Destination: NYC, SE Asia and Europe
Mode of Transport: Coffee, regular
Coffee in Europe
The culture that surrounds drinking coffee in a European country, especially Italy, is a daily event worth taking part. In a town such as Rome, every cafe uses excellent roasted coffee beans and the end product, always exquisite. With it also comes protocol. For example, there are certain coffees only appropriate to order before or after a certain time of day. This ritual is taken very seriously.
Coffee in Southeast Asia
By contrast, Southeast Asia’s affinity and use of what is widely considered an inferior product in instant coffee are nothing short of playful. With combinations that are closer to a dessert than a beverage and no real rules in which to follow, the purpose of coffee is based less on tradition and more on passing the time.
America, the melting pot that it is, has taken a bit from both cultures, if not every culture, which, in turn, has led to very complicated ways of ordering coffee. This is often exemplified in any of the coffee houses in my New York City neighborhood where Little Italy and Chinatown intersect.
Coffee house confusion in NYC
These days, upon entering one of these coffee houses, I become a bit confused and almost intimidated when I look up at the coffee menu board. I’m not a linguist by any means, but I think my confusion stems from when an establishment calls the same offering by two different names. For example, a cortado (in Spanish) and a macchiato (in Italian) are, for all intents and purposes, the same. I know that there is technically a difference when it comes to the espresso/steamed milk ratio, but it’s so minute that it is impossible to tell. Let’s just say that I have never been to a cafe in Italy or Spain, in which both are offered. Why? Because it is their country’s version of the same drink.
After ascertaining what I want to order, there is that further quandary of which size I’d like my beverage to be, which furthers my anxiety.
Though this post may have read as such initially, it is not meant to be a tantrum about the coffee culture in the United States. Instead, it’s purpose is to pay homage toward a simpler time in America. I am in my late 40’s and remember when there were no specific roasts or applications from which to choose when ordering coffee. Though the final product did not taste nearly as good as it does now, it was equally satisfying.
In those more innocent times, there were only two sizes from which to choose- small or large; and your choices were limited to the amount of sugar, milk or both in your black coffee. No foam, no cinnamon, etc.
To expedite things, there was what we New Yorkers called the “regular”, which was made with whole cow’s milk and 2 sugars. Remember cow’s milk? Every diner or street coffee cart knew what this meant when you ordered it. Doesn’t that sound easier than some of the tongue twisters that are ordered now?
Few establishments know what the “regular” is anymore, except for old New York diners, which are also starting to become an anachronism. Moreover, it seems that the more I pay for my coffee these days, the more I have to do. I can’t remember the last time someone poured milk and sugar into a cup of coffee and stirred it for me.
In truth, even in those days, the “regular” was a New York idiom, not known anywhere else. I always thought it funny when I asked for a large “regular” elsewhere, I usually got a black coffee in a big cup or given that quizzical look which was always followed by, “So, you want a medium or a large?”.
These days, in spite of myself, I often play a game and go to one of those coffee chains or any cafe for that matter, and ask for a large “regular”. I would, of course, get that same quizzical look I got in the past. I usually end up getting a very big cup of black coffee.
I miss being able to order a “regular”. It was a playful morning ritual enjoyed by many. One that any European or Southeast Asian cultures would have appreciated.
Hampstead Community Market
I have befriended an Englishman named, Bill, who owns a sandwich stand in the Hampstead Community Market (U.K.) who along with making the best breakfast sandwiches in London, also makes a coffee that very much resembles those “regulars” of yore. I told him of the term and the backstory, and since then has referred to it as such when I order coffee with him.
“Long live the regular”, he’d say in his cockney accent as he serves it to me. While I sip, I can’t help but dream that it may be the new rage here in London.
Do you remember the regular coffee? Let me know! Share this with anyone old enough or New York enough to remember.