TOPICS > Arts

Essayist Reflects on America’s Coffee Fixation

October 18, 2006 at 6:55 PM EDT

TRANSCRIPT

JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, guest essayist Julia Keller of the Chicago Tribune talks about the great American coffee fix.

JULIA KELLER, NewsHour Essayist: In the opening chapter of the John Steinbeck novel “In Dubious Battle,” a drifter named Jim makes his way to a dingy apartment. And there, Steinbeck writes, “a little tin coffee pot bubbled and steamed.”

This is a pivotal moment for Jim. We know that because there’s coffee, lots of it. In fact, in just about every chapter of Steinbeck’s gut-punch of a novel, first published in 1936, there’s coffee. You can almost smell the bitter, black stuff as you turn the pages.

It had to be coffee. Coffee’s the only choice for a book about manual laborers and their fight for a living wage, because in American culture coffee is the drink of the tough-minded dreamer. It’s the beverage of the dispossessed, of the poet, the lone traveler, the bruised idealist.

We’ve drifted away from that pitch-black signifier in recent years. Chains such as Starbucks and Caribou — and, here in Chicago, Intelligentsia — have watered down coffee’s bare-knuckled basics with their lattes and their decaf, half-soy cappuccinos.

But some recent news from the beverage industry is cause for hope, hope that coffee may finally be getting back to its rough-and-tumble roots, back to something that even Steinbeck’s callused, blue-collar bums wouldn’t be embarrassed to drink.

Dunkin’ Donuts, with about half the number of outlets nationwide as Starbucks, has announced a huge expansion. It’s going to add 10,000 stores in the next decade and a half, not to push pastries. The focus, say company executives, is coffee.

This comes just after McDonalds and Burger King beefed up their coffee, not with fancy-pants, foam-flecked offerings, featuring caramel swirls and cinnamon sprinkles, but simply with a better cup of the old familiar. McDonalds calls theirs “Premium Roast.” Burger King goes with the nickname “B.K. Joe,” which ought to come with complimentary chin stubble.

Coffee means truck stops at midnight and kitchens at dawn. It means that iconic 1942 painting by Edward Hopper “Nighthawks at the Diner,” with its white ceramic coffee mugs, its gray coffee urns. Hopper was a New Yorker, but “Nighthawks” seems steeped in an especially Midwestern sort of lonesomeness in large, empty spaces, in a sense of desolation held at arm’s length by the promise of a free refill.

Coffee is the philosophical opposite of tea, that delicate laced doily of a drink. Lipton just began selling a newfangled kind of teabag, a pyramid-shaped thing, that’s so lovely and precious looking that you wonder if it belongs in a mug or an art museum.

But there’s a fundamental difference between coffee people and tea people, a cultural divide that cuts across movies, and TV, and literature, and life. Even though tea can pack as much or more caffeine as coffee, and even though tea drinking predates coffee drinking by at least four centuries, their images belie those realities. Coffee is scraped knuckles and bum luck; tea is an extended pinkie and inherited wealth.

It’s true that coffee has been muted and tamed in recent years. It’s been tricked out with cute new names. For a time, it seemed to lose its beautifully bitter edge. But coffee is making a comeback, real coffee, that is.

So it’s out with the lattes and in with the lunch counters, counters at which working stiffs sit, hunched over their battered mugs of Joe. Not a cafe mocha; just a cup of mud. Not Starbucks; Steinbeck.

I’m Julia Keller.