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Starbucks still misses the boat for this landlubber

August 16th, 2009 · No Comments

Somewhere along the line, sailors, probably it was British sailors first time around, were called “tars.” This is among other things that sailors have been called in their lives at sea and their reputations in ports from Massalia (which is what the Phoenicians called what we know as Marseille) to Guadeloupe preceded them.

The reference, of course, is to that black, gummy substance distilled (yes) from the roots and wood of the pine tree (leave it at that; I’m not Linnaeus and this is no botany lesson) and used to seal the wooden ships that plied the seas and other waterways from time immemorial to the age of metal vessels. Even the little boat of rushes that protected the biblical baby Moses was famously lined with pitch (not quite the same thing as tar, but same principle—I’m not sure the Egyptians knew about tar, and frankly I don’t care).

Let me warn you now that if you check one of those ultra-reliable research sources, as I do, like Wikipedia, you’ll be told all kinds of sea stories (my mother would have called them “bubbe meissen,” but no matter, same difference*) about how the jolly British sailor came to be called by what it alleges is the benign, if not amiable, designation. The full epithet is “Jack Tar.” Because, no doubt, the British add “Jack” to every hail, or common expression alluding to another fellow—as in, “I’m All Right Jack,” the name of a British movie about the labor movement, a comedy no less, that was released in the 50s in the U.S. (and starred such stellar character actors as Peter Sellers, Terry-Thomas, and Margaret Rutherford). It was spectacularly funny, even to the 13 year-old I was at the time. How much deeper would have been my enjoyment had I known that the full common expression, from which the title derived, as I know it now, is “I’m all right Jack, fuck you.” As in, I’ve got mine, you can take care of yourself…

Let’s just say, whatever the connection of that resinous by-product to its uses at sea, the linguistic echoes speak volumes to the intent of its use. Tar, in short, is an objective correlative, a damn good one, if you ask me, in any story concerned with self-preservation.

Tar still has its place, I am sure, in more and more specialized applications, in this age of more and more generalized and amorphous interests in general life, which humans seem to want to pursue with the migratory zeal of lemmings. I notice there is still a tar-like substance (derived, no doubt, not from the distillation of what emerges from a pine tar kiln, but from the distillation of our jolly friend, petroleum, and commonly called, in its most common form, “coal tar.”) I used to chew bits, tiny bits, that we kids would find in the streets of the Bronx after a road repair or, more usually, a roof repair of the graveled flat roofs of the housing projects in which I grew up. I remember the tang of its aroma, and the spicy satisfying bitterness for the few moments we could stand to keep it in our mouths before its purely noxious qualities came to the fore. Possibly this was a precursor for my later career as wine taster (strictly amateur), not to mention coffee. I can’t say, but I do know in retrospect that the ritualistic steps, practiced intuitively were not far different. One difference was the absence of a spit bucket.

It’s the mention of spit that reminds me of my subject here, though it reminds me as well of some common expressions that should be kept active, if in the background of one’s mind, while contemplating this subject, as in “so angry I could spit,” or that great maternal euphemism for vomit, especially in reference to babies, “spit up,” or the curses from any one of no doubt dozens, but for sure the handful of latin, countries any one of which begins in the form, “I spit on…[to be completed as appropriate: your shoes, your new Audi G7, your future grave site, etc.].” My subject is a recent, rare visit to Starbucks.

My memory of Starbucks dates to the days when, in the ascendant as the corporation fulfilled the strategies of a prescient Howard Schultz who bought the original company from its founders in 1987 and proceeded to do what they refused to do: sell brewed drinks, including espresso, in addition to the beans which were the hallmark of the generation of what only seem to be sui generis establishments, all started in Seattle: coffee bean, and coffee bean only, roasters and purveyors. The founders, who started out buying their beans from Peet’s (whose founder, in turn, had been their mentor and inspiration: one of the founders of Starbucks still works for that chain, long since outdistanced by, and pale in comparison to its prodigal child), had the odd notion that coffee was a drink to be prepared and enjoyed best at home.

It was Schultz, at whose feet (shod in whatever shoes he prefers I would gladly spit upon at any opportunity, so great is my contempt, which started instantaneously when I learned at the very same time—he bought out the Starbucks founders in 1987 and immediately started out on his global conquests, at which he has succeeded only too well—about the existence of the shop(s), the tenuous connection of the brand with, and, for any deep lover of American literature, the innately moronic and, for some of us, profane, desecration of the name of one of literature’s noblest characters, the indomitable first mate of the ill-fated Pequod, the whaling ship in which most of the action takes place in that classic novel everyone claims to have read in its entirety, Moby Dick, and which has about as much to do with coffee, as Longfellow’s epic poem “Evangeline” has to do with pork belly futures in the Chicago commodities markets, and I hadn’t even tasted the vile, foul-smelling substance they dispensed as yet) can be laid all of whatever it is you hold dear, or revile, about Starbucks, its stores, its ethos, its products, etc.

