I have a couple of questions about coffee — about the word "coffee," the ways we use it, not about the beverage itself.
The first one: "coffee black." I don't order my coffee in the same style every time; usually I want it with milk and two sugars, but sometimes, I just want the bean juice — no cream, no Splenda, nada nunca. It seems logically as though that is coffee black.
It isn't, at least in NYC-area delis and restaurants; around here, "coffee black" only means no dairy products, and if I don't specify "a coffee black, nothing else in it," the server will add sugar. Even when I've specified, the server usually asks, "Sugar?" "Black. Nothing else in it."
I meant to test the theory that it's a Gotham regionalism on my road trip, but I've conditioned myself so thoroughly to ask for black coffee in that fashion that I never got to test the theory (and I could have just asked people, but I never remembered, because I…needed coffee).
My basis for believing that New York City has its own coffee-ordering m.o. is not the firmest: my mother explained to me once that, "in the city," "coffee regular" meant cream and sugar. I don't remember the context of the conversation; I do know that neither of my parents took their coffee that way (half-and-half only — or, as my father rendered it on the shopping list to save time, "1").
So, English-speakers and -watchers around the globe: discuss. What does "coffee black" mean to you? What does it mean to your local servers? To your parents? What about "coffee regular" — does it mean the same thing in Wichita and Walla Walla? Do we even observe these nuances anymore in the age of Starbucks, the cup of coffee as lifestyle signifier?
The next question addresses what I've observed as a regionalism shift. I didn't do a ton of coffee-getting as a teenager, but as of when I left for college, when I wanted to invite a friend or cute boy to enjoy a caffeinated beverage outside of the home, I said, "Let's have coffee." (Or, sometimes, "Let's 'do' coffee," carefully rendering the verbal air quotes — I think we still thought of that as ironic phrasing then.)
As I got closer with Ernie, a European, I adopted her more British usage of certain terms — "glovebox" (versus "glove compartment"); "have a coffee" or "get a coffee" (versus "have/get coffee," no article).
My parents would tease me a little for adopting these lexical Ernie-isms, but I've noticed over the last few years that that one — "have/get A coffee" — is becoming standard. And if I had to point to a reason, I'd say that it's the lifestyle-signifier shift I mentioned above; for most of us, twenty years ago, coffee was coffee was coffee, and while you could order it different ways — black, regular, light one sugar — it was still coffee. Nobody had an opinion on the merits of drip vs. percolated that I can remember, although a perk coffeemaker looked impossibly complicated to operate when I was a kid, the domain of grandmas and church kitchens too strapped to upgrade.
Now, nobody doesn't know what a cappuccino is, what an espresso is, what a French press is. You might not care, but you know these terms, and their contemporary presence everywhere seems to have elevated coffee lexically from a useful beverage to an experience, a mini-event. When you have dinner, that could mean anything from a Michelin-starred steak to microwaved mac-and-cheese; when you have A dinner, that's something different, with invitations and linen.
Do you still have coffee? Or do you have A coffee? If you have A coffee, is this something you grew up saying, or hearing your parents say? Or did you start saying it in the last five or ten years, without realizing it or knowing why?
Tags: good coffee our friend English r(o)ad trips