So, Aurora bought some interesting coffee yesterday which she made this morning. Sipping and thinking about the flavor and packaging on the way to work, I felt very chock full o’ rant.
Let’s start with the packaging. The way a country packages their foodstuffs says a lot about their culture.
If you’ve ever shopped in an Asian market, you’ve no doubt seen Japanese packaged food. There’s usually some kind of overly-cute comic character which has no relation to the product (think Hello Kitty laxatives). There’s the obligatory poorly translated, philosophical poetic blurb. For some reason, every package, sign and t-shirt in Japan has some kind of hokey, incomprehensible English saying on it. There’s entire websites devoted to pictures of these things. I think it’s a law there, designed to confuse other nations into believing that the Japanese are deep and poignant.
The US has a similar but much more insidious packaging trend. No philosophical ranting on our packages in a different language, no matter how well translated. No, we are such an illiterate and poorly educated bunch of cousin-humping bumpkins that we don’t even need text at all. Seriously, the next time you are at the grocery store, look at the all of the packaging that has glorious, full color pictures on the can or box. I once saw pictures of a KFC in Japan that had plastic representations of their food so that non-Japanese speaking customers could order what they wanted by just grabbing the faux entrée from a bin and putting it on their tray. We’re basically doing the same thing in our own country except we’re catering to illiterates. Want a can of beans but don’t want to be bothered by that whole ‘school’ and ‘literacy’ thing? Come down to the good ole’ US of A!
It’s not the pictures on everything that gets me. American grocery stores are the equivalent to the Sci-Fi section at the bookstore. For years, famous painters would make sensual, erotic and epic covers to books based on a badly worded description from an editor who read only about half of the book, his nose buried in a glass of gin. You would get the most trite, hack, unreadable drivel swathed in a cover featuring Boris Vallejo’s muscular wife fighting saber toothed tigers with a twelve foot broadsword and wearing nothing but a tiny leather thong and thigh high boots. I’ve noticed this same marketing technique seeping into other packaging and I’ve theorized that old Sci-Fi book art directors who are tired of nothing but boobies are now hiring out as ad execs for the major food companies.
Think about the Jolly Green Giant. Back in the 50’s he was a large, green, Greek Adonis with broccoli hair and a friendly grin. He spent his perpetually warm summer days raising his boy, Sprout, and their acres of wholesome vegetables. You look at the packaging now and he’s changed. He’s now a looming behemoth standing astride row after row of genetically modified string beans. His crossed arms, a stance learned from his personal trainer Mr. Clean, show his bulging muscles, glistening with extra virgin olive oil. He surveys his domain, offering a paying public not only his delicious crops but the promise that, when the six legged, giant breasted KFC mutant mega-chickens decide to finally stage their coup for world dominance, his own genetically altered, feral cabbage-dingoes and maize-rats will destroy them, protecting you and your family as well as providing a suitable side dish for the celebratory feast afterwards.
Back to the coffee, the packaging was much less of a Hollywood blockbuster poster than typical US fare. This was south of the border stuff my friends.
I spent a few years living in Los Angeles and there was a supermarket I used to frequent called Vallarta Market. This place was insane. I was one of maybe 3 non-Latinos whenever I shopped there, and they sold some stuff that I was not only unaccustomed to eating, but was not at all prepared to even look at. Row upon row of fresh vegetables drew you in, only so that you could turn that fateful corner and walk into the meat counter – a sinister glass enclosure overfull with the sliced, glistening and mostly unidentifiable innards of various livestock. One would almost expect to see Vincent Price in a bloody apron behind the glass, slowly eviscerating a small fowl with something long, sharp and stainless steel. This was a place where you could walk in with ten dollars and leave with a bushel of sweet corn, two pounds of vine ripe tomatoes, a huge bag of chicken hearts and livers and several candles with plastic Saint paintings shrink wrapped on the glass holder and still have enough change to call a tow truck to come for your now wheel and stereo free car. Everything there was bright and simply packaged, usually in a box or can with an orange, red or yellow label, a few brief descriptions and maybe a stylized drawing of what was in the package. This coffee was no different: a vacuum packed block of coffee in a simple, orange foil wrapper with an Aztec sounding name which invariably began with a Q and a brief paragraph on the back describing what it actually was. I envision the whole marketing meeting to go like this:
“So”, Jorge, the head of marketing begins, “this needs to go to the printer soon and we still have a couple of options.”
The members of the board perk up. Maricela sips her coffee and smiles.