It is allegedly Schultz who insisted on the signature “dark roast” (in scare quotes, because, lordy, it is scary that they still call the end result coffee beans; I don’t know what the generic term for the byproduct of total destructive incineration is, or I’d use it) and the attendant flavors (if, again, we can stretch the language, pliant, if not elastic as it may be, and thereby one of the great languages, in all its linguistic potentiality, for creating poetry—but we are talking Starbucks “coffee” here, and any such talk is the antithesis of poetry, as the fluid spoken of is the antithesis of its designation; a new vocabulary must be invented to have proper terminology with which to refer to their products, “swill” having long since been bankrupted by the imagination of the demented lot at Starbucks headquarters who concoct everything revolutionary they have introduced to the world in the name of the plant Coffea L., whose seeds (no, they’re not really beans) have for so long provided so much pleasure until the Schultz came along, and he had all he could do to have them provide what is clearly the more compelling objective, money, because what he seems to have done best is to find ways of brutalizing and abusing this ancient plant, revered for centuries by men (and if we are to believe it, the gods) as a divine natural gift, with fire to produce concoctions and decoctions that until recently seemed to have the magical property mainly of parting fools from their money while simultaneously dulling their sensory organs, and especially their palates, into complete insensibility).

My first protest, which consisted of boycott, occurred in 1996, when the revered (and for good reason) Coffee Connection, a chain started by the man whose name is synonymous with great coffee in the Northeast, at least, George Howell, decided, that is, George decided, to besmirch his reputation by selling his company, his stores (more, really, in the way of cafés), his products (a line of several types of coffee beans, which were roasted with exquisite care and sensitivity to the subtle and not-so-subtle differences among the varietals) to Starbucks. I can’t blame him really, as it must have been an astounding amount of money involved, and worth every penny to La Schultz, who in one stroke, not dissimilar to the blitzkrieg strategy employed so effectively by the Wehrmacht, with minimal destruction and maximal effectiveness by way of assimilating whole peoples under a new regime. It was in 1996, that the Coffee Connection locations operated by Starbucks under that name, for a while after the acquisition, changed the identity on all stores, and all but a handful of products. And of course, the announcement (again, just pure classic marketing strategy, which does, effectively, crush any confusion, but with the collateral effect, usually, of also crushing even a thread of whatever it was that distinguished a superior product from the dross now substituted for it by the conquering party in the eternal wars of acquisition) was accompanied with the promise that the “Coffee Connection” name would never be allowed to die or disappear. Here is where a lesser story-teller would insert, with no creativity or originality whatsoever, a tired reference to that hoary and mythical real estate offering concerning a bridge connecting Manhattan with one of the lesser boroughs.

There have been several more personal boycotts since, of ever-greater duration, even as I, in my well-meaning open-mindedness, belied I admit by a totally erroneous appearance of scornful, brusque opprobrium, more often than not interlaced with many words consisting of four letters and sometimes in witty, if not ingenious new combinations (though never attaining the demented kinds of violent yoking of otherwise attractive, if not tantalizing, flavors to produce some vile complex formulation with a four dollar, or higher, price tag only to be found at Starbucks—or in some tepid, uninspired, but, if possible, even sweeter, and certainly cheaper knock-off available at McDonald’s, where it stands no more chance of actually tasting like something intended for human consumption than at the more expensive namesake for all things carbonized to a state of utter mineral decomposition, no taste that is, except for sugar, and not just sugar, but sugar qua sugar, not as mere sweetener and helpmeet to other, more particular and flavorful ingredients—though it is customary at least in the United States to invert the usual formulation, so we always are asking, in effect, to have a little coffee, or tea, or chai, in our super-saturated solution of sugar water) still would occasionally venture in to see if some miracle had occurred. Or if my aging taste buds had atrophied into a state of submission. Or if, well, the possibilities in the long history of mankind and his struggle with good and evil…

