Espresso Cuisines : The American Cuisine

The same expansive tendency is even more spectacularly in evidence in the post-modern Seattle cuisine, where customers can order a triple serving of espresso in a mondo, or milk-shake-sized container of hot frothed milk, perhaps further enriched by a shot of mint syrup and several kinds of garnishes. The rituals of the new post-modern espresso reveal additional differences from the traditional Italian and Italian-American cuisines. If the small, standup bar is the quintessential Italian setting for espresso cuisine, and the cafe, with tables, chairs, newspapers, and light foods is the typical setting for the Italian-American cuisine, then the espresso cart is the characteristic setting for the Seattle cuisine.

With the espresso cart the cup, saucer, and glass have been dispensed with, and replaced by a disposable cup, either styrofoam or paper. The customers range from those types who also inhabit the traditional cafe, the newspaper readers, two-hour talkers, and poetry writers, to professionals and clerks who are taking their coffee break outside and on the run, rather than inside, in the office lounge or at their desk. Everything tends to be improvised and casual, and the social space around the cart is continually created and recreated by those who stand, sit, stroll, or dash back to work balancing 16 ounces of espresso drink atop a pile of manilla file folders. The carts may vaguely resemble Italian espresso bars, but the customers usually walk away with their tall, milky drinks, rather than down them immediately with an elbow on the bar.

As for the Seattle cuisine itself, it represents the expansive, defiantly non-traditional, and individualistically improvising spirit of Western America at its iconoclastic best. It is a cuisine of extremes, from tall, milky, weak drinks in which the espresso can barely be detected amid the pop seductions of pomegranate or pineapple-coconut syrup, to austerely macho "triples" of straight espresso; from the skim-milk latte made with decaffeinated coffee (dubbed the skinny no-fun by some espresso carts) to a double breve, which delivers two servings of caffeine plus all of the butterfat floating around in 12 ounces of half-and-half.

I suspect that with the development of the Seattle cuisine, with its vigorous pop interpretations of tradition drinks coupled with a sophisticated grasp of espresso technique, espresso in America has finally departed the elitist preserve of imitation Europeans, fancy food freaks, university students, artists, and urban professionals, and is on its way into the mainstream of American life.