Grounds for Coffee

I don’t mean to sound like an effete little whiny Euro snob, but sometimes the stereotypes are true: Americans drink a lot of bad coffee. I’m back recently from a visit to the States and believe me, it was rough, coffee-wise.
I don’t mean the drinks at all these coffeehouses that have sprouted; I’m talking your average cup of joe that you can get at the corner diner, if that still exists. O.K., I know someone’s going to pipe up and say, “Hey, what about Starbucks? They’re all over and they have good coffee.” Well, yes, fine, maybe they do, but first of all, Starbucks isn’t really in the U.S. It’s the European coffeehouse as filtered through Seattle, meaning it’s a good place to discuss philosophy in the rain, or, in other words: Canada.
And then, I was visiting family, and my family’s not really a Starbucks kind of family. For one thing – and here I’ll share my own thinking but it must have come from somewhere – my kids might one day be interested in going to an American university and if so, that $17.50 per mucho mocha super gigantgrosso we’d shell out at Starbucks might well be missed. And then, for the calories in a mucho mocha etc., you can get a plain old black coffee and a donut at Dunkin’ Donuts.
Oh yes, we are a Dunkin’ Donuts kind of family. By the end of the trip Son the Elder was keeping track of how often you could spot a Dunkin’ Donuts, which in Rhode Island and the company’s home state of Massachusetts where we were driving around averages one per block. Hard to beat that convenience. And Son the Younger had made up his own tune to sing the advertising slogan his brother read to him off the donut bags.
So it’s clear what chain had claimed our loyalty this trip. All these chain places are in a coffee war or breakfast war or lunch war or something, so I expect we’ll be getting a thank-you note pretty soon.
No, I exaggerate, we didn’t really spend the whole trip driving from Dunkin’ to Dunkin’, but I did learn a coffee drinking secret of theirs, by accident. See, when I say “black coffee and a donut,” black coffee is what I intended to have, and what I usually drink in the U.S. But at Dunkin’ Donuts, while trying to communicate in what I thought was my native tongue, I ordered coffee. Now, as part of this foo-foo coffee trend everywhere (apparently I’m not the only one who’s noticed your average cup of coffee is not always so good), even ye olde Dunk has fancy coffees; so when the counterman asked me what kind of coffee I wanted, I asked for “just regular.” Which, as I sort of vaguely knew, but relearned with the first sip, at Dunkin’ Donuts means with cream and sugar. Which is actually quite tasty, and makes the coffee irrelevant, thanks to those extra calories tucked in. So that’s a slip I repeated accidentally on purpose.
Traveling around Europe, one of the things a coffee drinker can do is check the guidebook for each country on how coffee is served and the language to order it. I thought in the U.S. I’d have it down pat. Apparently not. Although Dunkin’s coffee quirk doesn’t bother me because it strikes me as a little piece of the chain’s regional background hanging on.
That’s like In-N-Out Burger’s “secret” ordering codes. The burger chain is a California institution and possibly the only chain that could be good enough and hip enough for both Paris Hilton and the late Julia Child to frequent. If you’re in the know, you can order in a special way instead of straight off the menu, like asking for an “animal-style” hamburger to up the condiments. Although at this point, if an uncool outsider like me has heard of the secret menu, it’s got to be well on its way from insider code to pure marketing schtick.
McDonald’s too, now that I think of it, offers a cheaper senior coffee that you can ask for even if it’s not on the menu. And their coffee is supposed to be relatively tasty these days. But that’s senior as in senior citizen, and I hope I’d have to be a bit more jet-lagged than I’ve been so far to look like I could order that one.
And Starbucks apparently has off-the-menu possibilities also. Like a small-sized, bargain-priced coffee you have to know to ask for. Which I might have to try sometime, if I can remember how to order it.
Gee, I thought I knew the lingo back home. This all makes café con leche look mighty easy.