How Americans Elevated Their Coffee
Louis E.V. Nevaer
In an ideal world, we’d take Thomas Hoving’s advice: after graduating from high school and before attending college or trade school, every young person in the United States should spend one year either in the Peace Corps or living in a foreign capital.
Hoving was the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for a decade. His tenure ended in 1977, the year Studio 54 opened. By the time he was through with the Met and left, Studio 54 was the perfect segue from his excesses at the museum to those of the disco era. Hoving was fearless and brazen. He lived his life with a patrician sense of entitlement. He delighted in pulling the rug out from under this own class. If things crashed all around him, well, that’s why God invented brooms.
He believed that if every young American spent time overseas, American society would achieve an elevated sense of empathy and generosity, improving the country and benefiting the world. I met him when his (semifictional) memoir Making the Mummies Dance was published in 1994. It was, in some ways, an unintended comeuppance to Truman Capote’s ill-advised “La Côte Basque 1965,” the first chapter of the novel he never finished. Both men seemed to think they could be enfants terribles well into old age (Capote died in 1984; Hoving died in 2009).
Truman Capote’s literary stunt resulted in ostracism from New York society. That wouldn’t happen to Hoving, who was born into New York society. That he infuriated many in New York society who wanted to banish him was another thing altogether.
Hoving envisioned a one-year stipend, paid for by the Department of Education, to send every single high school graduate out of the country for one defining year. “There’s no sense of the world beyond our borders,” he complained, shaking his head. “Parochialism is how we ended up with that awful John Gregory Dunne and his even more awful wife, Joan Didion. I am appalled by the peril their brand of insidious ethnocentrism poses to our nation.”
His suggestion, of course, wasn’t taken. The best one can hope for is that young Americans pay a visit to the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration. The images and stories of those who sailed to New York are compelling; people left behind all they had ever known to embark on a new life in a new land, reinventing themselves. Ellis Island is, in essence, a version of Disney World’s “It’s a Small World” ride — except everyone’s filthy but possessed of, if not stellar dreams, at least hope for a better tomorrow.
The photographed faces — and bizarre costumes — of those disembarking are compelling. These men, women, and children were, for the most part, refugees from impoverished rural communities throughout Europe. Crop failures in Italy, potato famines in Ireland, flooded fields throughout northern Europe, and agricultural collapses fueled by political unrest in Germany, Poland, and beyond brought them here. There were multitudes of urban refugees as well, intellectuals persecuted for their radical ideas or illiterate denizens from the skid rows of Europe.
This was a time when what we now fear was a fact: open borders. All that was needed to enter the United States was securing passage on a one-way trip. Passports were improvised documents. There were no visas to speak of. Not until 1920 would the world get around to establishing guidelines and standards for passports thanks to the League of Nations, which convened the Paris Conference on Passport & Customs Formalities and Through Tickets.
Prior to this, immigrants from the Old World arrived in New York at will; immigrants from the East sailed to San Francisco, no permission required. For individuals of accomplishment, “letters of introduction” rather than passports served to establish one’s credentials: “The bearer of this document, John Smith, a native of London, 30 years old, unmarried, a blacksmith by trade, seeks to establish himself in the United States.”
As for immigration legislation, the Steerage Act of 1819 required ship captains to provide names and demographic information on passengers. That was it: one’s name on a ship’s manifest. Thus, between 1819 and 1891 all immigration was legal because none was illegal. Not until the Immigration Act of 1891 would criminals, polygamists, and the sick be barred from entering the United States. Apart from those three categories, everyone else in the world was welcome, except for the Chinese.
The Immigration Act of 1924 put strict immigration controls in place. Those who today claim their forebears came to the United States “legally” are disingenuous; until 1924 there was no such thing as “illegal” immigration.
“Open borders” spurred the dispossessed in Europe and East Asia to set their hopes on emigrating to the United States. In the same way the Homestead Act of 1862 served as a safety valve for the young nation, allowing the unemployed and disgruntled to make a fresh start out West, the United States functioned as a safety valve for the Old World. It was a thrilling time of surprise (for immigrants) and upheaval (for American cities).
