Coffee Culture : Coffee Anti-Ceremonies

A comedian recently advanced the idea of drive-through communion as a way of counteracting declining church attendance.

For many of us what has happened to the public ritual of coffee in recent years is almost as grotesque. Rather than hearty ceramic mug of drip coffee or elegant demitasse of espresso we buy caffe lattes dispensed into cardboard with all the finesse of pumping gas. Rather than coffee as catalyst for a brief moment alone with our thoughts, or a chat with a friend, or a round of banter with a waiter or waitress, that cardboard-encased latte is one element in a multitasking drive to work combining lukewarm coffee, a Danish lifted off a napkin on the lap, and a series of cell-phone calls to clients.

Nothing to be done about this latest subversion of pleasure, of course, except exhort one another to slow down and sniff the coffee occasionally and perhaps replace the cardboard cup with a stainless steel insulated mug.

But I often wish I could transport some of the local baristas and their overcaffeinated, underserved customers to Italy, where they could experience a coffee ritual as elegant as it is brief and efficient. No one is in as much a hurry as Italians, yet they always take a couple of minutes to give themselves to coffee and the moment that surrounds it: The tiny cup, always delivered with a saucer and matching spoon, always half-filled with rich, perfumy espresso, placed with economy of gesture on a clean bar. For a few seconds, nothing intrudes between the tiny pool of fragrant coffee and drinker. Then the cup is returned to the saucer with a definitive clack, and the customer is on her or his way, carrying a respite, however momentary, from the press and clutter of obligation.