Food is a pretty essential part of our lives. After air and water, it’s the most important in fact, right before shelter and love.
And since here in America we’ve more or less got an abundance of good shelter, edible food, and potable water (we’re all breathing and trying to figure out how to get the whole love thing right, so we’ll leave those aside for now) it’s not at all surprising to me that our focus has shifted from quantity (ie., “do I have enough to eat”?) to quality (ie., “should I do a balsamic glaze on that and/or add truffles to it?”).
I’m a big fan of food. It’s one of the reasons that more than once in my life, I’ve tipped the scales at over 300 pounds. Jamie and I met, in fact, by way of an at-work lunch invitation, and we’ve been pursuing gustatory hedonism with reckless abandon ever since. (Okay, that might be overstating it a bit. But we both love to cook, and to eat.) There was a period of time, before it became a very hipsterish thing to do, when we even called ourselves “foodies.” (Momentary digression – is the popular cultural distaste for hipsterism becoming a new, reactionary meta-anti-hipsterism? Discuss!) A year ago last week, Jamie and I and the kids embarked upon the Primal Blueprint lifestyle and collectively lost enough weight to equal an entire teenager. We felt better, we looked better, and we didn’t have to compromise on the quality of our food. We did, however, learn that the best food is often the simplest. It’s a lesson that perhaps gets lost sometimes in the pursuit of PhDs in molecular gastronomy.
But there’s reasonable evidence that for us first-worlders, food has become a sort of graven image, an approachable artisan false god sourced from local ingredients and worshiped au flambé. This is evidenced by the fact that we’re a nation OK with the fact that we’re fed an incessant barrage of imagery best described as “food porn.”
About five years ago, my personal obsession was gourmet coffee. It started when I went looking for a good coffee shop that could deliver a taste above the average Green Mermaid experience. I stumbled across reviews for a little place in Clarendon called Murky Coffee. It sounded fantastic, so I went there, and it was absolutely better than I could possibly have imagined. You know how even people who don’t like coffee thinks it smells great? This was a place dedicated to making coffee taste like it smells, and they were remarkably close. The place was mismanaged by the mad coffee genius Nick Cho, and wound up being shut down only a couple years after I found it, but I would still give a kidney to have another one of those lattes. Nobody else in the city even comes close.
At the time, I wanted a piece of that action, and so I went out and dropped about $400 on prosumer-grade coffee equipment and started buying really good beans so I could practice making espresso drinks at home. I was dedicated. It wasn’t long before I decided I wanted to start a coffee shop of my own, and Jamie and I even came up with a business plan and a logo. Seriously:
We were stoked. We tried several times to get the investment capital to make it happen, and on one occasion came pretty close to succeeding, but in the end, it wasn’t meant to be. Still, I was all over the third wave coffee movement, because I had become a true believer. I even wrote a piece about the analogous relationship between coffee rubric and religious ritual for a major publication. (And, speaking of food porn, check out the crema on these naked portafilters!) But without funding or specific direction, my dream slipped away and died, and the energy in the coffee movement moved in new directions. People started hyping the $11,000 Clover machine, that supposedly made a perfect cup of coffee. People who were die hard about the French Press method started waxing poetic over pour-over instead. The Synesso Syncra, once the Bugatti Veyron of Espresso Machines, had competition from new players and old. The game continued to change.
And as it changed, I lost track. I had quit my job and moved to Arizona to help out my fellow man and follow the coffee dream, but I got bamboozled in the process. Pretty soon I was too broke to buy a tall black decaf drip, let alone a $22 12 oz. fair trade flavor extravaganza. I didn’t have the energy to keep up with it all anymore. That heartwarming story involves trailer park fires, crazy men burying axes in the side of their homes, tenant battles, ditch digging, fatal drug overdoses, family betrayals, broken job contracts, heroic financial rescues, and an eventual return to Virginia, followed by a long (and ongoing) period of redemption and re-establishment. That’s a yarn I won’t spin here. Suffice it to say, though, that during that period of time my economic reality knocked me off the foodie wagon. And it was a very good thing.
I rediscovered my love of home-brewed drip coffee, made from grounds that came in a can. (This is heresy – beans should be fresh ground in a conical burr grinder and brewed within two minutes of grinding. Further, beans should be no more than 14 days from roast date, and should NEVER go through a drip machine. Press pot, pour over, portafilter or nothing, buddy!) I also got cozy with cheap wine. I learned to pass on that $21.99 a pound brie, except maybe on special occasions. In a way, I guess you could say I broadened my range. I still liked and appreciated the good stuff. But I had learned to love the stuff that had gotten me into my interest in good food in the first place. The basic, economical entries into the world of high food that could, done right, still be made to taste pretty damned good.
And let’s be honest. Some of the good stuff is overrated. Back in the day, when I was at the height of my coffee hysteria, I had heard about a place called Grape & Bean, in Alexandria, Virginia. It was a wine bar and good coffee kind of experience. Yesterday, I was out that way, and remembered the place. Pining for the days of coffee sophistication, I headed over there.
The place is situated in an iconic setting. Old Town Alexandria is picturesque, and it fits every aesthetic criterion for foodie culture.
I went in wanting a latte, looked around, and realized they had no espresso machine. Disappointed, I remembered hearing they had a Clover, but didn’t see one of those either. Still, they had specialty coffees, and I ordered a Guatamela Finca el Injerto – Bourbon from Stumptown Coffee Roasters. First, because I saw the word “bourbon” in it (and bourbon always has a positive connotation in my book) and second because the description was enticing: “Milk chocolate fuses elegantly with flavors of lime, melon and cognac in a cup embellished by a cinnamon aroma.”
A dude attired in something along the more professional side of barista-style (ill-fitting suit hanging loosely over gaunt frame, ill-kempt beard, wireframe glasses) came at last to my drink. He ground the beans (which smelled amazing) and then popped them into something called a Trifecta. I had no idea what this was, so I looked it up. It apparently involves hydrolysis. Who knew? To me, it looked like a super-fancy-automated-French-press machine. That spins.
In the end, I wound up with a steaming cup of pleasant, but fairly average tasting coffee. I’m a creamer but no sugar guy, but I tasted it black first. Meh. This was a four dollar cup of something not that special, and I found myself wondering if maybe all this gourmet foodism has just gone too far. We focus so much time, effort, and money on getting the best flavors we can out of something, I think we forget to just enjoy it. I don’t miss spending 20 minutes making a single cup of coffee in the morning. I brewed two cups with less than 2 minutes worth of effort today, and they tasted just fine through my $12 Mr. Coffee drip machine. In fact, I preferred them. It’s not that my palate lacks the sophistication to taste subtle nuances of…okay, actually, maybe it does. Because I can taste that coffees are different, but I can rarely say why. I do better with wines and whiskeys, but even there, you hit a wall at some point beyond which you’re just paying too much money for an almost imperceptible improvement in taste.
In high school, I determined that I needed to learn to like coffee because it was the ubiquitous beverage, offered everywhere, often for free, and I hated it. That seemed impractical. I learned to like it, then I learned to love it, then I loved it too much, and now I’m back to a more balanced appreciation of it. Heaven isn’t something we find in a cup. We have to work harder than that for paradise. I don’t want to have to work this hard on coffee, on food, or anything that’s going to do a quick detour through my digestive system and wind up back in the ground again.
It’s okay to love food that tastes good. I just think we sometimes get a little too crazy about it.