Wednesday, January 20, 2010

artificial flavors

I went to Starbucks on the way home from work the other night and got a piece of coffee cake as a snack. But I felt like it didn't taste that good. I had a feeling that a homemade piece of cake would taste better, and that the Starbucks version was a consolation prize because I didn't have time to bake one at home.

But I'm not sure these feelings are authentic. I'm not sure whether the cake really tasted bad or I just thought it did because I have new ideas about Starbucks that suggest their food tastes bad. I used to have pretty much the opposite ideas about Starbucks, and during that time I always thought their baked goods tasted great.

To put this in context, let's look back at the evolution of Starbucks. The first time I ever went to Starbucks was in the summer of '94, in Mount Kisco, NY. At that time the Mount Kisco Starbucks was one of the only Starbuckses in all of Westchester County. Maybe THE only one. I was 21 years old and not really a coffee drinker. I got a Mochaccino because I didn't really know anything about coffee and thought a drink that combined chocolate and coffee was probably good. It was the summer, so most likely it was an iced mocha. The idea of "coffeehouses" still had to do with Seattle and open mike poetry readings. I had never been to Seattle or to an open mike, and not being a coffee drinker, the entire idea seemed mostly abstract and exotic, a symbol of something cool and progressive like Nirvana and Juliana Hatfield.

In 1996-97 I had graduated from college and was working in New York City. By this time there were a lot of Starbuckses, both in the city and in Westchester, and I was a coffee drinker, having become one at my first office job because drinking the free coffee in the office kitchen was one way to avoid working. I "graduated" from mochaccinos to hazelnut lattes and then regular lattes.
There started to be a lot of other, Starbucks-esque coffee places around the city, like Timothy's World Coffee (does that still exist?). The whole idea of a "coffee shop" now evoked these Starbuckses and imitators, while in the past it meant more of a diner. Starbucks was considered an "upscale" establishment, a place where wealthy, rarefied, highly educated people went instead of, I guess, Dunkin' Donuts or a diner.

From 1998-2000 I really, really enjoyed going to Starbucks. I liked their drinks and food, yes, but I also just liked being there. It made me feel more like the kind of girl who was always perfectly groomed, whose possessions were always shiny and new, who sailed down the street in her immaculately clean car with the windows open on a bright sunny day. It made me feel like my edges were all smoothed out. It made me feel like I was less weird and less misfortune-prone. I was just a beautiful, breezy suburban girl relaxing amid the green, brown and orange modern decor of Starbucks, with that ubiquitous emblem of privilege, the green and black Starbucks logo with the mermaid, stamped on the cup I carried down the street on my way out, as I sashayed down the street in my Banana Republic brushed cotton twill capri pants. In 2000 the Christopher Guest comedy "Best in Show" came out, in which a yuppie couple say they met at Starbucks, "but not the same Starbucks." She was in one Starbucks, and spotted him in the one across the street: Yuppie love. Basically that was it: Going to Starbucks made me feel like a yuppie.

Then sometime in the last decade it went downhill. The idea of two Starbuckses across the street from each other ceased to be a joke. Starbucks was everywhere. There was absolutely nothing rarefied about it anymore, even in that suburban yuppie way. It was just THERE, a banal fact of life. You went to Starbucks because you wanted coffee and it was there. It became hard to find a place to get coffee that wasn't Starbucks. If you felt like getting a snack, Starbucks was the default place to get it, not because their snacks were the best but because they were good enough and available. And of course if you were in Barnes & Noble, if you ate anything in the cafe there it was Starbucks.

And the backlash happened. First it was, Dunkin' Donuts coffee is better because it's cheaper and not as corporate-obnoxious. Then it was, Dunkin' Donuts coffee is better because it's cold-pressed. And that's when everything started to change.

I was still as aware as I ever was of popular ideas of what made someone elite and sophisticated. As advertising-driven as those ideas might be, I think it's bullshit to dismiss them just because of that, even though I know it's part of appearing elite and sophisticated to act as though you are impervious to advertising. And maybe in 1999 Starbucks was associated with status, but now we've reached a saturation point with the Locavore thing, to the point where those ideas are the ones that inform my social feelings about stuff like Starbucks.

The Locavore thing dictates that homemade food is more luxurious than store-bought food. Anything with additives, anything "processed," is the domain of the uneducated masses, the underclass, and if you want to maintain your elevated status, you have to avoid all that stuff. Even the supermarket is considered a bit of a déclassé place to shop, now that everyone's read the Omnivore's Dilemma and knows that chemically altered corn and disgustingly maltreated cows are the source of almost everything in the ordinary supermarket. You have to be like Jack in "Into the Woods," whose best friend was a cow, and if you eat a cow or any of its milk, it should be a cow who was your best friend, as sad as that might be. Prepared foods from chain establishments, especially if it's a huge corporate chain like Starbucks, are assumed to be full of contemptible material. As "bad for you" as these chemicals might be, the underlying message that, to me, gets communicated most loudly is the message that if you want to fit into an elite social category, you cannot pollute your persona with the additives found in a piece of Starbucks coffee cake. If you must eat baked goods, you should bake them yourself, without using white flour or sugar. And this is chiefly for social reasons, not for physical/health/moral reasons. You have to have that moral code mainly because it's required for membership in the group you want to belong to, and you obey those rules because it makes you feel good to feel as if you're part of that group. Just like it made me feel good in 1999 to buy something at Starbucks, to take my money out of my cute little wallet and overpay for coffee. The overpaying felt good, like a smaller-scale version of jumping on the bed in a Vegas hotel and throwing hundreds of thousands of dollars in gambling winnings in the air.

