March 2004

Tom Bernard


Too Little, Too Latte

Note: There is a dearth of interesting -- where “interesting” = something I’d care to read and write about – cooking and food books on the market at present. In the service of meeting my commitment (to say nothing of my deadline) to the intrepid Jessa and to the legions of devoted fans I self-deludedly assign myself, I thought I’d whip up something special, using a recipe that’s been in my family for generations. So, without further ado, please enjoy this virtual jambalaya of ranting, raving, tortured logic and incoherence.

So I opened up my Sunday New York Times a few weeks back in search of my weekly crossword fix, only to be confronted by a fancy, colorful insert from the nice folks at Starbucks. The purpose of this glossy trifle of marketing claptrap was to explain to me, the potential Starbucks customer -- as well, I assume, as to the jittery legions who already make the ‘Buck part of their daily (in some cases, hourly) routine -- just how to go about ordering a cup of Starbucks coffee.

All right, let’s be honest here: it’s not as though there’s any shortage of people who are absolutely, perhaps even congenitally (evolution not having kept pace with the forces of marketing) baffled by the technical intricacy and highly specialized terminology that goes into getting your hands on a steaming hot cup of joe, or even one of the tepid, milky analogues Starbucks routinely purveys. I fully appreciate how daunting a task this can be. I’m also familiar (often painfully, claw my own eyes out so) with the fact that putting people in groups -- lines, juries, bicameral legislatures -- has a detrimental effect on both individual and collective intelligence. At best, any group is only as smart as its dumbest member. When that dumbest member can’t kick start their brain without their morning caffeine infusion, the outlook begins to look bleak indeed.

Don’t get me wrong. I have the utmost respect for education. I’m all for anything that parts the veil of ignorance to admit the light of understanding. If that were all we were talking about, I’d raise my cup in a toast to Starbucks and their commitment to opening up the frontiers of the mind. Unfortunately, Starbucks motives are less altruistic. Their five part plan for ordering a cup of coffee -- am I missing something here? Five steps? Isn’t that a case of needlessly complicating the simple? -- brings the full force of their marketing department to bear in the service of indoctrinating, rather than enlightening, their target demographic.

Amazingly, mind-bogglingly, the company’s latest campaign attempts to spin the advantage conferred by their ubiquity into statements of both individual identity and communal affinity. Starbucks poses the question “What does your drink say about you?” This implies that unlike Burger King’s preference respecting “Have it your way” mantra of my formative years, what I order in today’s marketplace isn’t a matter of choice, but a profound statement of individual identity doled out in 12-20 oz. portions blazoned with the logo of the very company (whose marketing I’m paying for the privilege of carrying around with me for the next 15-20 minutes) that is helping me affirm my individuality. And if I’m not comfortable being perceived as marching to the beat of my own drummer, Starbucks can help me with that as well, by making sure I understand that “triple, grande decaf latte people aren’t the same as tall, iced caramel macchiato drinkers” and promising to help me find a community to call my own.

Still, does it really require five steps to order a cup of coffee? We’re allegedly the greatest nation on the face of, and some would argue in the entire history of, the earth. We’re what happens when you spend a few hundred million years crawling up out of the primordial slime, and this is where our evolutionary struggle has stranded us?

In the novel So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, Douglas Adams introduces the character of Wonko the Sane, a man so dispirited by the state of humanity that he builds an asylum to contain the whole world. He was driven to this decision by the discovery of instructions on a box of toothpicks. As he explains it (with one substitution relevant to topic at hand):

"It seemed to me," said Wonko the Sane, "that any civilization that had so far lost its head as to need to include a detailed instructions for use in ordering a cup of coffee, was no longer a civilization in which I could live and stay sane."

All of which guides us, inevitably, toward one inescapable conclusion: I need to cut back on the coffee.