Magazine | October 20, 2014, Issue

Java Jive

A faded sign on a hotel wall in Fargo, N.D.: “Just a cup of coffee to you, but a reputation to us.” I always appreciated the fear in the sentiment. They knew they were one weak ration of jake away from losing a customer for good. Although sometimes people think coffee has a bad reputation for serious, moral reasons. Here’s a headline from the New York Times’ new “Op-Talk” online section: “If you read this, you may never drink a latte again.”

You know where it’s going, don’t you? Of course. Let’s guess:

1. Coffee is bad, because most of it is grown in countries with poor human-rights records that were given aid by Reagan, so the Gipper’s sharp teeth gleam in the flickering light of hell every time you brew a cup. Boo. But coffee is also a sign of one’s exquisite taste, if it’s artisanal, expensive, locally roasted one bean at a time, and conjured up by aloof young men with preposterous mustaches who fuss over a cold-press ration, hand over the cup as if they’d just made a Fabergé egg, then ban the customer for adding too much milk.

No progressive wants to feel bad about his coffee. So he buys fair-trade shade-grown coffee hand-picked by indigenous peoples who send the beans north in the only possible ethical method: secreted in the digestive tracts of children who cross the border for a better life. You’re actually surprised when the bag of Ethical Coffee doesn’t have a picture of the kid on the back, along with the date of the immigration-status appointment he didn’t keep.

2. So coffee can be good. Whew. But then there’s the milky part of the latte. It comes from cows, who have been subjugated by man into a role they never chose. In a just world cows would be free, and would wander over when they were in a giving mood and have a mutually beneficial, non-exploitive relationship with the milker. But factory dairies force cows to lactate on schedule, hooked up to cold machinery; really, the cartons with the pictures of perfect farms should have Arbeit macht frei on a sign over the barn door.

There’s the issue of bovine growth hormones, which might combine with vaccines and household-cleaning chemicals and sippy-cup plastics to produce autism. Could happen! My friend accidentally gave her cat milk that had bovine growth hormone and now the cat just walks around doing what it wants and doesn’t seem concerned at all with how her owner is feeling.

So lattes might be a problem. Having lined up the straw men and opened up the flamethrower nozzle, let’s see what the article really says.

To some, drinking [a latte] makes you a snob. To others, it makes you a spendthrift. But neither of these perceptions may be particularly accurate  —  and in fact, the latte can tell us a lot about how America thinks about food, work, and money.

Ah! Of course! It’s about class. The Right may think lattes are for foppish men who can’t take their jake straight the way God and John Wayne intended, but it’s more complicated than that. It’s always more complicated than that.

The notion that lattes are a sign of privilege may be off-base. Kyla Wazana Tompkins, a professor of English and gender and women’s studies who’s a former food journalist and the author of “Racial Indigestion: Eating Bodies in the 19th Century,” told Op-Talk that “the latte, while it may be attached on a certain level to too much upper-class food knowledge and pretension, it really is no longer an upper-class drink. . . . It’s important to think about the explosion of all of these industrialized lattes, all these frozen lattes, all the Frappuccinos, as links to a larger problem of creating cheap, high-calorie, low-nutrition food for working-class people.”

You think you’re doing well because you can afford the latte. But it’s a lie. The lattes, which are frozen, are links. The links indicate the larger problem. The larger problem results from the industrialized lattes. Which are exploding.

For Ms. Tompkins, the way we talk about lattes  —  as signifier of wealth when they’re not, as bank-breaking indulgence when they may not be  —  is a symptom of something larger.

Well, no one ever got tenure saying that sometimes a latte is just a latte. But linger for a moment over that wonderful phrase: the way we talk about lattes. We have reached a point in human civilization at which it is not enough to write about the fact that people talk about a milky coffee beverage. Our attention must be brought to the way they talk about it.

“The latte as a symbol has sort of disengaged itself from the actual use and the consumption of the latte as commodity,” she said. “How does the symbolism of a thing get dislodged from the ways in which it’s actually used and actually consumed?”

I don’t know. With a penknife? Rocking it back and forth until it pops out? Maybe I should go get one and consume it with no more thought than the pleasure of the drink itself, shorn of its meaning and context and class signifiers. I’ll just regard it as a cup of coffee. Is that nihilism or anarchism or an individual journey to seek the Platonic ideal? Hard to tell, but it has to mean something, so you can judge the reasons for my latte consumption.

It’s just a cup of coffee to me, but it’s my reputation to you.

– Mr. Lileks blogs at www.lileks.com.

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