Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Confessions of a Total Coffeehouse Rube

As someone who comes from a rural area, I am rather sensitive to the “country bumpkin” label, especially when I am traveling.  Not all of us from out in the boonies just strolled off the set of the Beverly Hillbillies.  I am perfectly capable of driving in multilane traffic, ordering in a fancy restaurant, and taking buses and/or trains from one end of a city to another by myself, among other things.  I don’t exclusively wear flannel shirts and jeans, nor have I ever once referred to a swimming pool as a “cee-ment pond”.

Overall, I’m pretty comfortable with life in urban areas, with one notable exception: coffeehouses.

How I'd like to come across in a coffeehouse.

How I actually come across in a coffeehouse.

As someone who rarely experiments when it comes to food and drink, I’ve always stuck pretty close to my “usuals”.  In the realm of fare commonly found in a coffeehouse, that would be plain old caffeinated hot coffee with just cream for me.  Sometimes I get all wild and crazy and try a flavored coffee like hazelnut or, if I am feeling especially daring, maybe even an iced coffee.  Someday I might even try a flavored iced coffee, but I will have to work my way up to that.

When I am on the road, I find that most coffeehouses make for comfortable places to meet with friends, get a little writing work done, or tweet a little.  The staff and clientele are usually friendly and considerate, and there is not an expectation that you will simply consume your order forthwith and quickly move on in order to free up a table for the next customer.

There is, however, the perfectly reasonable expectation on the part of the coffeehouse staff that you will actually buy something while there.  And that something should be more than a 30 cent cup of ice.  Therein lies the rub.  When confronted with the menu board in a coffeehouse, I freeze like Bambi in the path of a freight train at midnight.  If there are other customers waiting in line behind me, that freight train becomes more like one of those Japanese bullet trains.

At this point, you are probably asking a very simple question: Why not just order what you normally drink, a regular coffee with just cream?  To that, I respond with another question: Who does that in a gourmet coffee house?  It’s akin to going to an award-winning Chinese restaurant and ordering a cheeseburger. I may as well show up at the coffeehouse on a camouflaged ATV wearing a flannel shirt without sleeves and a backwards Mack Truck ball cap if I order “just a plain old coffee”.

Let me backtrack a bit.  I am currently working on a collaborative project with a writer from Connecticut, and we were recently planning on meeting halfway between our locations for a summit on the project, which put us in the Portland, Maine area.  We would need a place to do some work on a hot summer afternoon, and an air-conditioned coffee house near the water fit the bill almost perfectly, as long as I was prepared.

This southern Maine summit was an ideal excuse for me to take a mini-vacation, so I was already in Portland the day prior to the meeting with my co-author. High on my to-do list was some reconnaissance at the coffeehouse where we were planning to work.  It was a hot summer afternoon, and I had spent the first half of it in the sun-drenched bleachers at Hadlock Field watching the Portland Sea Dogs play baseball.  Not wanting to give up the great parking place I had found prior to the game, I decided to walk the five blocks or so to the coffeehouse.  By the time I arrived, I was pretty parched.  The idea of getting something hot to drink was not very appealing, but I wanted to sit for a bit and see how the place was.  So I stepped up to the counter.

First, I had to parse out from the mass of choices on the menu board something that sounded at least somewhat cold and refreshing.  I was looking for terms like “iced”, “frozen”, “arctic” and the like.

Next, I had to figure out what cold thing I was actually going to get.  There were lattes, café au laits, chais, cappuccinos, espressos, and all manner of other things, some of which I don’t think were actually real drinks, but just decoys put up there to weed out the weak like me.  I was getting a bit shaky in the knees, but I did not run screaming out the door.  Instead, I continued to stare glassy-eyed at the menu, letting one customer after another behind me in line go on ahead.

In time, I reached the conclusion that I was going to get an iced cappuccino because it sounded appropriate, yet somewhat safe.  Then it was a question of flavor.  There were choices like Mexicali Cream, Jamaican Me Crazy, Jazzy Java, and Streusel, all of which are probably terrific if you know what they actually are.  So I let more customers behind me go by.  Frankly, I cannot recall what flavor I eventually decided upon, though I do remember that it was vaguely chocolate-ish and quite tasty.  I think “Bavaria” was part of the name.  The experience is mostly a blur now.

Feeling good about my selection, I stepped up to the counter, where I was greeted by a very pleasant young person who just exuded coffee house know-how.  Undaunted by the presence of this fountain of java knowledge which would make my own seem like a Dixie cup in comparison, I rattled off my order in what I thought was a confident tone of voice. I was going to ace this.  Then…

Order-taking person: “What size would you like?”

Me: “Huh?”

