Please repeat after me: “Food and drink is entertainment.”

What do I mean by that? Public tastes in entertainment change. We no longer attend social dances or go to the circus. In fact, if someone probably heard their neighbors were doing that, they would hide any of their small children. And instead of seeing the latest Elia Kazan flick or reading the latest Truman Capote novel, we watch Netflix DVDs and play videogames.

While we certainly went to restaurants, drank coffee, and maybe even tried Korean food in the past, back then it was more…functional. But in our popular culture of today, these are primary forms of entertainment. Instead of seeing the latest Tennessee Williams play, we seek out the latest Korean BBQ truck. Today’s shared cultural experiences are as much about retail food and drink establishments as they used to be about music or literature. And coffee today is definitely part of that.

This recently published “syphon-worship” music video illustrates how much entertainment has become inseparable from coffee appreciation today.

Food-as-entertainment-as-food

Food-as-entertainment is heavily reflected in our consumer culture. Not only has the Food Network established a sizeable and lucrative audience, but there’s enough of a feeding frenzy to encourage Bravo and the Travel Channel to join the fray. Not so coincidentally, just as television has swelled on the reality TV fad in response to a writers’ strike and the appeal of lower production costs, retail food and drink is undergoing a similar fad in response to our current economic times.

The SF Street Food Festival - or is that a bag of Blue Bottle Coffee?Take the whole street food thing. We now have fanfare such as the second annual SF Street Food Festival. Now there’s some great food to be had from pushcarts, taco trucks, and bicycles rigged with flamethrowers. But there is a definite entertainment element to it all — the kind that suggests, “This would be tasty in a restaurant, but it’s ten times more fun eating it over an open sewer!”

A couple years ago, and also not by coincidence, we jokingly called coffee’s equivalent to this fad the “Malaysian street food experience“. To the idealist, the theme is about focusing so much on the product that you’re allowed (if not encouraged) to offer as few customer amenities as possible. To the cynic, the theme is about charging the most money for the least amount of investment under the guise of exclusivity. Then throw in the dreaded hipster consumerism label if you will.

Coffee’s Broadway Dreams

As if to continually demonstrate how New York remains years behind on the current coffee culture, just today the New York Times published an article on the stripped down coffee bar theme: The New Coffee Bars – Unplug, Drink Up – NYTimes.com. The article follows a bit more of the idealist’s perspective — with a hint of cynicism suggested only in mentioning New York’s latent Wi-Fi backlash. This theme, already overworked on the Left Coast, is probably a bit too new for New York to pick up on the (*groan*…don’t say it!) irony yet.

Thus it’s probably a bit too telling that today a related post from another New York publication, The Awl, impressed me more: Knock It Off With All The “Pairing,” Okay? – The Awl. Why I appreciated this cynical rant more than the Times piece is probably best summarized by quoting some of it:

The current passion for anything to do with food and drink, cooking, regional cuisine, taco trucks, and so on is fun, and I certainly don’t mean to bag on that. Of course it is great to try, and maybe like, new things, and delicious things. But the fussy, mincing habit of attempting to create demand with a sniffy insistence on things like “artisanal” cheese or soda, coffee brewed in some Japanese contraption for eighteen hours, etc., is manipulative and artificial and stands in opposition to the fun part of sharing good things together.

If you have to ask if it's food, is it really all that nourishing?Their use of “manipulative and artificial” particularly resonated with me. My wife knows a thing or two about food and cooking, and she’s had a tremendously insightful statement about the molecular gastronomy fad of recent years — back when we still wanted to play with our food at restaurants but had the bank accounts to frequent El Bulli. She noted that while the playfulness of its techniques made the food fun and entertaining, to have any lasting qualities the food has to have soul.

Real soul. Not soul-by-numbers. Isley Brothers soul, not Michael Bolton soul. The first time I attended the SF Blues Festival was also the last. Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, I regularly listened to blues singers wailing over how they lost their jobs, their women, and their self-respect. Instead, I shudder to this day thinking about those grassy hillsides of Ft. Mason, suffering through a blues singer’s laments over recycling. Recycling! Sorry, but the “My Curbside Recycling Program Doesn’t Pick Up My #2 Plastics Blues” just rings hollow and oh-so-wrong.

And that’s the problem with a lot of new coffee experiences I’ve had these days. They may have to survive in a world that expects entertainment from their coffee. We’re enthralled and entertained with the latest super-expensive espresso machine, the pour-over method of the month, and the single origin coffee that surprises us by tasting like it comes from the wrong continent. But if the coffee doesn’t have soul — if it’s just going through a checklist of expected stereotypes as a means of fabricating soul — I may as well be in a Starbucks with better coffee.