Macchiato Cowboy: Starbucks & the Gourmet Movement

Starbucks’ Tribute to Itself

This morning, hat in hand, a cowboy ordered a drink: “Two-percent espresso macchiato, ma’am.” The honorific belonged wholly to the cowboy, but the precious phrasing came right out of Starbucks’ own system of signification, according to which the default milk is whole and the default macchiato includes syrups and flavorings and, as often as not, whipped cream.

To order what you might call—or might once have called—a “real” or a “proper” macchiato, Starbucks requires cowboys and the rest of us to throw “espresso” into service as a qualifier. An espresso macchiato, we are told, is a “European-style beverage” whose “just enough” may satisfy us—”sometimes.” (After all, any American who spurns sweet, sweet caloric density must be doing so only as an exception.)

This morning, to recap, I heard a cowboy who had some familiarity with the language of a coffee-shop chain’s menu ordering a European-style beverage using once-foreign words with no shame. Forty years after the opening of the first Starbucks, I should not have been surprised, and perhaps it wasn’t surprise that I felt, but the shock of recollection, of the past intruding on the present.

Notwithstanding our brief, post-traumatic regression in the “Freedom Fries” years, we have grown more accepting of foreign foods. I was raised vegetarian, and my childhood memories are pock-marked with incidents of derision over tofu, over aloo palak, over falafel. I grant you that we warm to European influence more readily than to Asian or Indian or Middle-Eastern, but still: To hear this macchiato cowboy place his order is my vindication. It is the moment when my inner Carrie burns down the whole fucking gymnasium.

This morning, on hearing the macchiato cowboy speak, I wondered whether Starbucks is not merely one beneficiary of this movement (as David Kamp might have it), but is rather the social lubricant that made possible its most recent incarnation.

Strange words make us feel strange, at least until some force comes along and rubs our bellies until our nerves subside. Our perception of French culinary superiority intimidated us until Julia Child made words like bourguignonne sound as familiar as they do now. Likewise for Martin Yan and wok, and James Beard and barbecue, perhaps.

In this context, it seems possible that had we not ordered espressi and cappucini and macchiati at the Starbucks counter in the very early 1990s, would we not have been prepared, a few years later, to watch a man swish his ponytail — not judging; I’ve had one, too — and tell us how to procure fennel pollen, which Batali introduced to his viewers in 1995 or 1996. Without being forced to learn the language of ventis and talls and grandes, which Starbucks has smartly memorialized in recent months (as in the photo above), I cannot imagine us supporting the rise of arugula—also featured in Molto Mario‘s first few episodes—let alone those of chipotle, kimchi, rooibos, and hummus.

It seems possible, in other words, that those of us who prefer things as they have become owe Starbucks gratitude for more than just the spread of decent coffee (if not so much their own), that we owe them for their influence on the boundaries of our everyday language, for insidiously softening American masculinity just enough to let gourmet food in the door.

4 thoughts on “Macchiato Cowboy: Starbucks & the Gourmet Movement

  1. devan February 18, 2011 / 7:27 am

    Oh wow. I mean, it’s not that I don’t find lots of food writing obnoxious, and most self-declared foodies I know make pretty lousy company. And Myers is right that the evolutionary science, usually, is terrible.

    But to take just one example, characterizing Pollan’s “moral logic” as starting from “the refined palate” is absurd. He takes his ethical arguments to be far more important than his asides that the food might taste better if the animals don’t freak out when they’re about to be killed.

    I will say that Steingarten seems fairly represented, but he’s the anti-Pollan. I bet if he reviewed Pollan’s book it’d be called, “What Dilemma? Let’s Eat.” You can’t lump the two together.

    So I guess in the end it’s halfway a straw man, in that Myers paints a picture of the foodie ethos that’s not totally unfair (in that it is based on the big hits of foodie writing), but also ignores the more important points that most of the writers are trying to make.


  2. Aarti February 18, 2011 / 8:09 am

    The Pollan segment is precisely where I took (and imagined you’d take) issue. Also, I can’t help but agree with Bourdain about the absurdity of taking one’s belief systems abroad: seems silly to travel across the world to experience culture and then deny a people’s food. Am surprised that Myers takes the “high road” of religion/ethics on that one.


  3. devan February 18, 2011 / 8:20 am

    That’s a really good point. As you mention it, I recall that the biggest reason I started eating meat was to be able to get to know other cultures through food. “Silly” is the right word for Myers’ kind of thinking here.


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