Monday, April 14, 2008

Something Extra with Your Morning Coffee

I'm like the character that Quentin Tarantino plays in PULP FICTION: I take my coffee seriously. I started out in young adulthood as a tea drinker, very fond of my jasmine and lapsang souchong teas (always with two teaspoons of honey, please), but, when I spent a fateful week house-sitting for Cincinnati legend Irma Lazarus in the latter months of 1974, there was no tea to be had... so, needing something warm to offset the chill weather, I sampled her house blend of coffee. It was her husband's personal blend of chocolate almond and mocha java beans. I was converted with my very first taste: this wasn't anything like the instant Maxwell House or freeze-dried Taster's Choice coffees my mother used to drink while chain-smoking her breakfast. The chocolate almond had just the right semi-sweet quality, its bitterness cut by the velvety smoothness of the mocha java. I left the Lazarus home a confirmed coffee enthusiast.

I was still a struggling young writer and could not afford the special blend that Irma had especially made, but I found Chock Full o' Nuts to be a pretty reasonable substitute -- at least it was then -- and stayed a faithful customer for many years. ("Better coffee a millionaire's money can't buy!," right?) But when special coffees began to infiltrate our local supermarkets in the 1980s, Donna and I went after them like sharks after chum. We're partial to chocolate, vanilla and hazelnut, also to robust flavors like Columbian and Kona; I like an occasional espresso, while Donna favors some desserty variants that don't do much for me, like caramel nut and chocolate raspberry. At the moment we find ourselves favoring Starbuck's Kenya and Breakfast Blends, and a new brand of coffee called Zavida that started showing up in our local stores last year; it comes in resealable silver foil bags -- very sensible, and the coffee in those bags tastes impressively rich and full-bodied from the first bean to the last. (I'm not too keen on their French Roast, though -- nor anyone's French Roast, for that matter.) And I do mean "bean" -- I prefer to grind my own, whenever possible.

Some recent sales on eBay have made me aware that America's coffee makers are missing out on just the sort of idea that inspires consumer loyalty. A few weeks ago, I discovered an eBay seller who was auctioning a series of celebrity figurines that were originally obtained as free giveaways in cans of an Italian brand of coffee called Mokalux. (I would have thought Mokalux was a French brand, considering the celebrities to whom they gave the premium treatment, but this website indicates they were an Italian company -- and have been since 1920.) Imagine the pleasure of opening a can of coffee and finding this little fellow swimming around inside the beans or flakes...

Jean Marais. Fantômas himself, the fabulous Beast of Cocteau's La Belle et la Bête!

Sacha Guitry. Actor, writer, producer, playwright, a true creature of the theatre.

Martine Carol. The star of Max Ophüls' Lola Montés, Henri Decoin's unforgettable ATOMIC AGENT aka Nathalie, Agent Secret (which no reader of this blog has yet sent to me, I am sad to say) and, evidently, some Esther Williams-type movies.

Yves Montand. The handsome star of THE WAGES OF FEAR and Z caught either at the height of song or in the headlights of an oncoming car.

and last but not least (you knew this was coming)...

Eddie Constantine!

I couldn't resist bidding on this one, which I scored for just a few bucks. He now occupies a permanent place on the round flat base of my Sony flatscreen monitor, next to a same-sized figurine of the Frankenstein Monster holding a pumpkin and a whitish stone chip from the Great Pyramid of Giza brought to me by my friends Wayne and Jan Perry. Now I can look down from my work and there's a little golden Eddie (or Lemmy, if I want him to be) giving me a wink and a "thumbs up."

This kind of premium was commonplace in the 1950s and '60s, when you could find gift towels or drinking glasses in boxes of detergent. I've recently seen DVDs in boxes of breakfast cereal, but they aren't nearly so enticing -- the movies carry a whiff of junk that didn't sell, and it doesn't make them any more desirable to know they've done time in cellophane wrappers inside a cereal box. Celebrity figurines, on the other hand, are an ideal premium because they're fun and serve no real utilitarian purpose. It's not going to happen, but wouldn't it be cool if we could open a can of Chock Full o' Nuts or a bag of Zavida coffee beans today and find little golden figurines of celebrities inside?

I'll trade you my Matt Damon for your Dirk Bogarde. Okay then, how about my Joaquin Phoenix for your Philippe Leroy?

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