Ship upon ship arrived in the United States. Refugees, economic and political, disembarked, eager to get on with the business of getting ahead. These tired and poor people, romantically described as “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” baffled officials at Ellis Island. It was daunting, especially since many passengers were illiterate; names on the ship’s manifest often differed from what people said their names were once they landed.
Here they were, nonetheless, in America. Once acculturation was under way, immigrants changed their names to reflect their new lives. Names that sounded foreign to the American ear were simplified or anglicized: Giovanni became Joe; Anestis became Ernest; Östergård became Ostergard; Uren became Wren; Fugère became Fisher; Gerritsen became Garrison, Vollbrecht became Fulbright, and so on.
The road to becoming someone new is well traveled: immigrants first acculturate to their new land and only then is assimilation possible. It’s a process of letting go — customs, languages, beliefs — and adopting new habits, ways of expressing one’s self, and seeing the world with fresh eyes. The Ellis Island Museum of Immigration tells the story of the multitudes of peasants who embarked on the process of becoming Americans, caterpillars (“huddled masses”) becoming butterflies (Yankee Doodle Dandies). After all, we are all peasants and only stop being so when we open our minds to the world beyond what we know.
The museum omits two things, however. The first is that in telling the story of those who came to the United States there is no mention of those who went back. One in three immigrants to the United States, in time, decided the American Dream was not what he or she expected or that it didn’t live up to expectations. Millions returned to their homelands. So many Italians went back to Italy that these immigrants to the United States were called “birds of passage.” Here a few years, then they returned home. The American experience became a memory, an adventure or misadventure they once had. As late as the 1950s, Italians mocked other Italians who affected “American” airs. Renato Carsone’s song “Tu Vuò Fà L’Americano” is a send-up of an Italian, back in Italy, who wants to play baseball, smoke Camel cigarettes, listen to rock ’n’ roll, and still lives with his mother, who washes his boxer shorts and makes breakfast for him each morning.
The other glaring omission is the complete silence on one fundamental and undeniable aspect of American society: every single man, woman, and child who disembarked on Ellis Island in New York or Angel Island in San Francisco was the beneficiary of an economy empowered by slavery. It’s a definite advantage to make a new life for one’s self in a new country if that new country is built on the institutional oppression of an entire class of its own inhabitants. The Italian, French, German, Norwegian, and other European immigrants arriving in the United States, by virtue of being Caucasian, enjoyed more rights than natural-born Americans who were black. This is not to diminish the bigotry and discrimination many immigrant groups faced — Protestant bigotry against Catholics, English American discrimination against the Irish, Italians, and southern Europeans — but no European immigrant group faced Jim Crow laws that legalized racial segregation.
America, quite simply, was a land of opportunity built on the backs of the enslaved. “Ignorant peasants never understood that slavery and its legacy gave them an enormous advantage,” Hoving said. “How could they empathize with any of it?” He pointed out that “most” immigrants were like Granny on The Beverly Hillbillies, uncouth and simple, quick to ridicule what they did not understand, and anathema to the cultured Mrs. Drysdale. “What we politely call ‘bumpkins’ are actually peasants,” Hoving remarked. “White trash are modern-day peasants living in tin cans.”
He betrayed a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant view of country folk, forgetting that the Puritans were little more than peasants themselves. Hoving, however, was aware of Americans’ impulse to run away from their immigrant peasant past and their refusal to believe that’s what their forebears once were. That’s understandable. Everyone wants to move forward. Beautiful swans don’t want to be reminded of the ugly ducklings they were once upon a long time ago.
“Peasant,” in American usage, has negative connotations. To call someone a peasant is to insult that person. In European countries the word refers to a farmer or villager. Campesino, paysan, contadino, and Bauer refer to a kind of country person, without the suggestion of ignorance or low status associated with the word. In English, on the other hand, the word is a term of abuse. Perhaps because of its association with medieval serfs and other individuals tethered to the land, the word stands in opposition to our contemporary ideals of egalitarianism. It’s reserved for humble people from agricultural communities in the developing world, but never for an American.
“American exceptionalism” assumes that the United States is inherently different from other countries. It’s the belief that the United States has a singular mission to transform the world; it is superior to other nations, period. There are no peasants here. That’s an exceptional claim: This is a society freed from the legacy of a feudal past! Even England has its caste system, commoners being far removed from the titled. Scholars and politicians have long pointed out that the absence of feudalism in the United States, the Puritan values of the Protestant settlers, the republican nature of the American Revolution, and the Jeffersonian belief in an “Empire of Liberty” embolden the case for American exceptionalism.