I’ll give anybody a chance, except maybe Hitler, Goebbels, Himmler, or Reinhard Heydrich. So, indeed, periodically, I would check in on Starbucks and order, usually, a small coffee (I still refuse to recall the strangely designated sizes of beverages, mandated by Schultz, except that the word “venti” does rattle around in my head, I suspect, because it’s the largest size, and the word sounds like “vent” to my Francophone ear, which reminds me of “wind” and so I guess it will be forever associated, as a kind of gastric mnemonic, with a big fart, which, given the venti-sized coffee-like beverages I have essayed over the years, would in fact be preferable, given the choice of what to ingest; I mean, a small dose of methane, sulfur gas, etc. never killed anybody… I don’t know if anyone should let Schultz know this, or he might be tempted to, well, you know, you never can tell about a man who would offer anything that will sell for just under a five-dollar bill to an innocent public, with a Jones for anything sweet, and a pathological addiction to foods that will give them a chronic, incurable disease for whatever remains of their lives, and I offer as evidence this, the list of ingredients of one Starbucks current beverage offering, lifted intact from their corporate website: “Mint Chocolaty Chip Frappuccino® blended creme with Chocolate Whipped Cream: Classic chocolate and spearmint flavor combined with milk, mocha sauce, Frappuccino® chips, blended with ice, and then topped with chocolate whipped cream and mocha sauce”). I will only add this drink, in “medium” size (see their website for the correct Starbucks terminology, God help your soul) contains 400 calories and 80 grams of carbohydrates. You can also order it, I believe, as a big fart, that is, in “venti” size.

And every time I checked in, I checked right out, and proceeded to pour some perfectly good water, adulterated with the infused residue of the cremated remains of what have formerly been the seeds of what I only hope and pray the USDA, not to mention the FDA, periodically checks to ensure does in fact, start out as Coffea L., since the end result, after processing (I refuse to call it roasting) is, I am sure, indistinguishable from what would have resulted had they chosen to put several tons of kudzu through a blast furnace and grind the output into a rough powdery substance.

For a while there, one of the merchandising master strokes of Mr. Schultz (I’d call him Herr Schultz, but that wouldn’t be fair; he’s Jewish as I understand, though since Bernie Madoff, of course, this qualification hardly constitutes exoneration… yet having already alluded to some famous Nazis of their day, well, even I see the impropriety; that we share a given name doesn’t help either, because it’s only a source of embarrassment for me, since, Oh, I’d say, some time in 1987) brought me into the stores, but ironically never for the coffee. Even with no other choice in view, or within walking or driving distance, I would never need to have coffee that badly. No, I went in for the music CDs. And I bought a few. But after a while, even these infrequent visits became impossible, simply because the very air in a Starbucks is permeated with the smell of flames derived from carbon-based fuels being applied for torturously long periods of time to plant matter, and that, frankly, makes me want to spit up.

Recently, after what I would say has been a hiatus of a few years, at least three, I ventured into a Starbucks. My lovely companion, Jody, who I attest is a true coffee afficionado, but who does not suffer my violent antipathy and is far more compliant, especially in the face of my seemingly (I am sure) sudden and inexplicable stated desire to enter a Starbucks establishment (this one, as if being a Starbucks weren’t ignominious enough, being located in the ignominious confines of an otherwise tragically unremarkable minor Massachusetts city, called Worcester) entered with me. Having just spent, the two of us, some several weeks (as in almost two months) in the paradisiacal rural confines of southern France, where all things flow good and plentiful, and especially the coffee, which they have been drinking for far longer, along with their Italian brethren, the alleged inspiration of Schultzy’s original vision, but I know hype when I see it; at this point, he can afford to buy Italy… personally I don’t think he ever stepped foot in the country, never mind drank even three milliliters of the brewed beverage they call (as do the French, with their penchant for calling a thing what it is), “espresso.”

Further, we, Jody and I, have become enamored of one of the more successful manifestations of the means devised to tap into the love of humans for coffee, the products marketed under the brand name “Nespresso.” But more on this much later, that is, at some other date, other than to say, we now consume mass quantities of such products, brewed, as the good founders of the badly named original Starbucks intended, at home—these are, in essence and in fact, espresso products. Suffice it to say, our taste buds are primed and fully acclimated to the taste of varying degrees of excellence in the homely, but estimable, art of brewing fresh roasted ground Coffea L. into an ambrosial hot liquid, which satisfies many of the senses, but certainly the olfactory and those of taste (not to mention sight: the lovely colors of a perfect crema crowning the limpid, deeply colored, yet translucent umbral shades of such an infusion).

