Sleeping Beauty


On Food, Our Daily Correspondent

strong coffee

Photo: Cory Doctorow, via Flickr

My life boasts few distinctions, but I make the worst coffee you will ever drink. It’s almost as if, on the day I was born, the fairies stood over my cradle (okay, incubator) Sleeping Beauty–style, and the first good fairy declared, “She will be able to remember the lyrics to eighties cartoon themes her entire life.” And the second good fairy said, “I give you the gift of teeth that in the eighteenth century would have seemed straight but look kind of crooked now that everyone else has braces.” But then the malevolent enchantress appeared, cackled, and cursed me with the words: “She will never make a potable cup of coffee.”

You would be forgiven, if you have read about my manifold culinary failures, for thinking that I can’t handle myself in the kitchen. In fact, I am pretty competent in that regard, which makes my persistent inability all the more mysterious. And don’t talk to me about single origins, rancid grounds, Chemex, French press, vacuum, toddy, cold brew, hand-grinding: it makes no difference. The curse is stronger than any of these trifling variables.

Sleeping Beauty was always my favorite Disney movie. I saw it with my mother in big-screen re-release when I was about four, and was enchanted by handsome Prince Philip and perfect Briar Rose and gruff, mannish little Merryweather, and of course the elegant Maleficent. I was fascinated by the notion that, no matter how far you run, you cannot escape your fate. (It was, I guess, many a child’s introduction to the classic tenets of tragedy.)

My awful coffee was notorious at the offices of The Paris Review. Anyone could make better coffee than I, and this fact was quickly explained to any new hire. Now that I work from home, I have been thrown back on my own skills, and the results, while revolting, have been interesting. Because here is the thing: no matter how I try to control the laboratory conditions, it is always awful in a different way. Sometimes too weak, other days unbearably strong. Acrid and bitter, or soapy. Sometimes there are grounds involved. Today’s cup is a strange combination of weak and fruity, and not in an on-purpose, free-trade, deliberate-notes way, either. In this matter, David Lynch and I agree: “Even bad coffee is better than no coffee at all.” But barely.

In the original version of Sleeping Beauty (or at least one of the folktales upon which Charles Perrault based his more familiar telling), there is an especially creepy second act. Here is one concise summary:

After having been secretly wed by the reawakened Royal almoner, the Prince continued to visit the Princess, who bore him two children, L’Aurore (Dawn) and Le Jour (Day), which he kept secret from his stepmother, who was of an ogre lineage. Once he had ascended the throne, he brought his wife and the talabutte (“Count of the Mount”).

The Ogress Queen Mother sent the young Queen and the children to a house secluded in the woods, and directed her cook there to prepare the boy for her dinner, with a sauce Robert. The humane cook substituted a lamb, which satisfied the Queen Mother, who then demanded the girl, but was satisfied with a young goat prepared in the same excellent sauce. When the Ogress demanded that he serve up the young Queen, the latter offered her throat to be slit, so that she might join the children she imagined were dead. There was a tearful secret reunion in the cook’s little house, while the Queen Mother was satisfied with a hind prepared with sauce Robert. Soon she discovered the trick and prepared a tub in the courtyard filled with vipers and other noxious creatures. The King returned in the nick of time and the Ogress, being discovered, threw herself into the pit she had prepared and was fully consumed, and everyone else lived happily ever after.

(Sauce Robert is a compound butter flavored with mustard.)

I have floated the curse theory to a few people. No one seemed convinced. The words mental block may or may not have been used. And maybe that is true. Maybe at a period in my life when everything—from the personal to the professional to the small things like learning to unclog my own bathtub—feels like a product of will and effort and work, it is comforting to have something, something tiny, in my life that I pretend I can’t control. Illness and tragedy are truly uncontrollable, and yet we must carry on. Perhaps for some people, the small controllable things are comforting. For my part, I like having something ungovernable. Rather than feeling like a failure, whenever I take that first, bad taste, I feel slightly relieved: it is a slight, necessary abdication. An unimportant one. Perhaps we all need one of those.

But the problem is, when the coffee is that hard to drink, you never really wake up.