One would not think this to be a tough question, but for someone like me, in an actual coffee house, it is.  The sizes are not “small”, “medium” , “large” and “extra large”, but “tall”, grande”, “venti”, and “trenta”.  In my world, “small” and “tall” are just not the same thing.  If someone says “Gee, you sure are tall”, they do not mean that you are a small person.  And if something is “grande”, it sounds like “grand”, which is a variation on spectacular in my mind, like a grand finale.  It doesn’t sound like it would be just medium.  I panicked a bit.  For fear that I would say the wrong thing and end up with my drink being served to me in a bucket of some kind, I sheepishly asked for “whatever the middle size is”.

Now in a reputable coffee house, which this most certainly was, one’s order is not just thrown together.  It is constructed like a piece of fine art by a highly trained person known as a “barista”.  I believe that is Italian for “young person who is more hip that you will ever be”.  My barista, who was already busy with some other orders, was given mine on a slip of paper while I dutifully stepped aside and admired the various pithy mugs and bags of what I think was coffee beans for sale.  They were labeled with names like “Cappadocia Supreme”, and could have been magic beanstalk beans for all I know.

After a few minutes, I was handed a small cardboard cup that was very, very hot, and confusion immediately set in.  I had purposely ordered something cold because it was such a warm afternoon.  This drink was lava-like in its temperature.  Such was my confidence, or lack thereof at this point, that I was convinced that I had done something wrong or was missing something here.

I looked around the coffeehouse, hoping to see someplace where I was supposed to pour crushed ice or something into this volcanic liquid in order to create the frozen cappuccino I thought I had ordered.  Aside from a napkin dispenser, there was nothing like that anywhere.  I literally froze in place.  What was I supposed to do?  I considered just walking out with the hot cup and tossing it in the trash, hoping maybe my co-author and I could just do our work on a park bench or picnic table the next day instead of a coffeehouse.

Instead, I manned up and audibly cleared my throat to get the barista’s attention.  Being careful not to affect a “tone”, which I have been known to have and which is perceived as being sarcastic, I meekly said “I’m no expert on coffee-related things, but is this what I am supposed to be getting?”

The barista, probably young enough to be my daughter, looked at me sympathetically, as one might at a lost child in a shopping mall, and asked “What did you order?”   I mumbled something about having ordered a cold drink, and she swiftly swooped the hot little cup from my hand, gave it to the elderly gentleman next to me who had been reading a book of poetry whilst awaiting his order, and handed me a plastic cup of frosty, caffeinated goodness, complete with a yellow straw.

Relieved, I found a seat, fired up my iPad, watched funny cat videos, and sipped my frozen something-or-other, which was actually very good.

The writing summit with my co-author at that same coffeehouse the next day went very well.  He ordered some manner of something that wasn’t even coffee I found out later.  It was some stuff in a cup, but he also got a bottle that he poured into the stuff in the cup.  For fear that learning about this would cause part of my mind to blow a fuse, I chose just to live in ignorance of whatever it was. 

As for me, I chickened out when I made my order the next day.  I went with arctic lemonade, which I figured would not elicit any awkward beverage-related questions, and even mentioned the size I wanted (grande).  I was feeling pretty smug, having not looked like a hillbilly in the coffeehouse in front of my co-author.  That is until the order-taking person asked, “Do you want whipped cream on that?”

Wait…what?  On lemonade? Is that even a thing?

I need to take a class on coffeehouse fare before our next writing summit, I think.  Either that or I’ll just go with a regular old coffee with just cream, like a total rube.

***CREDIT WHERE IT IS DUE: I would like to thank the staff of Coffee By Design on India Street in downtown Portland, Maine for their patience and graciousness as I struggled with the language of coffeehouses, and for their allowing my co-author and I to take up space in their wonderful shop for the better part of a Monday afternoon while we went over our project together.


  1. You forgot the "Flavored Moo!" As for my secret drink, I'm a bigger coffee house novice than you, so I just went with an iced tea. The bottle was ginger beer, which I poured over the ice once said tea was gone.

    And NO one puts whipped cream on lemonade, but I seem to recall you ordering an Arctic Lemonade Smoothie - so the smoothie part probably through them off.

    Either way, it was fun, productive day!

  2. Oooh, a smoothie...that's right! Yet another choice that I am pretty sure was put there specifically to throw me off.

    One has to wonder what the mystery "flavor" in a "Flavored Moo!"actually is. Broccoli? Cottage cheese?

  3. Just remember that venti is Italian for twenty - and not coincidentally, a 20oz. Coffee. That gives you a line in the sand.

  4. In all things coffee house, I am a country bumpkin. If I ever plan to go into a coffee house I'm coming back here to write Johnny's info on my hand. Venti = twenty = ounces. If they don't have venti I'll point at a cup and say "that one." Bumpkin. Seriously.

  5. Back in the days when people still went to Barnes and Noble, I broke out in a sweat every time I attempted to order. Now, after six years of going to our campus bookstore -- which is coincidentally a Barnes and Noble -- practically every day, I feel like an old pro. Not that I ever order anything other than brewed coffee, but standing in line has given me time to study what kids order, and what they eventually receive. I'm still not 100% clear on the difference between a frappacino and a smoothie, but I'm probably never ordering either, so I'm good with that.