Square Cafes: The Bitter Reality

Big spicy fruitiness, smooth as silk and without defect.; it is...full of conviction and elegantly stated.

What does the above quote describe? A fine Chardonnay, gourmet preserves, perhaps the new flavors of Skittles? No, this gushing adulation can be found in the Summer 1993 issue of The Coffee Connection News, in praise of a coffee known as "Dota Blend." The News goes on at great length about "fruitiness," "body" and "character" of various blends of beans assembled from assorted poverty-stricken Third World nations for our gustatory pleasure.

What is it that has the academics of Harvard Square passionately clutching paper cups morning, noon and night? A steaming container of coffee in hand has, for students and professors alike, replaced the tweed jacket as the fashion badge of academia. Gourmet coffee joints, once an innocous deviation from Harvard Square's more down-to-earth roasters, have become a neighborhood consuming blight, threatening to drive out all other forms of commerce. Worst of all, the trend in the Square is not even original: specialty coffee sales in the U.S. have ballooned from $1.5 billion anually in 1989 to over $3 billion last year. Starbucks, the original Seattle coffee joint that inspired so many Harvard Square imitators, has alone opened 73 stores this year, for a total of 227 nationwide.

But let's set something straight: No honest person can describe coffee as "fruity," let alone "full of conviction." A fairer description is "foul, acidic, bitter, tooth-staining, heartburn-causing and chemically addictive." That applies to "Dota Blend" just as accurately as to Dunkin Donuts' 50-cent special. It is instructive to note that for decades, conventional wisdom had it that coffee caused ulcers. (In fact, the real culprit was H. pylori bacteria.) If coffee doesn't rot out your gut, it tastes like it should.

And yet here in Harvard Square, coffee shops seem to have proliferated just as wildly as coffee-based concotions--cappucinos, frappucinos, meliors, mochas, mochacinos, espressos, and lattes have evolved from the standard "cup o' joe." Depite the profusion of outlets, each attracts a meandering line of effete cafe-hoppers willing to shell out upwards of three dollars a cup (for some of the more "elaborate" coffee recipes) for the privilege of a bit of caffeine and a day's worth of bad breath.


"Let's go for coffee" has become the mating cry of Homo black-turtleneckensis. Evidently, a combination of drinking age enforcement and changing morays has turned "let's go for a drink" into an unused movie line. Harvard Square has far more coffee houses than bars--how can we in good conscience call the Square a college neighborhood?

Unfortunately, the places where these caffeinated rendezvous take place make cheap dives look hospitable by comparison. I know these places all to well, since my significant other is as inveterate a coffee-drinker as I am an anti-coffee complainer. The most prominent Square dealer of coffee is Au Bon Pain. This bustling souk is an appropriate center for the vortex of madness that is Harvard Square. Placing an order here is like snatching food at a U.N. relief center; rather than a line, ABP's organizing principle is a mob, attended to by several semi-competent cashiers. If you've ever wondered where all the patients went after "de-institutionalization," look no further than ABP: the seating area looks like the set of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." Along with the bins of milk, cream and sugar, they should put out capsules of Prozac. Getting a seat is quite a battle; there are more fights in here (some of them featuring chairs wielded as weapons) than in the Caesar's Palace. The whole place has a vaguely dirty air--I stopped going when UHS ran out of tine tests.

If the fight for a seat at ABP is like the Grenada invasion, the battle for a table at the Coffee Connection is like D-Day. Customers wait in line for 20 minutes only to be sneered at by the trendier-than-thou "waitrons." More finicky than wine stewards, they'll wrinkle their pierced noses at you if you make an ordering faux-pas. How come they are so cocky? If I could look forward to nothing better than a lifetime of changing soggy filters, I would be the picture of despair.

But gourmet coffee is a wine for the nineties. There is the snobbery about country of origin, the niggling distinctions about process of preparation, and the gratuitous use of descriptive yet totally inaccurate adjectives to distinguish flavor. The coffee illuminati can sip their Kenya AA or $30-per-pound Jamaican Blue Mountain while they debate the comparative merit of washed and dry-milled beans with an air of enlightened self-satisfaction.

The story is the same at the other local purveyors: Cafe Paradiso, Cafe Pamplona, Cafe Algiers, the Left Bank, and the new Rebecca's Santa Fe Cafe are scarcely better.

Part of the special attraction coffee holds in an academic community stems from the rampant francophilia of American intellectuals; and francophiles are to coffee-houses as pedophiles are to elementary schools. The coffee house offers the satisfaction of the francophiles' basic urges--to prattle pretentiously, indulge in snobbery, and, of course, sip du cafe.

So did the Sons of Liberty stage the Boston Tea Party in vain; did they throw off slavish devotion to one country's brewed beverage only to have their descendants pledge allegiance to another? If we are to save the Square--nay, the Nation--from the advancing tide of coffee snobbery, we have little choice. We must dress up as Brits, board the next steamer in from Zimbabwe or Colombia and hurl the sacks of the offending gourmet bean into the Boston Harbor.

On second thought, the bean-counters at Coffee Connection wouldn't take such a loss. They'd probably fish the beans out of the water and sell them as an ultra-rare blend. I can see the Coffee Connection News headline now: Colonial Java AAA Debuts: light, smoky, and fruity, with just an understated hint of sea-salt.

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