This fall marks the centenary of William Mitchell. You may not have heard of him, but in his day he was a big cheese. Indeed, he was a big processed cheese, with what’s now Kraft Foods. Mitchell invented Cool Whip and quick-set Jell-O and powdered egg whites for cake mix. He was in the grand tradition of American entrepreneurial energy: Henry Ford made travel faster, Alexander Graham Bell made communication faster, Bill Mitchell made Jell-O even faster. When he died, I wrote an appreciation and noted his one great miscalculation, late in life. He noticed the dahlias growing on his daughter’s land, came up with the idea of roasting their tubers, and created a brown substance with a coffee-like taste that he called Dacopa.
It flopped. The fearless pioneer of convenience foods had failed to foresee that in his final years coffee would become the ultimate inconvenience food. Where once you’d say, “Gimme a cuppa joe, Darlene,” and the waitress would slide it across the counter, now you stand around for 20 minutes as the guy juices the espresso, froths up the milk, lathers on the foam, gives it a shot of caramel flavoring, sprinkles it with cinnamon, adds a slice of pepperoni and a soupçon of Eurasian milfoil, and instead of two bits charges you $5.95.
It’s getting on for two decades since I first did a world’s-slowest-coffee routine on the BBC with the great Bonnie Langford, West End child star and Doctor Who’s perkiest sidekick. Jackie Mason was also on the show, and asked me who our writer was. I felt it would make me look like a loser to say I’d written it myself, so I promised to pass on any message. “Tell him he may be on to something,” growled Mason. A few years later, I opened up The American Spectator to find the comic genius had worked up a Starbucks routine all his own.
At the time, I thought the ever more protracted java jive was an anomaly — the exception that proved the rule. Now I can see it was a profound insight: America’s first slow-food chain was an idea whose time had come. Who knew you could make people stand in line (long lines at city outlets in rush hour) for a cup of coffee? Don’t tell me it’s a Continental thing. I like my café au lait in Quebec, and it takes a third of the time of all the whooshing and frothing south of the border. Same in a Viennese kaffeehaus. But I was at a “fair trade” Vermont coffee joint the other day, and there was no line at all, and it still took forever. And, as I began to get a little twitchy and pace up and down, I became aware of the handful of mellow patrons scattered about the easy chairs looking up from their tweets as if to scold: “What’s with the restless energy, dude?”
I felt like the guy in Invasion of the Body Snatchers: Everybody else in town had fallen asleep . . . and then stayed asleep. This is a paradox for our times: the somnolent coffee house. I had a strange urge to yell, “Wake up, we’re trillions of dollars in debt! The powder keg’s about to blow!” but I could feel the soporific indie-pop drifting over the counter, so I took my espresso to go and worked off my torporphobic rage by shooting iPods off the tailgate of a rusting pick-up in the back field for the rest of the day.
“You just don’t get coffee culture,” sighed a friend. What “culture”? The coffee houses of 17th-century England were hives of business: They spawned the Stock Exchange and Lloyd’s of London. The coffee houses of 18th-century Paris were hives of ideas: At Café Procope, Voltaire, Rousseau, and the gang met to thrash out the Enlightenment. The coffee houses of 21st-century America have spawned the gingerbread eggnog macchiato and an accompanying CD compilation. Unless, that is, there’s something else going on: One is mindful of Number Two’s report (in Austin Powers) to the recently defrosted Dr. Evil on what he’s been up to while the evil mastermind bent on world domination has been in orbital cryostasis. “I seized upon the opportunity to invest in a small Seattle-based coffee company several years ago,” he informs the doctor. “I believe if we shift our resources away from world domination and focus on providing premium-quality coffee drinks, we can increase our gross profits fivefold.”
That’s not such a good bet these days — Starbucks has closed a thousand outlets since 2008 — but, on the other hand, world domination–wise, the espresso era does seem to have presided over a transformation in the dominant cultural aesthetic. Inertia has never been cooler. It’s seeped out of the coffee house to stalk the land. I mean Barack Obama barely even bothers to pretend he’s got a plan for debt “reduction” or Medicare “reform,” does he?
I don’t go in for as much pop sociology as, say, David Brooks. But, for the sake of argument, let’s say he got it right on the general sensibility of a decade ago in Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There. Would you put money on his contemporary American elites to rouse themselves before catastrophe strikes? Or is somnolent, myopic complacency unto the end the way to bet?
Bit of a downer to end on, I know. But have a Dacopa. Unlike a soy peppermint chai frappuccino, it might perk you up.
– Mr. Steyn blogs at SteynOnline. (www.steynonline.com).