledge of what any of the traditional symbols might mean, I looked at the grounds as if it were my own, personal Rorschach Test and went to town.
"I see two figures-- one is hunched, the other is walking upright. Both are moving away from the handle of the cup. I'm not certain that these are two, separate people." And then I thought a moment and said, "I think they both represent you. My guess it that you have just gone through or are going through something difficult or painful (crouched figure). The upright figure, however, tells me that you are going to come out of it just fine."
There. Nice and vague, but with a happy ending.
And then, the woman's husband said,"Let me see that thing. My wife has been recovering from major back surgery." He and his wife were more than a little shocked that such a thing could be told from the sludge found along the side of a cup, but they both saw what I saw. Score one for the non-Greek, bee-essing waiter. Beginner's luck, I thought.
The second coffee drinker enthusiastically handed me his cup. I held the cup under the light of a floor lamp, did a bit of chin-scratching, uttering "hmmms" and "well, this is interesting" as I looked, then finally came back to the man to say, "I see two men in a rowboat. One of the men is you. The other person, it seems, is rowing in the opposite direction-- against you. All I can say is that you and someone important in your life are working against each other." Not exactly a rosy future, but that was the first thing that came to mind.
He grabbed the cup and showed it to his wife. "I had a huge fight with my best friend this weekend." His wife added that her husband and his erstwhile best friend were on a crew team together. I had stunned the crowd. And myself a little, too-- I had no idea I was such a gifted bee-ess artist. I received an enormous gratuity that night, in case you were wondering.
Perhaps the greatest fortune of all was not divined by me-- I merely confirmed it. Shortly after my success in the private dining room below, I waited on a husband and wife upstairs at the table closest to the Greek coffee sand pit. As the husband was sipping his coffee, I offered to read his fortune when he had finished. "That's okay, I'll read it for him," said his wife. When he got down to the mud, he swirled his cup three times, placed the saucer upside down over his cup and turned them both over to do their thing.
A few minutes later, the wife called me over. "You looked puzzled," I said, "what's the matter? Bad fortune or something?"
"Oh, it's not bad. I just want to know if you see what I see, because I've never seen anything like this." I took the cup and held it under the light. There was no mistaking what I saw. There on the side of the cup was the profile of a woman (it was unmistakably a woman with big, poofy hair and almond-shaped eyes) with her mouth wide open around (but not quite touching) something protruding horizontally from the middle part of a male figure.
"Well? Do you see what I see or am I just crazy?" she asked.
"I see something, but I don't quite know how to phrase it without sounding, um, crude. That's the most sexually graphic cup I've ever seen." I replied.
"Then you saw exactly what we both saw," she answered with a grin. Her husband immediately asked for the check. The cup, by the way, went straight to the office downstairs where everyone could take a look.
I've had enough with other peoples' fortunes for the moment. I want to know a little more about my own future, for a change. No one has ever read my coffee grounds. So I would like you to do it for me, since one is not supposed to read one's own grounds, according to the Greeks (the Turks, however, are not so strict upon this matter).
But I'm going to do it anyway.
In my cup, I see a giant rabbit falling from a rock onto a small dolphin with water spouting from its blow hole. Or maybe it's a whale. According to one source, a rabbit implies timidity, while a whale is representative of financial success. Personally, I feel I must be the timid, shy little rabbit (Rabbit, incidentally, was the pet name given to me by a boyfriend many years ago). Does this mean I will fall upon better times in the year ahead? Fall (I hope figuratively rather than literally) into money and good fortune? Well, that would certainly be welcome news, since 2009 was pretty much a washout in terms of, well, just about everything.
Here's hoping we all fall upon better times in 2010.