Well, let’s make short of this essentially disquieting episode. I sashayed in. I ordered a double espresso “for here” (what should be a redundancy; except in the outlets of American-based chains of prepared food purveyors, there’s hardly any such thing as a coffee to go in France, and so an order for a café (by which is always understood an espresso, unless you look even vaguely American, in which case you will be asked, by a server straining their meager knowledge of English, if you mean, in fact, a café crême, which is to say, further, what we call in this country a café au lait (though they are not the same), but is, in fact a cappuccino, different drinks mind you (with a particular dialectical variant thrown in there, which actually constitutes a different means of composition—that is, a crême is not the same as an au lait, and the French, in their marvelously precise way, will always correct you, especially in a rural café, where they don’t have a ready supply of scalded milk, but they do have the steamer jet of the espresso machine; and I won’t even get into the differences constituted by a macchiato, the Italian term, of course, for yet a different drink altogether, and as such must be ordered by this term) will always arrive in a proper cup, usually ceramic, though sometimes, rarely, of glass (it’s the Swiss and the Italians who seem to take that extra delight in seeing the drink in its entirety) on a proper saucer.

My drink, which I ordered (I’m being very careful here: I’m still not sure it was ever, at any time at any stage of its existence, any part of the plant called Coffea L. and I for damn sure am not going to call it “coffee” or café, or even espresso, because the latter would connote that I, however much it may have to be inferred, would accord it the status of that prepared beverage known generally and generically as coffee), arrived in a paper container. A container, a cylinder more or less, of narrow diameter, “all the worse to drink you my dear…,” or perhaps so circumscribed in the mistaken notion that this would concentrate the aromas (a term I also use advisedly, as, in situations where one might opine that “a stink arose,” one would not ordinarily, except in inordinately poetic circumstances, be inspired to say, meaning the same thing, “an aroma arose.)” Further, of course, Starbucks being a corporation founded and based still in the Pacific Northwest, irony does not apply. Ever. One must be careful never to speak ironically in a Starbucks. You not only might, you absolutely will be taken literally, and they are likely to bring you what you ask for.

In this case, I should have been ironic, as they didn’t, though they thought they did, bring me what I asked for.

My first surprise was to see some wisp of a crema floating on the top of what was clearly a liquid in this paper cup (it was shifting around in a manner I associate with liquids of a certain limpidity and viscosity), but this was a cruel, final delusion.

I lifted the cup to my face, and my nose being rather large it was what first encountered, Thank God, what was issuing from the cup. I put the cup down. I caught Jody’s attention. I asked her to smell what was in my cup. “Smell this,” I said (I was in Starbucks, literal mode…). She did. She made a face.

Now my father raised me to be a scientist. That he failed in the main is besides the point. What he left me with were certain habits of mind, and certain methodologies. A scientist forges on, to go boldly, etc. I smelled and would have quit there. But, I was determined to carry this through. Besides I had paid the better part of two dollars for, not a double espresso, such as one would get in France where a double means using one larger cup to hold the volume of two smaller cups of a single—all of equal strength—but for the idiotic American version of a double, that is, a double “shot”, concentrating (as if this were possible with any Starbucks ground coffee product; further concentration seems impossible, in the sense that cold fusion is, at the present time, only theoretically possible… I wonder if the Department of Defense is in touch with Howard Schultz…) a single dose of water forced through the volume of grounds required for two cups of espresso) the noxious brew that sat, with no warnings otherwise posted, innocently in my paper cylinder. I took a tentative sip. I don’t recall if I swallowed it, but I must have, because I have no recollection of a spit bucket, though I instantly realized this is what is missing in every Starbucks around the world—and it’s an item that would sell like hot cakes in their stores, including the on-line store… I’d buy one.

“I can’t drink this,” I said, when Jody asked me where I was going.

I walked up to the counter. I waited until one of the bright young things asked if I needed some help. I told her, instantly catching the attention as well of she who, I guess, represented the on-duty management. “I can’t drink this,” I said. “I don’t want it.”

“I don’t want my money back. I just want a large glass of water so I can get this taste out of my mouth.” “What’s wrong with it?” I was asked.

“It doesn’t taste like coffee.” “Well, it’s espresso. See…” and I cut her off. “I just came back from ten weeks of drinking espresso in Europe. I know what it tastes like. This tastes like tar. It also smells like tar. In fact, coal tar.”

“If you would, just give me the water, and I’m all right.” I didn’t call her Jack.

* Same Difference is, of course, the name of my book. You can order it here. It has nothing to do with Starbucks, though I think I mentioned it once, no doubt invidiously. https://www.bertha.com/same_difference/private_edition.html

Tags: Food · Invidious comparisons

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