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.