Josef Stalin, dictator of countries with feudal histories and populated primarily by peasants, coined the phrase “American exceptionalism.” He sought to explain why the United States seemed to be exempt from the dogmatic predictions of Marxism. Peasants, in this superpower sense, stand in opposition to capitalism.
Stalin was right, however. What makes the United States exceptional remains its ability to transform peasants into modern people. Its absorptive capacity to take in immigrants from the world over and ensure that their children embrace an American identity is without parallel. The children of former peasants, educated in the land of the free and the home of the brave — and unencumbered by their parents’ history — went on to reinvent the world with fresh eyes. Americans’ contributions to the world reflect an optimistic outlook on life.
Americans, for instance, took the weight of European operetta, stripped it down, and gave the world the Broadway musical. Americans took the dogma of the ballet, freed its movements, and gave the world ice-skating. Americans took the rigorous traditions of music, discarded its constraints, and gave the world jazz. And so it went. Consider Bill Blass. He stripped away all the pretensions and history of European dressing customs and simplified them, creating American elegance. Blass invented American refinement.
Walt Disney was right: the world was small after all.
This American reinvention of European traditions, however, did not extend into the kitchen. The peasants who arrived on Ellis Island brought the culinary traditions of the rural poor and urban destitute. Getting enough to eat was what drove so many millions to the United States in the first place. These culinary traditions reflected people concerned with calories over taste: “Did you have enough to eat?”
No one came to America in the nineteenth century for its great restaurants. No one looked to the United States for refined cooking: everything was comfort food. In fact, once the United States began to produce millionaires, the first thing they did was rush off to Europe on grand tours — and they returned with chefs to feed well.
Unremarkable food was expected. “The business of America is business,” Calvin Coolidge declared; fine dining was not then the industrial enterprise it is now. There was, in fact, a perverse American pride in culinary deprivation, a legacy of the misguided Puritans who never cooked anything that would appear on the menus of any Michelin-starred restaurant. This culinary deprivation only began to fade in postwar America.
Julia Child taught Americans that food could be more than sustenance; it could be a pleasure, an expression of culture. This, after all, was a time when Americans added canned fruit to a bowl of gelatin and called it dessert. This was a time when just about everything Americans ate came out of a can or was poured out of a box. Comfort food is easy and familiar; discomfort food, on the other hand, requires knowledge and skill.
Child, the French chef on her television program, introduced Americans to the nuances and intelligence of cooking. That another Francophile occupied the White House — Jacqueline Kennedy — when Child went on the air only emboldened her to think that her time had come. That postwar America was blessed with middle-class families who could travel to Europe created a receptive television audience. Child sought to elevate the culinary life of nation.
It was not easy to get Americans to cook up more than a meat loaf and mashed potatoes. Remember the television series Mad Men? Many episodes showcased food: dinner at a Howard Johnson’s, a visit to a Benihana Japanese steakhouse, a dinner at Barbetta in New York’s theater district, a mother-daughter bonding scene over an ice cream sundae, awful bagels at Canter’s Deli in Los Angeles, and a meditation on a box of Life cereal. To be sure, there were many restaurant scenes on TV, but nothing was ever served on any episode that could be considered fine dining. It’s hard to believe that the writers of Mad Men chose to reflect the American palate as nondescript precisely at the time when Julia Child was making Duck à l’Orange on public television.
There was Child introducing Americans to the pleasures of elevated cuisine while Betty Draper on Mad Men was making dinner from something that came out of a box with Betty Crocker on its cover. Betty, meet Betty. It was a remarkable dissonance. Betty Draper stood there, an insufferable expression of seething ennui on her face, smoking a cigarette in her kitchen. Oblivious to the very existence of Julia Child, she prepared a ham covered in pineapple rings, cloves impaled into the sticky flesh, or pot roasts, all the flavor cooked out of it. Her vegetables were cooked to the point of disintegration. A halo of cigarette smoke crowned her beautiful Barbie Doll hair.