“We can hire a professional photographer with eighty thousand dollars worth of digital camera equipment he bought on credit to take a picture of some coffee beans. We send that picture to a professional artist to make it look appealing. We send that to a layout artist who will create the label. We then hire a marketing firm to write several variations of copy and then test it in several markets. I figure we’ll need to price the coffee at about four fifty, maybe five bucks”
Jorge clears his throat and sips his cuppa.
“Or, we use this blurb that Rafael’s cousin Moisés – you know the one who got that award for his poem in the school paper – we got him to write a blurb about the coffee and how it’s ‘roasted and ground in the Latin taste’. We just slap it on the back of an orange foil bag, maybe write the name in silver on the front and Bam! We get our markup and still sell at under two dollars. What do you think?”
The room, meanwhile, is empty. Looking at the clock, Jorge realizes he’s missing the afternoon siesta so he puts the orange label in an envelope and drops it in the mailbox on his way home.
Although this is almost certainly wrong and most likely offensive, it is the kind of thing that runs through my head on the morning commute. All kidding aside, do yourself a favor and look closely at the packaging next time you are shopping, especially in what is jokingly termed the ‘ethnic’ isle or most major chains. They vary not only from country to country but region to region and they can be a litmus test to the area you are currently visiting or living in.
The second thing that this coffee made me think about was flavor and the term ‘Acquired Taste’. There are two general categories that get labeled as acquired tastes, one is regional cuisine and the other is hooch.
If you grow up in an area that has, for generations eaten pig testicles, you will most likely have eaten pig testicles. If you started eating them as a child and eat them regularly, they become just another food card in your gastronomic deck. If you move, you may be shocked to find other people can’t abide pig testicles. If you bring a friend from abroad back home, you may also find that there is little you can do to convince someone unaccustomed to them to eat pig testicles. If your friend actually tries them and, against every involuntary spasm of their diaphragm as their brain, screaming subconsciously, tries to push the gnawed and semi-digested testicles back up their throat and projectile vomit them as far as possible from their body actually keeps them down, they may be on the road to acquiring the taste for pig testicles.
Taste in this usage seems less about flavor and more about a person’s preference. What you are accustomed to and grow up with becomes preferred to something new and different. It doesn’t matter if the flavor and texture is incredible, if it comes from something considered filthy or grotesque by your rearing, it’s inedible until the taste is acquired, and the taste isn’t acquired until you’ve put something you consider foul into your mouth at least once. Tripe is described as tasting more like steak than steak and as the essence of beef but I’ve yet to try it and would be hard pressed to eat a cow’s stomach lining while sober. That brings us to number two on the list of acquired tastes: booze.
Since most (I hope) children haven’t been brought up drinking hard liquor, most people have to acquire the taste for booze. Think about it, this is something that tastes so bad that people forcefully cringe when imbibing it. They follow it with ‘a chaser’ which is another liquid with a strong, tolerable taste that cancels out the actual flavor of the original. There are countless tomes filled with thousands of recipes that combine the booze with other flavors for the single purpose of making the booze taste less like something you would pour over a festering wound.
You almost never see a teenager sipping daintily at an expensive glass of single malt scotch. They are guzzling down beer, mixed drinks, schnapps or Red Bull diluted vodkas. This is because they haven’t yet acquired the taste (or the bulbous, veiny nose) of a true connoisseur. Unlike foods like lungs, kidneys and other offal which, although they can be frightening, may taste incredible, booze will always taste like a powerful astringent. This isn’t to say that some local delicacies and other acquired tastes are not completely disgusting. I’ve had home cooked chitterlings that tasted worse than they smelled and smelled so horrible that they had to be cooked in the garage as not to make the house reek. I tried them and I will most definitely not be acquiring that taste any time soon. I had a roommate in LA who would often get a jar of pickled pig’s feet and eat the whole thing in one sitting. I never even tried tasting these. The though of eating a pig’s trotters was bad enough. The image of the little things floating in murky brine was worse. The smell, oh gods, the smell was so horrendous and permeating that I would have to leave the house for a half hour until it cleared – again, another taste that I will never successfully acquire. Booze, on the other hand, tastes less disgusting with practice, most likely because you are slowly killing off you taste buds as well as a large chunk of brain matter, most likely from the area that handles smell.
Back to the coffee. I do not think I have the ‘Latin Taste’. The coffee, even with its quaint, bright package and inexpensive price tag was a bit bitter for me as I added more and more cream and Splenda. I sipped as I drove, wishing I had a voice recorder to capture my rants as they happened instead of trying vainly to remember the good bits later when I got to a computer. Some tastes, though, are easier to acquire than others. By the time I got to the end of writing this, I had finished the huge cup, enjoying the slight bitter tingle on my tongue and dreading the next cup of generic, weak coffee I was used to, waiting in the other room.