Saturday Single No. 251

As we made our way through the grocery store the other day, we came to the coffee aisle. I’ve written several times about my love of coffee, most recently – I think – when I wrote about the McGarvey coffees leaving and then returning to the shelves of our nearby grocery store.

And as we turned into the coffee aisle in that same store last weekend, I grabbed my usual coffee selection – Flame Room Blend – from the shelves and put it into our cart. “You want to try something else? Something a little special?” the Texas Gal asked.

“Nah,” I said. “I like this one plenty.”  There are a good number of other McGarvey blends I like, and I’ve had some in the past. But I’d had an idea as we entered the aisle, and I headed toward the display where sat the Maxwell House International coffees, known until last year as General Foods International coffees.

“I thought maybe so,” said the Texas Gal, as I lifted a can of Café Vienna from the shelf. And as I put the can into the cart, I recalled the first time I ever tried Café Vienna.

It was long before I met the Texas Gal. I was in graduate school in Missouri, and the Other Half had decided that she would keep her museum job in Wright County and stay in Monticello while I was in Columbia, which was fine; our plan was for me to return to Monticello armed with a master’s degree and get a teaching job at St. Cloud State. Well, you know how plans go . . .

One day during the autumn of 1983 when I got home from my classes at the University of Missouri, I found a package waiting for me. The Other Half had sent me treats: candy, home-made cookies and a can of General Foods International instant coffee. During the past few years I’d occasionally indulged myself with a can of Cafe Francais, a blend that mimicked the café au lait I’d enjoyed a few years earlier during my travels.

This was, readers of my vintage might recall, long before Starbucks or the many other chains of coffee shops dotted the urban landscapes; in those rugged days of the late 1970s and early 1980s, if one wanted café au lait, it was almost always a do-it-yourself project. Oh, there no doubt were places in Minneapolis and other major cities where one could find so exotic a beverage, but in Monticello, I’d been on my own. So I’d dipped on occasion into the Cafe Francais tin. Yes, it was instant; as a change of pace, it was better than nothing.

But as I peered into the box of goodies from the Other Half, I saw that the can of instant coffee had a tawny brown lid instead of a blue one (they all come with red lids now, I believe). She had sent me Café Vienna instead of my favored Cafe Francais. She said later that, not being a coffee drinker, she’d not been certain which of the two I’d liked, and so she’d guessed. As I pulled the tin out of the box, I shrugged. It was a coffee blend; I’d probably like it.

Well, yes, I did. As has been my wont with flavored coffees over the years, I found the suggested strength to be a little pallid, so I doubled up on the amount of powder I used per cup. And, as always, I drank my coffee from a large mug rather than a standard-sized cup. Combine that with the fact that I liked Café Vienna, with its cinnamon tinge, much more than I’d ever liked the previously preferred Cafe Francais, and it wasn’t too many days before I tipped the last grains of the sugar-laced Café Vienna from that first small tin and sipped the last mugful. And I wanted more.

For the remainder of my graduate school days – from October 1983 into February 1985 – there was always a can of Café Vienna on my countertop next to the coffee-maker. It wasn’t cheap, so I clipped coupons and watched the newspaper ads for sales. My regular grocery store was not far off my normal route between home and the University of Missouri, but if I could save a little bit of money on my next fix of Café Vienna, I’d go a mile out of my way and visit a different grocery store. It never got to the point of selling household goods or books to fund my habit, nor did the two catboys I had with me ever go hungry because of my desire for Café Vienna, but I truly loved my early morning and late night mugs of the spiced drink.

My Café Vienna habit went away in February 1985, when I moved back to Minnesota and merged households once more with the Other Half. The budget was one consideration, I imagine. But there was something else, too: It seems that the drink belonged to Columbia, to graduate school days. So I let it go.

I thought about all of that last weekend as I took the tin of Café Vienna from the shelf and put it in the grocery cart. I can’t remember the last time I bought it. It’s been a few years. And when the current tin is empty, I’ll I likely go some time before buying it again. But I wrote this post with a double-strength extra-large mug of the stuff near my right hand, and I just drained the last drops. For instant coffee, it tasted pretty fine, like good memories often do.

Here’s an aptly titled piece: “Vienna” from the rock opera Beethoven’s Last Night, released in 2000 by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. It’s a little over the top but tasty as well, kind of like a double-strength mug of Café Vienna. And it’s today’s Saturday Single.

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