Of the 3 pm Coffee And Other Family Bonding Rituals

I recently had the pleasure of reading a piece written by a friend on drinking coffee and why one should never drink it alone.  This must have been in my subconscious when today, after a long time, I wanted a cup of coffee with my afternoon snack.  My husband didn’t want as he had trouble sleeping if he so much as looked at coffee after 3 pm.  My son doesn’t drink coffee/tea.  So it was just me.  So I made myself some, ate my snack with sips of coffee and felt…how do I put it, …blah!

This led to some serious soul searching on the joys of the ritual that is the afternoon coffee.  My coffee was good.  Full-bodied, bold  and robust, its essence captured by Starbucks, refrigerated for flavor, with a dash of half and half and some agave nectar sweetening it.  But it left me unsatisfied.  Why? As I pondered this most important question, I flashed back to afternoons of “coffee time” back home in good old Chennai.  While the British influenced the northern parts of India with their tea-drinking habit, the southern states, especially TamilNadu stuck with coffee as their poison of choice.

Every day at home,  after lunch, there’s that wonderful lull when folks rest a while.  The shades were drawn, fans run at full speed.  Some read, some napped, some listened to “vividha bharathi” and such.  Mind you, this was when I was growing up.  I have no idea what the current scene is.

Around 2:30 pm, there would be small stirrings, of the house slowly coming to life.  Someone would go get the “Aavin” milk packets or have it delivered.  Amma would get up and start the ritual of boiling the milk, boiling water for the fresh decoction (decahtion), you would hear the gentle tap-tapping on the filter, a stainless steel manual coffee-brewing contraption.  And the aroma of the Plantation A + Peaberry with a dash of chicory would fill the house.  There would be muted conversations in the kitchen between amma and patti of what to make for “tiffin” – another lovely ritual of the 3 o’ clock kind.  Members of the family would start to gather near the kitchen – dining hall or whatever common area.  One might even have visitors – relatives and friends who drop in unannounced, but welcome.  I remember when we were little kids, a certain friend of my mother would show up promptly at coffee time – every single day.  My mom never minded it, happily sharing what little we had with her everyday.  (I say that because we were quite poor growing up).

And then, when the tiffin and the coffee was ready, my mother would serve.  It was usually a simple affair – a light snack like upma and a small stainless steel tumbler of coffee.  It was barely 4 oz. if that.  But it was so satisfying.  And I suspect what made it so comforting was the ritual around it – no matter what, all the family members at home would assemble for it.  We would make plans for the evening.  The sounds, the smells, the air of expectation that everyone would be up soon, and there would be something good to eat and drink.  And go on with the rest of the day.  When I recently visited my family in India, I rediscovered the joys of the afternoon coffee.  Some days my sister would visit with her kids, and we would all sit around the kitchen table or on the floor in the drawing room.  Some days it wasn’t even coffee as my parents prefer tea these days in the afternoons.  And some days it was a store bought samosa or some such delicacy as my mother is older now and tires easily.  But the magic of the ritual was still there.

I long for that comfort here, drinking my Starbucks in a supersized cup, alone.  I make a traditional “tiffin” some days, trying to recreate the magic of those afternoons.  Sadly, all that has done is help me pack on some excess pounds around my waist.

I have decided that it was my favorite time of the day back then – there was an air of expectation, of gathering with your family after a brief break,  of starting over in the middle of the day.  Making plans with my cousins for the evening.  Getting ready to maybe go to a movie.  Or the beach.  Somehow, in my perspective, it brought a family together everyday like no other ritual did.


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