The only thing that ever looked good on Mad Men was the sight of a martini. The hangovers, not so much.
This brings us to coffee. For all her talents, Child was unable to convince Americans that there was more to coffee than hot water. She was on television, after all, during a time when Americans believed there were only two kinds of coffee: drip and instant. Maxwell House and Folgers had the drip coffee market: “Good to the last drop,” versus “The best part of wakin’ up is Folgers in your cup.” Sanka and Nescafé were synonymous with instant coffee. There was simply no coffee culture in the United States.
That is, of course, until Howard Schultz of Starbucks went on a mission to inculcate a coffee culture in the United States in the 1980s. He would teach Americans that there was a world of caffeine and sugar and milk infusions that went far beyond anything drip or instant coffee could possibly provide. That his caffeine revolution occurred at the same time that the Internet and laptops made lingering in coffeehouses a cultural phenomenon for post-Baby Boomer generations sealed the deal. Coffee and hipsters became a symbiotic relationship.
If one has always and only known electricity, it’s hard to imagine what the world was like before its invention. The idea of kerosene lamps and candles seems bizarre. One has to watch an episode of Little House on the Prairie to see how Americans lived with kerosene lamps. The only time I’ve used kerosene lamps was when I participated in an archaeological expedition not far from the Maya ruins of Calakmul, near the Mexico-Guatemala border. Led by Edward Kurjack and Merle Greene Robertson, there we were, for five days, in the bush, relying primarily on kerosene lamps and flashlights.
Kerosene lamps, like instant coffee, are the stuff of nostalgia. Americans, this century, have grown up with a wide selection of coffee preparations — cappuccino, espresso, caffè latte, macchiato, ristretto, espressino, café au lait, Americano, cordato, affogato, caffè breve, caffè mocha, and the list goes on. It’s difficult to envision life without choices. The truth is, however, that before Starbucks, Americans were coffee philistines: drip or instant, thank you very much.
Americans, however, resisted change. “We were sitting at the kitchen counter, drinking the caffeine and sugar infusion that is Cuban coffee,” Joan Didion writes in Miami, making fun of her Cuban hosts for serving the California philistine an espresso. She ridicules what is outside her ethnocentric bubble of American culinary deprivation.
Didion’s a trip, a character out of an episode of The Beverly Hillbillies where Granny mocks Mrs. Drysdale over a matter of . . . style and grace. “Who are these people with their highfalutin coffee concoctions?” Didion seems to ask of her Cuban hosts, incredulous that she wasn’t served a Sanka. There she is, all right, an American peasant in Cuban Miami.
The Cuban espresso — un buchito — was introduced to the island nation by the Italian immigrants who arrived there throughout the twentieth century. It is exactly the same as Italian espresso, save for a bit more sugar. This culinary history was lost on Didion, the way Julia Child’s beef bourguignon was light years ahead of Betty Draper’s sad pot roast. Didion, after all, grew up with the coffee equivalent of the kerosene lamp: Schultz was about to introduce her — and all Americans — to the electric light.
When Schultz embarked on his campaign to inculcate a coffee culture in the United States, he followed in the steps of Julia Child. He knew his caffeine revolution required changing the American mind-set. Didion wrote Miami in 1980, when coffee culture was still in the Dark Ages in the United States. Schultz bought out Starbucks in 1987. In 1987, take note, there were only 17 Starbucks, and the number of epicurean coffeehouses in the United States was fewer than 600. Today, there are tens of thousands of epicurean coffeehouses, testament to the emergence of a sustained coffee culture in the United States. “Once converted to specialty coffee, however, [Americans] were disposed to drink it wherever they found it, boosting not just Starbucks’ trade, but that of the whole sector,” Jonathan Morris writes in Coffee: A Global History.
This coffee revolution proved unstoppable precisely because it conformed to the expanding ideas of American sophistication and refinement. Americans were making up for lost time in their culinary skills. Consider Tom Colicchio. He cofounded Gramercy Tavern, a temple to American culinary aspirations, in 1994. Now a celebrity chef and judge on Top Chef, when assessing the success of a dish he asks if the ingredients are “elevated.” The skill to take food to the next level is paramount — and it applies not only to high cuisine but also to everyday meals. America’s Test Kitchen, launched in August 2001 and cohosted by Julia Collin Davidson and Bridget Lancaster, prepares recipes while subjecting them to rigorous testing to determine what works best, and why.
