Joe DiMaggio was great for baseball, but bad for coffee.
The man who got a hit in 56 straight games in 1941 and married Marilyn Monroe, could do no wrong in the eyes of most people. I agree except for one thing: he killed the percolator.
Prior to 1972, most American households used a percolator to brew their morning beans. But, that year, two bad things happened. Richard Nixon was re-elected, and the Mr. Coffee drip brewing system debuted.
I’m sure there will be some who read these words and consider my condemnation of Mr. Coffee as java heresy, but I would argue that if you’ve never had great percolator coffee, quite simply, you likely have been the victim of Mr. DiMaggio’s marketing influence and/or an absence of percolator opportunity.
For those unfamiliar with how a percolator brews coffee, there is a pot with a handle, and often, a glass bubble in the center of the lid where you can see the coffee perking. Inside, there is a metal stem that sits in a hole in the bottom of the pot, through which the water travels to land in a grounds basket. Small holes in the basket allow the perked coffee to drain.
Percolators obviously need a heat source. This can come from a stovetop for models that aren’t electric, or from a heating element for countertop plug-in models.
The latter is what I grew up with. When my parents married in the early 1960s, they acquired a Regal Easy Go percolator. As a child, I awoke each day to the sound and smell of that percolator.
In 1970, two years before their Mr. Coffee debuted, two guys in Cleveland named Vincent Marotta and Samuel Glazer put together a company and hired some engineers to design the new brewing system. They called it new, but 13 years earlier in 1957, the Bunn system began making coffee with the same drip design.
The only difference that I can see between a Mr. Coffee and a Bunn is that with a Bunn brewer you have to pour the water into the top when you’re ready to make it. The Mr. Coffee allows you to pour the water in, but it won’t start making coffee until you turn on the power switch.
As a young kid, before Mr. Coffee was even heard of, I saw lots of Bunns in diners and truck stops. The upside of this drip system is that they work fast. I’d watch waitresses constantly making new pots of coffee and refill the truckers cups, all while taking orders, delivering food, and fending off the pick-up lines of the male patrons. It reminded me of the guy at the circus who kept 10 plates spinning at the same time on the top of some really tall sticks without dropping and breaking any of the plates.
So, I don’t think that the Mr. Coffee was that new of an idea or even that different of a design.
But, what Mr. Marotta and Glazer did better than the Bunn Company was that they had the idea to make a much smaller version of the drip system that would fit on a kitchen counter. They also knew Joe DiMaggio.
The argument that was made to claim that a drip system was better than percolator coffee was that percolator coffee was too strong and bitter.
There was truth to this claim, but there was a reason it could be too strong and bitter. People left the percolator sitting on the burner on the stove or left the electric ones plugged in to keep the coffee hot.
Well, naturally, if you do that, your coffee will go from original to extra crispy in short order. This was before microwaves, so reheating coffee wasn’t quick or easy like it is now.
My grandfather was a blacksmith and he would trek from his shop to the house and back several times a day to refill his cup. By the end of the day, the smell of the coffee was quite pungent. But he was used to it and knew nothing different.
Convincing people that you could make coffee that didn’t turn into motor oil was an easy sell. According to the Mr. Coffee info on Wikipedia, Joe DiMaggio was hired as the pitchman in 1973, and by 1974, over 1 million Mr. Coffee devices had taken their place on America’s kitchen countertops and the percolators were relegated to storage.
That’s how I wound up with my first percolator. For years, I was one of the many who had drank the Mr. Coffee Kool-Aid. I started drinking coffee when I went to work in radio in the late 70s. We had a Mr. Coffee at the station, so when I got my own apartment, that’s what I bought.
But about 10 years ago, I stopped at an estate sale. There was a beautiful percolator that was obviously old, but well cared for. Out of nostalgia, I asked the price. So, for 50-cents, I went home with a Universal Coffeematic. My online research showed that it was made in 1956 in Connecticut.
It was 4 in the afternoon when I came home with it, but I cleaned it up and decided to see if it worked. My wife and I tried a cup of the coffee. It was amazing.
We had another cup.
I took our Mr. Coffee and relegated it to storage. I even went on eBay and bought an identical percolator just so we’d have a backup. The coffee is that good.
The trick to drinking percolator coffee is to unplug it when it’s done perking and pour the coffee into a good thermos. That way, it doesn’t turn into Quaker State 10W-30.
My mom even gave me her old percolator. So, our backup percolator has a backup.
Now, Joe is once again with Marilyn, and my wife and I have rediscovered the percolator.
Things are back as they should be.
©2017 John Moore
John’s new book, “Write of Passage: A Southerner’s View of Then and Now” is available on Amazon.