I can’t count the times Garrison Keillor has worked the Lutheran compulsion to ply guests with coffee into A Prairie Home Companion. My parents weren’t Lutheran, but the moment they saw a car that looked like it might pull up in front of or next to the trailer, out came the coffee and any cookies that had escaped my foraging on the sly. It was an invariable ritual, almost as certain as death or taxes.
The first coffeepot I remember was a percolator. Although I haven’t seen one since those times, I remember that coffee percolating was a rich sensory experience — the aroma of the coffee as it percolated, the sight of the liquid shooting up against the inside of the clear lid handle, and the bubbly sound that inspired an unforgettable series of percussive notes that still evokes vintage Maxwell House coffee advertising.
I recall the parts as well — the pot, the basket, the lid, and the hollow stem through the basket, as well as the filters with the hole for the stem. For my parents, the brew of choice was Eight O’Clock coffee, bought at Loblaw’s and ground (coarse) on the spot in the store’s big grinder.
Percolators fell out of fashion in the 1970s when drip coffeemakers became popular thanks to Joe DiMaggio in ubiquitous Mr. Coffee commercials. My parents (most likely my dad, as he did the shopping) succumbed to the hype and bought a drip coffeemaker, which then took over a spot on the counter.
The once-simple world of American coffee has evolved into one my parents wouldn’t recognize — the latte grande, the espresso machines, the syrups and shots, the French presses, the “pound” of coffee sold in 11-ounce cans, the Keurig cups, and fussiness of it all. If you camp like a cowboy on a cattle drive (like Keillor’s Dusty and Lefty), you may still use a percolator because all you need is a fire to get a pot going (although these days Dusty and Lefty mostly find themselves in new-fangled cafés, complete with very noisy espresso machines).
Electric and stove top percolators are still sold. The most frequent comments on Amazon seem to be, “I would get one if I knew how to use it” and “Are there instructions?” Maybe it’s a sign of how in the 21st century we’ve become so used to our electronics doing the work and keeping the time that operating a simple coffee percolator seems not only different, but daunting.