Coffee and craft

Julian Baggini writes in a thoughtful essay that high-end restaurants in the United Kingdom have thrown out the idea of “artisan” espresso and bought Nespresso machines, which use factory-sealed capsules of precision-ground coffee and can be operated with the push of a button. In fact, as Baggini discovered in a blind taste test, Nespresso is consistently better, or at least more consistently good, than “artisan” espresso made by hand. But, he asks, is a cup of coffee just a cup of coffee — just the momentary pleasure it gives us, a mere utilitarian instrument? Or is it something more — the sum of its relationships to other things?

Baggini argues forcefully that to perceive espresso (or anything else) as something more than its reductionist self is what makes us human, and concludes:

The only way truly to defend the artisans against all that technology might put up against them is to give up the entire premise of my blind tasting, that is, the idea that it does not matter how the coffee came to be, all that counts is its final taste.

Surely we appreciate the handmade in part because it is handmade. An object or a meal has different meaning and significance if we know it to be the product of a human being working skilfully with tools rather than a machine stamping out another clone. Even if in some ways a mass-produced object is superior in its physical properties, we have good reasons for preferring a less perfect, handcrafted one.

Corporations know this, which is why they will often use bogus personalisation to make their products seem more appealing, like putting a picture of a farmer on the label, or giving the product the name of a person or place. But do we have good reasons for this preference, or is it just romantic nonsense? I think we do. We live in a world of humans, other animals and things, and the quality of life depends on the qualities of the relationships between them. Mass production, like factory farming, weakens, if not destroys, these relationships. This creates a kind of alienation, where we feel no genuine, human contact with those who supply us with what we need.

We are not simply hedonic machines who thrive if supplied with things that tick certain boxes for sensory pleasure, aesthetic merit, and so on. We are knowing as well as sensing creatures, and knowing where things come from, and how their makers are treated, does and should affect how we feel about them. Chocolate made from cocoa beans grown by people in near slave conditions should taste more bitter than a fairly traded bar, even if it does not in a blind tasting. Blindness, far from making tests fair, actually robs us of knowledge of what is most important, while perpetuating the illusion that all that really matters is how it feels or seems at the moment of consumption.

Fairly obviously I agree with Baggini — it’s essentially the premise of this blog — and though Nespresso is a small thing, he’s hit on the major problem with our food culture, which is that we treat our food as being merely about us, merely about what we happen to be putting into our bodies at any given moment, about the pleasure it gives and, if we’re somewhat more farsighted, the impact we imagine it will have on our health. We have an economy that treats us as if we were hedonistic machines, and we far too often behave as if we were.

I wonder, though, how restaurants fit into this. When I cook at home, I know what’s in my meal, how it was made, where the food came from; usually I know who grew the vegetables or raised the meat, and when I crack an egg I can often tell you which chicken laid it. If I’m eating with friends and family, that’s more context, more layers of meaning to the meal. If a friend cooks dinner for me, I don’t know much of anything about the ingredients, but I do know that a friend has cooked me dinner, and a sincere gesture of friendship covers an awful lot of culinary sins.

But in a restaurant? A restaurant meal really is just a momentary hedonistic pleasure. If there’s a context it’s likely fabricated from a mishmash of table settings, lighting, fonts on the menu, paintings on the wall, the ingratiating politeness (or lack thereof) of the staff. There are farm-to-fork restaurants and plenty more that pepper their menus with names of local farms, but for most diners I expect that doesn’t make any more real a connection than the “bogus personalization” of corporate advertising. And I don’t see anything wrong with going to a restaurant specifically for a momentary hedonistic pleasure, if it’s an escape from the context of your daily life: it’s when momentary hedonistic pleasure becomes the daily routine that it’s a problem.

As for Nespresso, in a restaurant, you rarely see who’s making the coffee; you don’t get the theater you do at a neighborhood coffee shop, or even at a Starbucks. So I doubt we’ll see Nespresso replacing the friendly neighborhood barista anytime soon. But, then, I’ve been wrong before.

Anyway, I expect half of what I’ve said here conflicts with my point the other day about the idea of a sandwich. But I’ve contradicted myself before, too.