August 4, 2013
There are supposedly three kinds of retail food consumers. One group just wants good food. Boooring! A much more interesting group is seeking some kind of unique or special eating experience. This group winds up being the prime target of marketing and research, because they offer something that retailers (we’re talking restaurants and grocery stores here) can focus on. Finally there is the third group. They are mostly interested in parking. Or more accurately, food is the last thing on their mind when they are thinking about spending money on eating. They might not be making their decision solely on parking but they want to know if there is a playground for the kids, or they might be worried about the wait. This group gives retailers something to focus on, too. It would be pretty evident that this group actually dominates the planning for a lot of chain restaurants and major grocery stores. But they don’t give you much to write about in a blog on food ethics, so we’re going to ignore them for the rest of the day.
My friend Lisa Heldke is the global food ethics guru when it comes to that middle group, which she calls “food adventurers”. Lisa is fully aware that the rest of the world may call them “food snobs”, and her book Exotic Appetites considers some reasons why that might be justified. But she’s trying to give them the benefit of the doubt at the outset, so I’ll go with that. The worry is that by obsessing over ever more elaborate and unusual turns in cooking and cuisine, the food adventurers are just egging retailers on. As they scour the world for that authentic and special taste, the taste-makers convert local cultures into commodities. The retailers market these commodities to comparatively well off developed world consumers who are oblivious to the exploitation that likes deep in the bowels of the global food system. And if this kind of consumption is not quite at the heart of the ethical issues in contemporary food production, these food adventurers are the reason why cynics regard efforts like “fair trade” or “bird friendly” coffee as just another form of elitism.
Which brings me to crema. “Crema” is not recognized by the spelling dictionary of MS Word® . That’s pretty good evidence that we’re in elitism territory, I think. Crema is the thin, frothy film on a cup of espresso. It’s produced by the pressurized brewing method that’s used to make espresso. You are not going to see any crema coming out of your Mr. Coffee drip pot on the kitchen counter. For coffee aficionados, it’s all about the crema. That’s where the flavor is most intense. It’s also where it can be most intensely screwed up by an incompetent or lazy barista. Frothing the crema with a little steamed milk is the secret behind a cappuccino, but in my humble opinion the peak experience is what you get with a properly made macchiato—which you are not going to get at any Starbucks, Bigby’s or Espresso Royale in Lansing. The crema tends to get washed out in latte, so you will hardly ever see a coffee snob—err, adventurer—ordering one unless it’s like two o’clock in the afternoon, they need a coffee fix and just can’t bring themselves to order a plain cup of brewed coffee.
When I was down in Australia last year I learned that you can hardly get a cup of ordinary brewed coffee. They do something called a “flat white”, which is kind of a cross between a cappuccino and a latte. It’s got a little less milk than the latter, and there’s an effort to retain a bit of the crema in the froth on top when it’s competently made. An entire subcontinent of food adventurers, those Aussies! They have nothing but disdain for the swill-drinking Americans, especially when they turn out in droves for an abomination like “pumpkin spice macchiato” (which has no more relation to true macchiato than Chef Boy-Ar-Dee canned pasta has to a proper al dente tortiglioni).
Ooops. Am I sounding like a food snob here? Just give me a tall dark-roast then, with room for cream.
Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University