Top Chef wants to see what can be done with tamarind sauce and duck breast to arrive at an elevated morsel that surprises; America’s Test Kitchen wants to make the best meat loaf that will satisfy all the kids in your family. They are two sides of the same coin. “Caffè latte is now as much the American coffee style as a ‘cup of Joe,’” Morris writes in his history of coffee, a commentary on the American desire for both Top Chef and America’s Test Kitchen in their lives. The highfalutin coffee concoction Didion held in disdain in 1980 in Cuban Miami is now the stuff of an ordinary coffee break in the United States: “I’ll have a cappuccino with an extra shot of espresso.”
“She certainly betrayed her peasant pedigree,” Hoving said of Didion, when discussing Miami. “Then again, what are California hippies if not modern-day peasants?”
Hispanics were not surprised with her take on the espresso. Latin Americans are familiar with such gente sin cultura who arrive, look around, fail to inquire, and then render judgments reflecting their ignorance. Didion was then dismissed as someone of no consequence whose opinions were to be ignored by the Hispanic world. Miami sealed her reputation as a Hispanophobe, another Anglophone victim of the American bias against Hispanics. “I’d be put off, too,” Hoving said. “Imagine being judged by a peasant.”
He was a snob in the best way Americans can be snobs: with humor. Of John Gregory Dunne, he noted that he was Irish — strike one — and Catholic — strike two. That was all that had to be said. Of Joan, he noted that her family was “one of the waves of [American] refugees who spilled across the Mississippi River” to make a life for themselves “in a wilderness far removed from civilization.” Then he added: “How can anyone be from California and not speak Spanish?”
Didion was born in Sacramento, a place the Spanish explorer Gabriel Moraga named in 1808, and has made Los Angeles, a city founded by Franciscan friar Junípero Serra in 1781, the city she calls home. It’s a myth that there were American pioneers in California. No such creatures ever existed. There were adventurers seeking gold; entrepreneurs to exploit the resources; merchants expanding commerce across the Pacific; and refugees, people who heeded Horace Greeley’s advice. “Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country,” he argued in the New-York Daily Tribune on July 13, 1865, hoping those seeking to improve their lot in life would leave the crowded cities of the Eastern seaboard. To cross the Mississippi was the nation’s safety valve, ridding the original Thirteen Colonies of malcontents and the unemployed.
These westward-bound settlers were people who enjoyed drip coffee over a campfire. No one on Little House on the Prairie ever had a macchiato. Hoving considered people like Didion and Dunne to be American peasants, averse to broadening their horizons beyond their own ethnocentric bubble. This view is shared throughout the Hispanic world where assessment about a person is made in subtle, but harsh, ways. One example will suffice. Hispanics, for instance, consider people who are creative in naming their children with scorn disguised as amusement. The Dirty Girls Social Club, Alisa Valdés-Rodríguez’s amusing novel, tells the story of six Latina friends who met at college. They are of different races, social classes, and ethnic backgrounds. Spanish is the one thing they have in common: they are young Hispanic women in the United States.
One of the friends is named Usnavy. This is how the story of that name is revealed: “On slow afternoons . . . Usnavy’s mother used to go to the docks and watch American ships come and go on their way to bombing the hell out of the island of Vieques, amazed that gringo sailor boys used brooms and mops on deck without shame. That, she thought, was freedom. Men with mops. So that’s where she got the idea for the great name for her daughter — from the side of the ships. U.S. Navy, girl. I am not joking. That’s what Usnavy is named after. You can ask her yourself.”
This tells a Hispanic everything needed to understand everything about Usnavy’s childhood and her family’s background. Now consider how Didion and her husband chose the name for the baby they adopted in 1966. “They looked at a map of Mexico and liked a name they saw! That was it!” Hoving said, laughing. They named their daughter Quintana Roo, after one of the states on Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula. That state is named in honor of Andrés Quintana Roo, a nineteenth-century Mexican political leader and jurist, one of the most important leaders in the Mexican War of Independence and the writer of the first draft of the Mexican Declaration of Independence. His surnames — paternal, Quintana; maternal, Roo — are familiar among the Canarian immigrants who settled in the Yucatán.
