A while back Ian Tregillis mentioned on his blog that he had had a fine dining experience not spoiled but detracted from by the sugar being presented in little paper packets in the same pedestrian fashion as any corner diner. A fine meal, he opined, should be fine down to the last detail, including how the sweetener was made available.
This got me thinking (as is my wont) about how I would like to have sweeteners presented, and (as is my wont) I crafted my ideas on this as little vignettes, each vignette in the style of a different author.
Presented for your inspection: three exercises in sweetening.
An Ancient Cup O’ Joe
As told by “Ash”
The place stank of old smoke, old grease, and old people who had never learned how to wash. But I probably didn’t smell much better myself right then, and it was the closest thing to a Howard Johnson’s this side of a thousand years so I went on in and claimed a table.
Everyone in the place clammed up and sort of leaned away a little as I sat down, clunking the shotgun down on the table. They all knew who I was, and what’s more they all knew what my “boomstick” could do and Mr. Remington commands respect. Even though some of them looked scared, none of them left. I guess they wanted to be able to tell their grandkids they had shared a stinking smoky hole with the man from the future.
If they ever got to have grandkids.
A young woman came toward me, curvy and not bad in a dirty simple kind of way, give her a wash and some curlers and you wouldn’t be ashamed to take her to a movie. She just stood there, eyes down. I think she was too scared to speak.
“Coffee,” I said.
She looked up at me, eyes wide. “S-sire?”
I sighed. Couldn’t these primitive screwheads get anything right? “Coffee. Java. Jamoke.”
Blank. I tried again. “Morning mud. Daily grind. Wakey juice. Liquid energy.”
Still nothing. I sighed again, the long-suffering sigh of someone who had suffered longer than these people could imagine. But the sigh came out angry. I was dirty and tired and my stump ached and “Dammit, all I want is a cup o’ joe!”
She shrank back. I calmed down and tried again, speaking to her as one would to a child. A child with an impressive rack.
“Now look, I’m sorry I yelled. Maybe you call it something different here. I’ll describe it, and you tell me if you have it, OK?”
“Okay. They’re little brown beans, one side looks like a buttcrack. You roast them, then grind them up, then put boiling water on them. And you get a dark brown drink that keeps you awake and later on makes you piss like a horse. Do you have anything like that here?”
I’ll give her credit, she actually considered it for a moment before she shook her head. “No, sire. I am very sorry.”
I manfully kept from sighing again. Juan Valdez. Colombia. Mountain Grown, the Richest Kind. Right. There probably wasn’t a coffee bean within a thousand miles. Or a tea leaf, for that matter.
“Not your fault,” I told her. “Now — what’s your name?”
“All right now, Maud. Is there anything you have here that can help a fellow stay awake?”
She considered again. Finally she said, “Mayhap, the wise woman has something? Some herbs?”
“Yes!” I burst out. “The wise woman! Herbs! Now we’re getting somewhere! Good Maud. Go get herbs, Maud. Tell the wise woman I need something to keep my eyes open.” She scurried off. “And I don’t mean toothpicks!” I shouted after her.
I may have dozed off. Anyway, next thing I knew there were some boards on the table loaded with some sort of food and Maud was holding a mug in front of me.
The mug was warm. The liquid was brown. I sniffed at it, then sipped. It tasted nothing at all like coffee. In fact, the only way it was like coffee was that it was bitter, more bitter even than the boiled-down dregs in a Mr. Coffee at the end of a night shift.
Something that bitter had to have some stay-awake power, though. “Maud, where’s the sugar?” She started to shake her head again. “Sweet! Something sweet, to put in this.”
“There may be honey, sire.”
“Great, honey. Anything.”
She disappeared. I tried another sip, and almost gagged. Carbon remover. But it did seem like there was some jitter juice in it.
I tried some of the food, just to take the taste of Old Woman Herbs out of my mouth. Not bad, for overcooked meat of uncertain origin. I gnawed on it for a while. I was hungrier than I’d thought. Falling through time does that to a guy.
After a long while, Maud came back with a little stoneware jar. Something about the way she carried it made me think that she thought it was something special. That, and the way she knelt before me with her head lowered and offered it up to me while saying, “Sire.”
I took it from her, took off the lid, sniffed. Yep, honey. I poured a dollop into my mug, enjoying the firelight through it, the only pure clean sweet thing I had seen in the past.
I looked up and noticed Maud’s eyes on the golden stream going into the cup. “Want some?” I held it out to her.
“Oh, no, Sire! It is not allowed.”
“Not allowed? Who doesn’t allow it?”
“Honey is only for the nobility,” she said, as if now I was the child. “It is very rare.”
Huh. “Well, I allow it. Here.” She watched, shocked, as I dipped the tip of my finger into the honey and held it out to her. The honey gleamed in the firelight. “Go on. Taste.”
She slowly leaned forward, her eyes first on my face and then on the honey. Her tongue eased out, and she touched it to the gleaming gold sweetness. As the taste hit her, her eyes fluttered back and a smile quirked at her mouth.
With a quick flip of my finger I spread the rest of the honey across her bottom lip, and then pulled her into my lap. “Gimme some honey, baby.” Her eyes widened as I planted a smack right on her kisser, then widened even more as my tongue chased the honey off of her lip and into her mouth.
