Grounds for a Good Marriage
Gabrielle Hamilton and her wife share a morning ritual of coffee for two—here’s why it’s about more than the caffeine.
The second greatest cup of coffee I have ever had in my life—the runner up to Numero Uno—had disgusting thick chunks of heavy cream floating on the surface, surrounded by big beads of oily butter where the cream had melted from the heat of the liquid. The coffee had been brewed, if you can call it that, using a spaghetti colander lined with paper towels—the only tools I could find to work with in the cabinets of the vacation rental on earth's most remote and unfathomable edge: in José Ignacio, a rare gem of a seaside village in Uruguay. But my wife, Ashley, was there—this was before we were wives, before we were legally even allowed to be wives—and that's what made that undrinkable fatty sludge the unforgettable perfection it was: we were together having it, realizing together where our love was headed.
She would say, as she did in her wedding vows a couple years later, that the greatest cup of coffee she's ever had was the one from the day before on that same trip to Uruguay, when we landed and got situated in our friend Gaston's house, only to immediately fall into an unbroken sleep for the next 17 hours. I had come to the surface first, at 16 hours, to find the house empty, our friends off to work and the doors—whoops!—locked from the outside. I quietly dressed and awkwardly contorted, gymnasted and shimmied out a garden window, then walked a mile to the nearest kiosk and brought back a tepid and weak and rather stale paper cup of coffee to greet her when she woke. Stale or not, the greatest cup of coffee she's ever had in her life, she would tell you.
The disgusting problem with true love, with this love situation we have here, is that there is no story in a happy story. A story that has as its monotonous arc a ritual never skipped, never zigged nor zagged: coffee for two, every morning for the five years and counting of our togetherness.
There was the one in the hotel room in Palm Beach, which involved a stealth operation with me wearing nothing but a bath towel, peeping through the fisheye in the door waiting for the chambermaids to go in to clean the room next door so I could dash out and grab extra packets of shelf-stable nondairy creamer from the housekeeping cart they'd left briefly unattended in the corridor.
The one made with beans someone left as a house gift: single-estate, fair-trade, shade-grown beans that, as Ashley joked, "are themselves fluent in Swahili," which had us spitting into the sink thinking the cream was expired only to realize that it was the esoteric brew that was so sour. My apologies, I meant to say, so "fruity."
The one during a blizzardy Toronto winter, where I was briefly teaching, that came with a digital scale, a thermometer and an electronic stopwatch. I rose extra early while it was still dark outside intending to prepare my notes for class, but instead spent 45 minutes attending to the temperature and the weight and the velocity of the drip, as the page-long typed protocol that came with the coffee-making apparatus instructed. When Ashley woke, that cup was there waiting even as I was far away on campus.
What is this adamant and fervent devotion to the coffee for two, every morning, no matter what?
I was once given wise and well-meaning marriage advice on the secret of a lasting marriage: Never go to bed angry. It was given to me by someone now in their 40th year of a very good marriage. He thought it was the most salient mechanism of their success—that they didn't sleep overnight in their disgruntlement, but instead they talked it out, even if it took all night, to get to a better spot.
And it's advice I want to take solemnly. Seriously. But I really think there has to be an accommodation made for those of us who work restaurant hours, those of us who work the night shift.
We're two chefs, my wife and I. We run a restaurant. Restaurant work is done at night, as you well know—all night, as you might not know quite as well—and we get home deep in the silent middle of it. Even that is a euphemism: Chefs do not get home in the middle of the night of the day they went in on; chefs get home from work, technically, not even on the same day they went in.
So I have to admit, nighttime reparations are a pretty tall order for us. Even though it is nauseating how in love we are, cloyingly sweet how well-suited for each other we are, don't think for a second that our marriage doesn't come with some occasional whoppers. Have you ever heard two left-wing feminist lesbians quarrel over the equal distribution of "women's work"? Would you have ever thought it possible that two professional restaurant chefs might fight tooth and nail about the domestic responsibilities of keeping a home? Needless to say, we both have known what it is to grab a blanket and sleep alone on the couch, having come to an infuriating impasse. Both of us have known what it is to go to bed very angry and very apart.
What we have never once done, however, is miss morning coffee. Every single morning of every single day of this marriage, when one or the other of us wakes, there is coffee. And there are two cups. The day there is no cup left for the wife—either one—is the day it's over.
Our usual daily cup of coffee is this: a half-cup of beans scooped from the airtight jar on the counter, blitzed in a Morse code pattern of long dashes and short dots to a granulated powder by gunning the spice grinder, staccato style. A Melitta #4 unbleached coffee filter. Ceramic cone over a ceramic pot. The Japanese long-necked kettle full of water brought to boil and then shut off. Left for a minute to settle down, so to speak, after all that violent bubbling. Then that whole contraption itself is set into a copper pot of barely simmering water to keep the brew warm. Even if we are doing this still sore from the night before spent alone on the couch; this is the cup of coffee in our house.
The deeper the rift, or on days that there is a sick dog or one of the kids needs to be dropped at school or a prep cook has called out with a personal emergency and needs to be covered, and we can't stay to attend to our rift, there is still, incredibly, coffee left prepared for the other.
There was the one made in a rush by pouring out the dregs of yesterday's black-ringed pot into a fresh ceramic cup and leaving it on the kitchen counter with a Post-it note scribbled in black Sharpie under it: "Not my best work. I love you."
There was the one neatly poured into a takeout cup and left in front of the microwave for you to zap when you were ready.
And the one that was not waiting there on the counter as usual, the one that made your heart drop into your stomach. The one that was The End, you thought. Dragging yourself to work, slope-shouldered, picking your nailbeds and cuticles to bloody bits along the way, the "elevens" between your eyes in deep crease, you then stop into your local coffee shop and order your lonely coffee—the place on the block you sometimes go to—and the guy behind the counter has it ready for you, hands it over and says: "Ashley was already here. She paid and she left this one for you for when you got here."
The No. 1 greatest cup of coffee of all time.
Gabrielle Hamilton is chef and owner of Prune in New York City and bestselling author of Blood, Bones & Butter.
This article is part of Stirring, a series about the intersection between food and love—and why being in the kitchen just makes life better. Read the other articles in the series, including Summer Miller's family and the importance of dinner and Adam Dolge's relationship with his daughter through cooking. The series originally appeared in EatingWell Magazine, January/February 2020.