Considering Artisan Coffee and Wonder Bread

The pleasures of a humble palate.

This week, I’ve read a defense of bad coffee, and a defense of white bread—alongside a story about artisan wheat and another about artisan apples. The latter stories tell me all that I’m missing by indulging in big Costco loaves or grocery bags of granny smiths; the former tell me that it’s okay to love those mainstreamed, instant-pleasure sorts of things you pick up at big box stores or diners: “the big, red jars of Folgers, the yellow Chock-full-o-Nuts, the sky blue cans of Maxwell House,” or the bread “engineered and designed to look like a streamlined wonder, like an edible piece of modern art.”

Funny—New York Times reporter Ferris Jabr says of that same bread, “America has grown wheat tailored to an industrial system designed to produce nutrient-poor flour and insipid, spongy breads soaked in preservatives. For the sake of profit and expediency, we forfeited pleasure and health.” He speaks of the glory of wheat grown in bygone days:

From the 18th century to the early 19th century, wheat was grown mainly near the coasts. During this time, immigrants and American emissaries introduced numerous varieties — Mediterranean, Purple Straw, Java, China, Pacific Bluestem — which breeders tinkered with, adapting them to various soils. All that preindustrial wheat was a living library of flavors: vanilla, honeysuckle, black pepper. Agricultural journals of the time noted the idiosyncrasies of wheat kernels — whether they were red and bearded, velvety or ‘‘plump, round, of a coffeelike form’’ — and distinguished wheats that produced ‘‘excellent’’ and ‘‘well-flavored’’ bread from those that yielded ‘‘inferior’’ loaves.

Sounds like a wine connoisseur—not someone tasting a kernel of wheat. Yet the same attention to details of taste, color, texture are displayed in this New York Times article about artisan apples: “the best-flavored heirloom apples,” writes author David Karp, “offer an added dimension of intensity and complexity akin to that of fine wines.” He writes that “many consumers are fed up with mass-marketed fruit chosen mainly for looks and shelf life. Their current quest is to restore the flavor and eating quality, despite the compromises required by large-scale production.”

But one wonders whether eventually, our quest for artisan apples or wheats may reach the point Keith Pandolfi describes in his bad-coffee defense—whether we’ll reach peak artisan, and develop a sort of nostalgia for the old cheap versions we used to get:

Maybe it all started a few months ago when I found myself paying $18 for a pound of what turned out to be so-so coffee beans from a new roaster in my neighborhood. It was one of those moments when I could actually imagine my cranky diner-coffee-swilling Irish grandfather rising from the grave and saying, “You know what, kid? You’re an idiot.”

Read the rest at The American Conservative!

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