Last week we wrote about how coffee, like food, has become a primary form of consumer entertainment. We also mentioned recent experiences at newer coffee bars that have felt, well, “manipulative and artificial.” This concern over what seems real might sound trivial, but it’s at the foundation of a great deal of consumer behavior and marketing today.

Don’t believe us? Look at the immense popularity of reality television shows, the critical importance of reality to today’s video game industry, and the heavy emphasis of realness, or authenticity, in our food and drink. Social theorists suggest that our lives today are so consumed with virtual crap — crap that severs us from nature and self-sufficiency — that we now crave authenticity and reality in the things we do and the things we buy. Authors Joe Pine and Jim Gilmore heavily explored this theme in their book Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want.

We're lead to presume that authentic food is only available from taco trucks What's eating real and local without being served from a truck?

Oakland’s Eat Real (?) Festival

Speaking of food and drink experiences that overtly express their realness, this past weekend we attended Oakland’s (recently) annual Eat Real Festival. Coffee featured at the event (more on that later), and the event Web site tells us, “Eat Real’s mission is to make real food as accessible and as affordable as fast food at events held in strategic communities across the United States.”

So, according to this food fest, what does real food actually mean? For one, no fewer than two separate kombucha demonstration sessions. For another, urban homesteading — with models of a backyard townhouse you can build for a chicken that’s the envy of many an East Oakland resident. And lots and lots of taco trucks. As if the mere act of serving food out of fad-friendly taco trucks makes it naturally affordable, nutritious, locally grown, and oh-so-real.

If we thought so many of our recent new coffee experiences were artificial, what could we make of the realness of this event? Planted smack in the middle of this festival was a McDonald’s-owned Chipotle booth. With over 22,500 employees at 1,000 locations in 36 states, you can bet your kombucha that Chipotle doesn’t raise their chickens in backyard townhouses.

Chipotle and 'Eat Locally' at the same Eat Real Festival??? The nearby Oakland Chinatown Streetfest , quietly keeping it real for 23 years

The festival is the brainchild of Susan Coss and Anya Fernald, organizers behind the 2008 Slow Food Nation that we highly endorsed. That event may have received heavy, but misplaced, criticism for its “elitist” price tag at the time. While there’s nothing disingenuous about dressing up a county fair with more modern food fads, slapping the real or authentic label on it hops on the express lane to Phonytown. Pine & Gilmore write about three basic rules of authenticity, and the Eat Real Festival failed at all of them. The second rule being, “It’s easier to be authentic if you don’t say you’re authentic.” Remind you of any Third Wave flag wavers you know?

Coincidentally, a few blocks away was the 23rd annual Oakland Chinatown Streetfest where they offered no kombucha demonstrations, no taco trucks, and no Chipotle booth dressed in “I’m locally grown” clothing. Your guess as to which festival felt more real and authentic.

Ritual Coffee Roasters' trailer at the Eat Real Festival Nothing like having a GB/5 hanging out your trailer window

Ritual Coffee Roasters owner, Eileen Hassi, getting her urban homesteading in The surprisingly over milky Ritual Coffee Roasters cappuccino

Coffee at the Eat Real Festival

Back to the coffee, Blue Bottle Coffee‘s James Freeman spoke about home coffee roasting at the event — focusing on his roasting roots with a basic oven (in other words: forget those newfangled popcorn poppers!).

Ritual Coffee Roasters established a presence with an event-suitable trailer-on-wheels — with La Marzocco GB/5 sticking out of one end. Going beyond our usual straight espresso shots, the cappuccino was decent but a far too milky for their usual standards.

Hands-down the most impressive coffee drinks at the festival grounds came from — surprise, surprise — Mr. Espresso. We’ve normally considered particularly fluffy espresso specialty drinks as superfluous barista competition fodder. But their Venezuelan Cappuccino — made with Mr. Espresso’s Neapolitan Espresso and Barlovento Venezuelan Hot Chocolate Truffle of “Star Anise, Orange zest, and All Spice berries” made believers out of us.

Luigi di Ruocco serving up espresso drinks at the Mr. Espresso booth The Mr. Espresso Venezuelan Cappuccino