She froze for a moment, then her tongue tried to push the honey back into my mouth and I sat there with her ancient and primitive but warm and soft curves pressing against me and starting to wriggle and I thought that the past might not be such a bad gig after all.
Once I took care of the army of the undead.
From On the Coffee Road
As told by “Jack”
The cowboy went off to have a spare tire patched and I sat down in a kind of homemade diner. A waitress, I guess you could say the waitress, the place wasn’t big enough to have two, came over. Her big nametag read Estelle. “What’ll you have?” and I said “Coffee.” She already had the carafe in her hand and she flipped my cup over and filled it almost in the same motion. But she poured it slowly, giving her nametag time to do its work. A very clever arrangement, the oversized nametag pulling her blouse open as she bent over, turning a decorous coverage into a risque revelation. I looked into the fleshy inverted canyon she was showing me and thought about all of the tips that had disappeared into her generous cleavage, coins and bills inserted into that slot as into a vending machine or like pennies thrown into a wishing well, put there by men far from home paying for a moment’s gaze and distraction. She straightened up, her eyes searching my face for a reaction. I sipped from the cup. “Sugar?” I asked. She gave me a look, the sugar was right there on the table near the window. But she played the game and bent over the table to get the sugar. My eyes flew through her grand canyon again. She straightened and held the rippled glass dispenser out to me, her fist wrapped around it; I had to put my fingers over hers to take the dispenser. The little flap on the metal top tinked open as I poured a white stream into the cup; just to complete the tune I tinked the spoon on the rim of the cup after I stirred the sugar in. She watched me closely as I sipped again. “Good coffee, Estelle. Thank you for the sugar.” She knew what I meant by sugar. She wasn’t bad looking, in a slightly tired denying her age kind of way, and we could have played that game all day, her hoping to make my tip bigger and bigger with each peek. But the cowboy was back, the spare tire had been fixed, and Neal would be waiting.
An excerpt from Confessions of a Caffiend, due out soon from Grove Press
The remarkable and stimulating meal over, we gentlemen of the Club retired to the richly-appointed library.
I settled in on my favorite chair. One of the serving girls approached with a silver tray bearing a steaming cup, a bottle bearing the label of my private stock, and some small silver pitchers.
The girl curtsied before me, balancing the tray level as she did so. The serving costumes for the evening were something Persian, diaphonous paijamas and a sort of corset that left the midriff bare. I admired the way her belly smiled around the shell of her navel as she curtsied.
“The temperature of the coffee?” I demanded.
“It is as you prefer, Lord,” she replied quietly. “I tested a drop upon my own skin.”
“How tender that skin, and where?”
She had long dark hair, and large dark eyes which she kept demurely lowered as she answered. “Upon the sensitive skin on the inside of my upper arm, Lord.”
I grunted and took the bottle from the tray and poured a dollop of the fine old whiskey into the cup. The largest of the pitchers held thick cream, and I added a soupcon of that. “And what are the sweeteners?” I asked.
“An unusual selection for your deliberation and delectation, Lord,” the winsome lass replied. “The first is an extract from the Guava of Brazil, a thick tropical syrup. The middle container holds a honey made by bees feasting upon the blossoms of an apple grove that has been maintained on the shores of the Mediterranean since the time of the Romans.”
“Interesting,” I said. “And the third?”
“Perhaps the most rare of all, Lord, in these offerings. A juice drawn from a cactus native to the Indian Subcontinent, which plant blooms only once a decade.”
“A fine offering, indeed.” I said. “But rarity is not the only proof of worth. I must sample. Step closer.”
She moved in closer until her feet were between mine as I sat. “Now place the tray in my lap.” She did so, carefully, then leaned forward to rest her hands upon the tall back of the leathered chair. This position left her bosom all but resting upon my head, and the smooth skin of her abdomen just before my eyes.
Using a different finger each time, to preserve the unique nature of the sample, I dipped a fingertip into each of the containers in turn and daubed a smear of each syrup onto the soft skin of her belly. Then I placed my hand upon the small of her back, so warm, and drew her in closer.
She drew audible breath as my tongue tipped the first sample, the Guava. As befitting its tropical origin the juice was thick and musky, and at the taste I could almost feel the moist air and constant warmth of those climes.
The hand not occupied in holding her close worked between us, to bring the coffee up for a sip as a palate cleanser. Holding the cup below the lowest curve of her belly, where the steam would rise to my nostrils and in passing warm her skin, I stretched out my tongue for the next tasting.
The apple flavor of the honey was charming, but too delicate for this particular evening, atop the remarkable dinner. I sipped again, then brought my tongue to bear upon the third sample.
This syrup being thinner than the other two, it had run down as it warmed upon her skin; I had to lave quite an extent of her belly with my tongue to gain all of it. She gasped as I did so, her belly flexing beneath my tongue.
It was a truly distinctive flavor, bearing hot desert days and chill desert nights, with a hint of dust and wind. Upon another night, with another chemicalant other than coffee, I might enjoy that subtle flavor to its fullest whilst dreaming of other realms.
But this night called for more direct, obvious sensations. I released my hold upon the girl and sat back.
“The Guava, I think,” I said.
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