Le coffeeing

August 9, 2010 – 8:16 am

half-pound bison burger, emmental, garlic shoots, pico de gallo, quail egg. and coffee — square mile’s kenya tegu.

it’s barely a stretch — a counter-stretch! — to say high-end coffee learns a lot from trending food movements. this blog wonders if it’s not missing the cuttingest parts, though.

– credit card points took us to montana, domicile of the barista-poet. the green coffee truck still exists. right next to the chicken coop and splendorous, black-earth garden. there’s a former pirate next door. a lot of bears. neighborhood pubs breweries, and glaciers just to the north.

in missoula, they have a culture of dive bars, and, as it happens, dive cafes. establishments that are uniquely local, but decidedly poor in terms of beverages. the food, though. you might go to the place where the Savoriest Pizza Ever blows your mind with artichoke hearts and sausages. it’s the most montana of pies. you might head to one of three simultaneous farmer’s markets and buy local grass-fed bison, top it with garlic shoots, sauce it up with a fried quail egg. you might buy a pack of moose drool, a respectable craft brown ale — but in cans, the better to float down the river with.

these things are both distinctly of the place and downright good, by any measure. these things would by no means be classified as snobby indulgences, or geek pursuits. food, in this instance, has advanced beyond class symbols and is able to be both unpretentious and eminently laudable.

does coffee do this? rarely. the current version of the worthy coffee shop seems like it’s forced to be either the ultra-cool status symbol — intellivenice, say — or scruffy, neighborhood minded and with coffee that looks like it.

there are exceptions, but they glare so brightly as to make the norm obvious.

le fooding has become an obsession — a franco-american food movement that seems to encapsulate so much of what the youngsters long for. excellence. spontaneity. flexibility. without hard rules and accredited certificates. food for the people, a little bit cheeky, and very attractive. it’s all about the context — chipotle can soar — and about making it diverse and accessible without pretension. it’s about eating and experimenting with the right attitude.

can coffee do this? yes, sometimes. this blog might argue (if it thinks hard enough) that the most liked coffee gurus in the current movement are those who exude some aspect of this excellence with attitudinal everymanism. hoffmann. owens. colin. peter g. and yet they, too, seem to wear an attitude that’s an exception rather than a characteristic trait.

the cranky scientists, haughty geeks and argumentative snobs are vastly more common. and they’re not connecting coffee to anything.

– here in the sweltering southern hinterlands, people are discovering farmer’s markets and course meals and bistro cooking like it’s sarah palin, and instantly turning them all into cliches. conversational trading cards. a nouveau legalism. which is all insufferably deplorable, of course, but the upside is, well, that there are now exploding farmer’s markets and seasonal bistros for the NASCAR fan with an adventurous streak.

like cullen’s. its local organic pork belly and coastal scallops on crocodile spinach — and for much less money than the status restaurants — are wont to make this blog unusually gushy. seasonal crepes, farm-inspired sides, dessert imaginations born of real limits, they’re all here. and somehow this place, with its budget decor and handful of tables, has managed to put a real dent in the local dining consciousness within a matter of months.

not by boasting, or being ostentatiously purist, or situating themselves where greenies might notice. they’ve done it just by being very, very good — and not even original, per se. it’s classic french cooking with modern twists and variations inspired by local seasons. it’s the way farm to table was meant to be. i daresay it even makes sense to a domino’s-addicted redneck.

is coffee doing this? doesn’t seem like it. instead of working within simple limits, allowing humble strictures to force creativity and better delivery, the good shops seem to be sprawling all over the place, offering so many coffees now the customer can’t keep track of them all, so many drinks they jumble all up on the menu. the coffee is exotic, the names multitudinous, the brewing devices scary and the sensory overload just enough to cause a regular person to have a meltdown and opt for a smoothie. the approach deprives one of the simple, local flavor of a thing. it bludgeons taste with options.

all of which to say, public coffee is getting better. fine shops are sprouting everywhere. people are becoming discerning. but the examples of “good” seem to be examples of coffee being fetishized, a codified end in itself. the attitude is often stifling, the cafe exalted to a status where lovers go drooly and haters hate. backlashes take shape, and the quality divides instead of unifying. it’s all “slow food,” which is nice but legalistic, instead of “le fooding,” which is open and scalable.

you know what this means, don’t you? it means this blog had a smashing time in montana, and thought so many interrelated thoughts that it must resort to bulleting them in meandering blog posts. so much was absorbed about radical communities and home brewing and mountain lions and huckleberries, it might be enough to get us hyperventilating again

UPDATE: a fulsome, conversation-lengthening response from james hoffmann here.