Also, there's been a gradual social trend away from viewing "upscale" corporate chains as at all elite. A book, Trading Up, came out a couple years ago, not too long before the real estate industry imploded, about how "luxury" versions of mass-produced things are now the standard to which the masses aspire. That is, it's no longer good enough for the average Middle American person to go out to dinner at Applebee's; now they have to go to the Cheesecake Factory, with its "international" menu and closer adherence to the idea of decor. With this shift, of course, came the need to have a McMansion and an SUV, not just a regular car and a regular house. Those people, the ones who love the Cheesecake Factory and SUVs, are the most disdained kind of "masses": the masses who think they are elite. Therefore, the elite had to do something else to distinguish themselves. This still remains true even now that all the people who bought McMansions and couldn't afford them are out on their asses. Maybe another backlash is in the works but it hasn't happened yet. The word on the street is, it's now passé to view money as the ultimate luxury. More luxurious still are the commodities of time and inconvenience.

So the other night when I ate my Starbucks coffee cake, it tasted sort of chemical to me. I had had this same coffee cake countless times, and it never tasted chemical before. I have been gradually altering my diet to include more wholesome, less processed food, so maybe my tastes have legitimately changed, but I don't completely buy it. I suspect that I've tricked myself into believing that the Starbucks coffee cake tastes chemical because I'll be socially rewarded if I think so. It's been tainted with the whiff of social undesirability, and that might account for that metallic, artificial flavor it seems to have.

And I resent it. In one way, it's my own fault, for "Caring What People Think," which is something that no one with High Self-Esteem (TM) is ever supposed to admit they do. You are supposed to hold fast to your claim that you're avoiding processed foods because it's Better For You, because you care about the health of your body and it doesn't have anything to do with what other people are doing, ohhh no. But in another way, I don't believe the people who claim it has nothing to do with social forces, and I think the social forces affect everyone in a way that's taboo to admit. It's annoying that it's taboo to admit it, and it's annoying that it's happening at all. I don't want the way foods taste to be governed by ideas about which opinions about food I have to have in order to belong to a certain social class.

But weirdly, I wasn't annoyed by it during the years that I loved Starbucks. I didn't complain about "pressure" to like Starbucks. The idea that there was ever pressure to like it seems laughable. It never seemed to come from a place of pressure. It seemed like more of a guilty pleasure than anything else, a way to flaunt your privilege and elitism without admitting you were doing it. But isn't that also what the anti-chain-snobbery is? Isn't sniffing, "Ew, Starbucks is so gross and chemical, that stuff is so bad for you" just code for "I'm better than the people who buy food at Starbucks"? It is, it's exactly the same. So I think I'm annoyed by this because it forbids, rather than promotes, something. When I loved Starbucks, the thing to do was eat it; now, the thing to do is not eat it. And I always prefer a directive TO do something than a directive to abstain from it. Because it's not as though I ever felt I had to go to Starbucks a certain number of times per week to meet a quota. It was more of a bonus, a little extra sparkle. Now not only do we not get to have extra sparkle, but the thing that used to provide the sparkle now provides a demerit. Something good was replaced by something bad.

But now what's good is to buy grass-fed meat at the Farmer's Market and use it to make a flavorful stew in your crock-pot. And I do this. And I greatly relish doing it, and it feels good in some of the same ways as going to Starbucks used to feel. And in other ways. It feels nourishing and comforting and homey. But the parallel is that overall sense of "Life is good." In 1999 you watch yourself prancing out of Starbucks with that cup with the green straw in your hand, and put on your sunglasses and flip your hair and feel, Life is good. And today you inhale the herbs and spices of your lamb stew with lentils and whole grains, you are aware of the cuddliness as you cuddle up in front of the fire with a handknit blanket around your shoulders, a one-of-a-kind handknit blanket that makes you feel special because it's one-of-a-kind, and you feel, Life is good. And you get these ideas of what a good life is from social images and advertising and all that stuff that's not supposed to affect you.

And I just wonder, is it possible to have ideas about what a Good Life is without watching myself, without these social barometers? Is it ever possible for me not to see them, to choose a path without awareness of what group it makes me fit into, to defy those rules without being aware that I'm defying them? That seems like the best life of all, and also the most elusive.