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January 31, 2005

And Don't Do It Again

In an otherwise impressive synthesis/review of the current glut of books promising a European Revolution, Tony Judt hobbles his piece with a near-fatal opening:

Consider a mug of American coffee. It is found everywhere. It can be made by anyone. It is cheap—and refills are free. Being largely without flavor it can be diluted to taste. What it lacks in allure it makes up in size. It is the most democratic method ever devised for introducing caffeine into human beings. Now take a cup of Italian espresso. It requires expensive equipment. Price-to-volume ratio is outrageous, suggesting indifference to the consumer and ignorance of the market. The aesthetic satisfaction accessory to the beverage far outweighs its metabolic impact. It is not a drink; it is an artifact.

Consider the following lazy writer trick: Rather than reporting to find the perfect example that sums up your piece, or simply eschewing a gift-wrapped synecdoche, you spend a paragraph inventing an analogy that'll do the trick. Desperate to fit it into the contours of your point, your stretch, shape and delete till the comparison no longer has meaning. So you ignore the glut of machines capable of creating Italian espressos. You ignore that coffee refills are generally not free. You assume that there's an appreciable caffeine difference between a cup of coffee and a shot of espresso, which is demonstrably untrue. You assume you can't get double, triple or even quadruple shots of espresso, also untrue. You put too much into an analogy that's too cute (and too useless), and you do it at the start of your piece. And in doing, you irritate your reader enough that it takes 1,000 or so more words of effective, informed and illuminating prose to wash the taste of the coffee metaphor from his mouth. And, to be fair, you write those 1,000 words, and a couple 1,000 more, and you do it well enough that your reader recommends your piece to his readers. But your opening analogy is still so egregious that he needs to spend a few hundred words mocking it and explaining how he can still recommend the piece. Now ask yourself -- wouldn't it have been easier to just start with a quote?

January 31, 2005 in Books | Permalink

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Comments

Refills are free at dennys...

Posted by: Tony | Jan 31, 2005 12:35:31 PM

Does your commentary apply to Latino politics being woven into childhood fairytales? ;)

Posted by: Steve Cies...... | Jan 31, 2005 12:43:22 PM

Is "wgregious" a slam on Dubya? ;)

Posted by: TJ | Jan 31, 2005 12:53:45 PM

Steve -- No, that's a genius device.

Posted by: Ezra | Jan 31, 2005 1:00:19 PM

The point of espresso is flavor, as Jeffrey Steingarten has pointed out, its purpose is the quest to capture the AROMA of the beverage in the taste of the beverage. As you pointed out, the caffeine dose in a cup of drip coffee is the same as in a shot of espresso (there is of course less WATER). As far as cost/efficacy, let's see:

one can of Illy espresso pods, 18 pods, 1800 mgs of caffeine, 11 bucks. That's about 6/10 of a cent per milligram of caffeine.
i just bought a 12 pack of diet coke at 7/11. that's 12 cans at 55 mg caffeine, 660 mgs total, 5 bucks, or about 3/4 of a cent per mg. i will ignore denny's coffee or any similar because it's disgusting and also it's impossible to accurately dose (lack of flavor and the fact that it's so watered down certainly means there's less caffeine; my guess is about 50 mgs per cup, same as instant; say it's free refills -- ha -- and you drink four cups, that's two bucks for 200 mgs, a penny per mg; RIP OFF, clearly the most expensive of anything in this "study"). however, i also just bought a box of no-dose at the Rx. 4 bucks, 16 caps at 200 mgs each. that's 1/8 of a penny per mg. the clear winner.

Posted by: quisp | Jan 31, 2005 1:29:31 PM

also, as a method for brewing coffee, espresso is the cheapest in terms of another cost: time. It takes no more than 30 seconds to make it, with pods, and there's -- drum roll -- no clean up. brewing any amount of drip coffee takes exponentially longer and is messier.

Posted by: quisp | Jan 31, 2005 1:36:27 PM

Jeffrey Steingarten is the shit. His books are some of the most enjoyable reading I've ever done.

Posted by: Ezra | Jan 31, 2005 1:39:13 PM

I couldn't agree more. He is some kind of insane genius. The espresso machine I use is the one that "won" his taste test (where he had the 16 espresso machines around his dining room table with the power strips down the middle). I got it for 100 bucks on eBay (new). SO EXPENSIVE!

Posted by: quisp | Jan 31, 2005 2:05:16 PM

I have drunk american coffee. (1984 and 1999) It was better on the east coast in 1999 than on the west coast in 1984, but still, the standard USian coffee would lead to rioting anywhere in Europe south of Northern Germany.

While overly cute, the image stands and is perfectly correct.

Sorry.

Posted by: TH | Jan 31, 2005 5:28:03 PM

TH --

The US is not known for its coffee-making, and pretty much every American who drinks coffee not purchased in truck stops is seeking coffee as made by either (1) the French, (2) Italians or (3) Turks. That said, there is a very interesting book on coffee and the history of coffee entitled Uncommon Grounds, which makes the amusing point that one of the motivators behind the Enlightenment in general and the American Revolution specifically was the fact that Americans seized on coffee, coffee bars and the heated arguments/debates that followed from being wired, at a time when England and certain other Northern countries were still pickled in beer and spirits. Kind of a silly point, but fun to start arguments with.

Posted by: quisp | Jan 31, 2005 9:30:08 PM

Any talk about coffee in the U.S. must consider the fact that over the past 20 years there has been a great qualitative improvement in the coffee that the average drinker can obtain. It isn't just a choice between Folger's from the percolator (as my mother made it) and Turkish coffee freshly made in the saucepan (as I was served as a junior in college by a Lebanese friend) anymore, there's quite a bit of choices between the two extremes now, as you can buy beans that are fairly freshly roasted and grind them for use in drip coffee makers that are do a fairly good job of brewing coffee and aren't all that messy to clean up either. Of course it's still easy to get a dreadful cup of coffee, but it's not at all hard to get a very good one either, at least if you live in a city of even modest size that has a coffeehouse.

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