COMPARISONS are odious, of course. They are also difficult, especially when they are concerned wit h such a complex question as the worst coffee of my life.

When I think of the coffee I drank one night in the railway station at Valence, while I waited for the Paris express to stop for me and three Spahis in their long, scarlet-lined capes, I am sure it was the worst. Over the greasy steamed window of the cafe the rain dripped interminably down, and I thought of how cool and clean it must taste. I was cold and tired and shy. The pale, stinking brew I swallowed offered me a kind of sensory comfort, upon which my throat muscles closed like the coat of an outraged snake. The Spahis spat out their first mouthful and matter-of-factly filled the nasty thick-grimed glasses with rum, and I watched them, wishing I could be as easy in my white skin as they seemed in their shining dark ones.

Coffee almost as hideous was brewed every few hours in a big hotel in Cornwall. Perhaps the fact that it happened more than once was the most unpleasant thing about it.

I would smell it, slithering and sneaking up the elevator shaft like the gray-brown ghost of a longdead, forgotten scrubwoman. I would know that after the interminable dinner with its pink fishsauce and its limp savory, after the last tipple of digestive or purgat ive tonics, the other solemn souls and I would sit in the drawing room, politely vying for places near the tiny fire and waiting impatiently for the waiter to come with his tray of small cups. “Black or white, Madam?” he would ask, bending over the sweetened grayish brew. “Black,” I would say stubbornly, hating the implications of his description, and wondering each time if I could swallow what I chose.

It had a burned taste to it: that was what I smelled always a few hours before its appearance. And there was a disgusting fatness about it, like ancient boiled mutton. I thought perhaps the dripping-pans were charred and then rinsed out, to color it. But as in Valence, in the station cafe, it was hot — and I was very cold.

It is surprising that in a country as standardized as ours we still manage to make our coffee in almost as many ways as there are people to make it. It comes in uniform jars, which we buy loyally according to which radio program hires the best writers, so that whether the label is green or scarlet the contents are safely alike, safely middling. Once in the pot, however, its individuality becomes evident, a watery monster full of venom or sweet promise, as the case may be. Coffee in a roadside waffle-joint may outdo nectar, and some made most carefully, measured and boiled just so and with the pot heated and swabbed and such according to directions, may be a loathsome brew in my best friend’s kitchen.

There are vintners who believe that certain human beings have a chemical (or spiritual?) aura about them which will make wine turn over and mope in the bottles. Perhaps it is as true that some people breed trouble in the fragile oils of roasted coffee beans. I have at least three familiars who could no more make a potable cup of coffee than they could walk upon the waters. They have tried, too — and even wept at their defeat.

Methods can be amusing or merely finicky — elaborate or as simple as spilling some grounds into boiling water and letting them settle, unmeasured, unhindered by directions. And what people want is even plainer. First of all, coffee must be hot, they say — all except a stern old man I once knew who frowned on “stimulants” but drank quarts of cold black coffee every day, instead of water. And then coffee must be fresh, made shortly before its drinking and made only once. (In Cornwall, water was boiled twice or more over the same sad grounds, in defiance of counsel I found in an old cookery book: “Dried coffee, once used, is best employed as filling for pin-cushions, and will not pack down nor rust the needles.”)

And some people like a light delicate brew and others, equally firm about the freshness of the grinding and the rest, will settle for strength or nothing. Their coffee, like tea for the Irish lady, must be strong enough to trot a mouse upon.

I like to lead strangers and intimates, in that order, to tell me the only right way to do a thing, their way. Scrambled eggs, reducing, surrealism, are all good gambits, but coffee-making is the best.

One woman who lived for years in Guatemala will grow soft-eyed and gentle in the telling, over and over, of the way coffee smells in the air down there, dark and sweet with the sugar which is stirred into the pan of green beans in the oven. It turns black finally, in a kind of glaze, and when the beans are ground they have a fine richness about them.

A tall man, usually preoccupied with such things as laparotomies and the tightrope balance between death and life in the “closed closed” wards, will discuss with voluptuous candor how to blend and boil true Turkish brew. It is an elaborate ritual, like part of a ballet, and he the premier danseur.

A woman now more remote from the present than the past will tell me, and her voice becomes younger in the telling, of the coffee at Aunt Annie’s, in the days of Sam Ward and Diamond Jim and all the gilt-edged gluttons.

It came every week from Park and Tilford, freshly roasted, and cost fifteen cents a pound. It was from Maracaibo! It was ground in the kitchen in a big hand-mill, two pounds at a time, and mixed into a paste with four beaten eggs. Then, spread thinly on a pan, it dried out in a slow oven until it could be broken up into a powdery mess again, while the whole of the great house was perfumed by its tantalizing fresh, strong smell. And it was used like any other coffee: a heaping tablespoonful for each cup of water, and one-plus for the pot. But I can never tire of hearing, and believing, that it was the best ever made. Maracaibo — the word is magic, as that weary woman says it, as I listen.

Of course I have my formula, less charmed but more misquoted. At least ten philosophers from half that many countries have claimed it as their own, so why not I? Coffee, I say, should be

Fresh as the springtime,

Black as death,

Strong as a long-gone lover’s arms,

And hot as hell.

Then, whether it be shipped, a bag of green beans, from some foreign port, or. true-test roasted, be poured from a vacuum-sealed, dealer-dated jar, it will be good. It will, being good at all, be perfect.