The moment I realized how modern capitalism can subtly erode the soul was the moment I could no longer coax something drinkable from my drip coffee-maker.
The early 18th-century German jurist Justus Möser disliked the advance of the market economy for a number of reasons. But there is one in particular that could explain our fetish for increasingly complex methods of brewing a cup of java. Jerry Z. Muller summed it up.
In the great cities, he wrote, tastes and styles were constantly changing, while the town artisan made his goods in the traditional way. The shopkeeper thrived by encouraging the taste for fashion and for luxury [Wohllust], by stimulating new desires... Möser thus condemned capitalism on the grounds that it created new needs, which disrupted customary expectations and unbalanced society — a judgment common in the 18th century and one revived periodically by moralists thereafter. [The Mind and the Market]
I always knew there were better, and better-looking, ways to produce coffee in my home kitchen. The society that is me and my drip maker was already unbalanced by the market. But I quickly sensed that its inadequacy was more than an occasion for mere frustration, or a reason to try a new type of coffee bean.
Instead, the failure of my drip maker was an invitation to a new persona. One could actually inhabit the happy narrative of most television commercials, but on a much deeper and authentic level. You were a loser with this brownish swill. But instead of a new product to solve the problem, you adopted a whole new life. You became one of those Coffee People.
And so I bought an Aeropress coffee-maker, the one made by a Frisbee company, which has been raved about and profiled in "longform" features. Instead of being conspicuously expensive (and thus testifying to my sacrificial commitment to new coffee), the Aeropress costs about 30 bucks and is made of humble plastic bits. It was a symbol not just of better coffee, but my Yankee thrift and appreciation for genius. Because it had the official #longform cred, my coffee-making technique basically screamed: "This man is so f'n literate. There's this whole big improbable story you probably never heard of before."
Great coffee commenced. Or so I thought. Until I heard some other coffee people talking about burr grinders. I figured a Coffee Person needs one of those, too. And so it came to abide in the society of my kitchen counter as well. The annoyance inflicted on my upstairs and downstairs neighbors was just one of the sacrifices I was making to be the person who could talk at you about coffee.
I looked on YouTube and found a thriving community of burr-grinding Aeropress users, who talked about their "coffee setup" with the hushed reverence of a 1920s socialite telling her friends about her spiritualist. There's really just so much peace in this room.
But now, of course, I needed the "fine" custom metal filter for my Aeropress. The paper filters were apparently depriving me of some of the precious oils that my burr grinder and super-genius inverted steeping method were producing. I was basically giving all the good stuff to a disposable napkin. What a noob!
Of course, the metal filter had to be retrieved by my fingers, even though after every cup it is heated to approximately 200 degrees Fahrenheit. The paper filters were easy to clean up, and I didn't get burned or spill the grinds as much then.
Sometimes other Coffee People go apostate, arguing that K-Cup users and the drip machine sheeple really aren't the benighted soil-sippers we know them to be. Here's one example.
We're the ones who have made drip coffee, something that was cheap, easy, and available to everyone, everywhere, immediately for decades, into an ever fancier, more time-consuming, more expensive, and more exclusive obsession over gear and technique. [Marco Arment]
But Marco, a sated ego, blooming with warm reminders of your eliteness, discrimination, and dedication, beats a cup of Joe any day. That was the point, right?
Obviously, it is nice when a family member or friend gets known for making really good lasagna. Or when another one learns to take great photos. But the lines between talents, interests, avocational passions, my sense of self, and my checking account can get pretty jumbled. You can start by taking a few nice pictures on the camera you splurged on, but then months later you're on internet message boards mocking others for their totally cheeseball Nikon-bokeh. You went from making images to obsessively retouching a self-image.
Maybe your coffee sucks, but I bet it's not nearly as repulsive as the person trying to sell self-worth in a plastic tube.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- 3 horrific inaccuracies in Homeland's depiction of Islamabad
- Here comes the Pentagon's newest space plane
- The U.S. is about to sell weapons to Vietnam. That's bad news for China.
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- Extreme haunted houses: Inside Halloween's most terrifying new trend
- The real story behind Deliver Us From Evil
- How foreign aid screwed up Liberia's ability to fight Ebola
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
- Gamergate has backfired spectacularly on its nincompoop perpetrators
Subscribe to the Week