From Dirt Water to Delicacy
When I was little I thought coffee was made by soaking water in dirt. I couldn’t believe people drank such a concoction for breakfast, and I never thought I would be one of them. However, over the years, my hatred for coffee manifested itself into a deep appreciation. As is true with most of us, man’s elixir for life reeled me in. This love affair took me from Dunkin’ to Starbucks to La Columbe, all the way to Brazil! Pretty soon, there was no going back. I decided that whether at home or abroad, I had to taste the coffee of the world.
(Left to Right): Italy, Morocco, Boston.
But the world is a different place than America. And while it’s not surprising that every country cultivates different values, it’s amazing how estranged those values can be from the ones I learned growing up in the U.S. In Italy, Italians want to live life to the fullest. People are beautiful, moments are exquisite, and gratitude is expressed at every meal. In Morocco, they live on a different clock; a phenomenon known as “Morroccan time”, giving people more leeway to enjoy their family, leisure, or work.“Late” is not a concept the Moroccans toil over. In Sweden, a "fika" or, a social coffee break, is an encouraged cultural traditional that is embroiled in daily life.
But that’s not exactly the case in the Fifty Nifty United States.
Large Iced Dunkin' Latte
“America runs on Dunkin’” the slogan goes. Not sits, sips, or enjoys — but runs. Because if we’re not running, we’re not productive, and coffee is one of many shortcuts to productivity (or so we’ve decided). But when I first developed an appreciation for coffee, it wasn’t even for caffeine or convenience. It was for enjoyment. All around me was the opportunity to indulge in a carefully-crafted beverage: roasted beans, foamed milk, rich flavors. From the unforgettable smell to the oaky color, coffee always stood out as this beautiful, irreplaceable thing. It became less beautiful when I realized just how manufactured the process was, and how manufactured we, as people, were becoming in our pursuit of it.
Because if we can’t enjoy something as simple as a cup of coffee, if we can’t spare even the smallest expense to appreciate the rich history and tradition present in our morning joe, then what can we enjoy?
Sadly, the story of coffee in America tells the story of most things in this country. It goes like this: as people trapped in a society driven by money and success, we have chosen to compromise beauty for efficiency and culture for convenience. Not just in big ways, but in every little way as well.
A hot and cold Starbucks "macchiato"
Dunkin’ and Starbucks have arguably contributed to the downfall of coffee as an experience, an art, and an artisanal commodity. It sounds harsh, but they certainly haven’t helped preserve the sanctity of their origins (that being late 19th century Italy — not 20th century Boston or Seattle). Maybe the intention was true when they started: give America what it wants, but cheaper and more palatable for the average consumer. However, it has since evolved into a corporate operation to maximize store locations and globalize what was once a cultural art form. Just take the macchiato, for example. Starbucks labels their sweet caramel creation as such, when Italians once coined the name because the word macchiato means “stained”, as in coffee stained with a little bit of milk. See the difference? One is a sugary fun house, while the other is an authentic coffee beverage. If you were like me and defined a macchiato through Starbucks first, then you understand the direct impact of how coffee has suffered under the hands of corporate powerhouses. Starbucks isn’t just a part of our geography; it’s now a part of our narratives.
But maybe there is hope for our country. It starts with passion, and beyond that, education. Supporting artisanal coffee shops/suppliers while learning how to make authentic coffee can reinstate the true experience of this coveted beverage. I know not all of us are willing to sacrifice a grande iced vanilla latte, but for those of us who see the value in enjoying our coffee and going back to its roots, there is a benefit. It comes in the form of philosophy, of learning how to sit, slow down, and truly enjoy something.
Personally, I’m happy I came around to the dirt water. Not because I can get it anywhere quickly or cheaply, but because sipping it is an experience I could not replace if I tried.