One peasant looks out and sees a ship; another looks down at a map.
The idea of Usnavys on a playdate with Quintana Roo was enough for Hispanics to know what they could expect from Didion. “Exactly what I would expect,” Miguel Bretos, the scholar tapped by the Smithsonian Institution to launch the initiative to begin documenting the Hispanic history in the United States, told me when we discussed Didion’s book over lunch, not far from the National Portrait Gallery. (He concluded lunch with an espresso and I had a cortado; Sanka was not on the menu.) Bretos, like Hoving, understood that the trajectory of advancing and moving forward, both as a person and as a society, includes educating the least of these brothers and sisters.
And how Americans have opened themselves to the great culinary offerings the world has moved from drip and instant to caffeine and sugar and milk infusions shows how American culture is elevated one visit to an epicurean coffeehouse at a time.
 Immigrants arriving in San Francisco were processed on Angel Island; approximately 20 percent were denied entry, attesting to anti-Chinese sentiment throughout the American West.
 When Benjamin Franklin served as the American ambassador to France, he received so many requests for letters of introduction from French men eager to emigrate to the United States that he came up with a generic text: “The bearer of this, who is going to America, presses me to give him a letter of recommendation, though I know nothing of him, not even his name. This may seem extraordinary, but I assure you that it is not uncommon here. Sometimes, indeed, one unknown person brings another, equally unknown, to recommend him; and sometimes they recommend one another. As to this gentleman, I must refer you to himself for his character and merits, with which he is certainly better acquainted than I can possibly be. I recommend him, however, to those civilities which every stranger of whom one knows no harm has a right to; and I request you will do him all good offices.”
 At the behest of San Francisco city government, which passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, a blemish on the nation’s ideals.
 The matter becomes messier when one considers the effect of changing borders. The discovery of gold in California in 1849, for instance, resulted in Congress passing laws in violation of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Congress wanted to ensure that Protestant Americans and not Catholic Mexicans — who owned vast tracts in the lands transferred at the conclusion of the Mexican-American War — possessed the gold mines out west. The Homestead Act of 1850 and the California Land Act of 1851 sought to create the first class of dispossessed Americans within the United States — apart from the First Peoples, who were systematically excluded from participation in the mainstream of the nation’s life.
 In The Beverly Hillbillies, Margaret Drysdale traced her lineage back to the Mayflower and had no patience for the Clampetts.
 Respectively, these are the words for peasant in Spanish, French, Italian, and German.
 In recent years there has been push back against the idea of American exceptionalism. Barack Obama stated he did not believe in it; John McCain decried such a belief during his presidential campaign.
 Alexis de Tocqueville, however, in Democracy in America in 1840, referred to the United States as exceptional: “The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no other democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one.”
 American musicals are the transformation of the Austrian and German tradition of operettas; they reflect the East European sensibilities of that immigrant past.
 Respectively: Season 5, Episode 6; Season 4, Episode 5; Season 4, Episode 8; Season 5, Episode 3; Season 7, Episode 1; and Season 4, Episode 6.
 In 1971 Jerry Baldwin, Zev Siegl, and Gordon Bowker founded Starbucks in Seattle. They used beans Dutch-American entrepreneur Alfred Peet — of Peet’s Coffee — roasted for them.
 The following season electric camp lanterns were available.
 Schultz founded Il Giornale in 1985; that company acquired Starbucks’ assets in 1987.
 Danny Meyer and Michael Anthony own Gramercy Tavern. Anthony took over as chef from Tom Colicchio in 2006.
 The town when founded was christened “El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles,” now shortened to “L.A.”
 Recent scholarship argues that vestigial peasant thought is what is fueling today’s alt-right movements in both Europe and the United States. Barrington Moore’s The Social Origins of Development and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Modern World and Frank Huggett’s The Land Question and European Society go far in explaining the conservative nature of peasant thought.
 The other two are Campeche and Yucatán.
 His wife, Leona Vicario, was a fellow revolutionary, one of the more important women in the Mexican War of Independence.
 Both men referenced Matthew 25:40 when discussing the Christian obligation to help peasants.