Preposterous Universe

Thursday, February 24, 2005
Old-world sensibilities

Tony Judt, writing in the New York Review about the differences between Europe and America:
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.
Ah, so unfair, and yet so true. And reminds me clearly of why I have a deeply European sensibility, although I'm much happier living in America. I remember one trip to Firenze, where amidst all the lovely art and culture and so forth, what really caught my eye was this La Pavoni espresso machine for sale in a shop window. A gleaming sculpture in chrome and black, clearly destined to be a kitchen icon as much as a functional appliance. For some reason (perhaps related to the price tag) I was able to resist the impulse to buy on one on the spot -- still don't own one, actually. But some day I will. (Perhaps an amazon.com wish list is in order?) Reviews on the web make it clear what a difficult, high-strung machine it is; getting a good pull of espresso out of it is purported to be an unpredictable labor of love. But I would be more than willing to undergo the rigorous training and practice regimen that is required, in order to enjoy the shiny presence of this marvel of design.

But I wouldn't want to be forced to put up with such an elevated artistic temperament whenever I wanted anything to eat or drink. Sometimes you just want a cheesesteak (gourmet or otherwise). And if there's one thing we've mastered here in America, it's the lifestyle of convenience. So I'm a true American at heart. That's why they invented airplanes, I suppose.

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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