Arthur Goldstuck
Arthur Goldstuck

Travel blog pt 2: how Americans drink their coffee

Americans have developed a unique approach to poor nutrition: they drink coffee with a straw so that they can suck the coffee up through a layer of sugar that is deposited at the bottom of the cup and thus sweeten the coffee without using too much sugar.

I realise this may seem a trivial conclusion from an ad hoc research exercise, but it has deeper implications.

Firstly, I came to that conclusion after several days of trying to figure out the purpose of those tiny straws that are supplied alongside coffee urns, milk supplies and sugar sachets in North American coffee shops and hotel or conference centre coffee stations.

Some wise-guy American advised me that it was actually intended for stirring the coffee, but you can’t catch me with that one. Who in their reasonable mind would possibly come up with the idea of stirring a cup of coffee with an item that is so patently not designed for stirring? It is made of flimsy plastic, which brings it to melting point too fast; it has almost no surface area with which to create the swirling motion necessary to get coffee stirred; and it is hollow in the middle, suggesting it is designed for a higher purpose that, on the evolutionary tree of the Purpose of Things, is only very distantly related to coffee stirring.

The only explanation that does not involve regarding Americans as truly strange (no, George Bush is not strange; he simply mirrors the stupidity of the species in general and his kind is to be found in government the world over — just browse through Sentletse Diakanyo’s blog for evidence) is that these straws are indeed intended to be used for the purpose for which straws are manufactured. In other words, you are expected to drink through them.

Since they are always supplied where coffee is served, it is clear that you are expected to drink your coffee through them. In fact, the concept of using an extremely thin straw to suck coffee through unstirred sugar is quite ingenious, drawing on a deep legacy of American thinking that led to other improbable uses of probable objects, such as sending Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young touring to protest against war — in the 21st century. Or putting Al Gore in front of a PowerPoint presentation to win an Oscar. Or sending troops to stop the bloodshed (any bloodshed).

Alternatively, it says something rather disturbing about the mass consciousness: once a significant enough proportion of people in positions of influence (and who has more influence on the state of mind of the business traveller than the kitchens and hospitality departments of establishments that hose these travellers?) have opted for a particular route of action, even if it makes no sense whatsoever, the rest will follow for fear of being out of step.

Does this sound familiar? It should. It’s all a real-life reworking of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, The Emperor’s New Clothes. Like the little child who declared “But he has nothing on at all!” perhaps some child needs to tell the Americans, “But the straws don’t stir the coffee at all!”

From there, it will be a small step to coming clean on the rest of the emperor’s suits hanging in that vast cloakroom, such as the leadership qualities of leaders and the justifications for war. Come to think of it, we have a severe case of straws stirring coffee in South Africa too. But only in fairytales do we listen to the voice of a child.

  • Sam

    Pretty thin stuff on which to hang your smug little lecture. If you can’t handle the straw which if clumsy is incredibly cheap and usually biodegradable plastic, McDonald’s has solid plastic paddles and if you can spring for the price of a Starbuck’s you’ll get a real wood flat stirrer for your coffee. Or you could go to a restaurant and get a real cup and spoon. I hope you are doing something more enjoyable on your travels.

  • Art2

    Hey Sam, have a look at the top of the entry: it says blog, not academic treatise. You want serious, deep and meaningful, it might just be that blogs are not going to be the secret of your happiness. Go have a cappuccino in a restaurant somewhere, and you are sure to feel better. (preferably in a country where they do teaspoons, of course). Oh, and stay away from the coffee blogs; they have very little nutritional value.

  • Sarah Britten

    In Australia they offer small wooden icecream sticks reminiscent of tongue depressors. Not sure what to read into that one; regardless, they are hopelessly ineffective at stirring sugar into coffee.

  • Sam

    Hey Art2,
    Sorry, I didn’t realize it wasn’t written as a sincere opinion piece and criticism of American society via brilliant allegory and that it’s really just some amateur ramblings written while putzing around on the computer and not to be taken seriously. Who knew?

  • Art2

    Touché! I am not worthy.

  • Velabahleke

    I will take a plastic coffee stirrer any time. But then again I like mine without half-and-half and without sugar.
    In the knowledge that the coffee is from all over Africa and the rest of the world. From the Kenyan and Tanzanian AA’s dark and light roasts, the Ethopian’s Sidamo and Yirgacheffe, and coffees like the Yemen Mocha and the Columbian oh the Columbian etc..etc.. instead of everytime I buy coffee it’s Ciro. Apparently Ciro is refers to both blend and roast. Yuk!!!

    But maybe I been buying my coffee at the wrong places. I wanted to buy coffee beans at a leading coffee shop around Jo’burg, when I asked what do they have they said “We have those and those beans.” Right at that point I realised I missed New York.

    The American habits, at least in so far as coffee drinking is concerned are feeding many an African family. A complete critique will at least acknowledge that fact, not unless the writer’s point is that he is better than the Americans, to which I say: “Touche”.

  • Claire

    I can’t believe McDonald’s is trying to sell “gourmet” coffee. Who the hell is going to go to a cheap fast food restaruant for a mocha?