choice, coffee, foodie, Giordano, health, Jane, San Francisco, Smitten, Thanksgiving

“I never saw so many well-dressed, well-fed, business-looking Bohemians in my life.” – Oscar Wilde on San Francisco

Having worked as a Cold Stone ice cream specialist for two summers, I have served a lot of samples. In fact, I’ve had customers get full off ice cream tasting. Imagine my surprise, then, that when I visited San Francisco’s Smitten Ice Cream for the first time a few weeks ago, I was refused the right to sample.

“Could I possibly try the salted caramel?”

“No.” Cold as ice. “We make our ice cream made-to-order.” Why is she annoyed? I should be annoyed. Resisting the urge to turn and leave, I took a deep breath.

“Okay, I’ll have a small salted caramel then. The smallest.

Do you want chocolate on that?”

“Um, obviously I’ve never tasted it, so, what do you suggest?”

“Oh, I definitely recommend the chocolate. It helps cut the taste of the ice cream a bit.” Cut the taste? CUT THE TASTE? You cut the taste of a vodka shot or cough syrup. What is this ice cream?

Okay, a small salted caramel with chocolate I guess.”

“That’ll be $5.25.” Over five-dollars? For ice cream? That I can’t even sample beforehand?

Overcome with the illusion of powerlessness, I handed the server my credit card then sat down at a bench to wait. Moments later, I heard my name being called and went up to the counter to be handed a bowl of fresh, locally sourced, organic, high-quality, no-additive ice cream literally made just for me. I walked to an adjacent park to enjoy several “tastes” of salty, caramely, chocolatey ice cream. I was torn between unfoundedly hating it and fairly assessing the ice cream whose tastes could cut. It was a little too sweet for my liking, but I still ate every last bite. On principle.

Just hours before, I witnessed a friend attempting to substitute ingredients in her sandwich at Giordano. “We really don’t encourage people to make changes. I’ll do it, but I won’t be happy about it,” her sandwich artist responded as if he would be eating the sandwich. He, like my ice cream server, perfected that guilt-inducing tone that leaves you inexplicably submissive.

The next day, my friend and I stopped in at Jane, a Pacific Heights coffee shop that wishes it was a cookie shop.

“Do you have nonfat milk?” I know, I know. Asks the girl who went on an ice cream date with herself less than twelve hours prior.

“No.”

“Okay. Well I guess I’ll just have a whole milk latte if I don’t have a choice.”

“Yeah, you don’t.” To compensate for the less-than-ideal latte I would now “need” to consume, I added a cookie to my order.

“That’ll be $6.25,” the barista said as he handed me my cookie. I took a chewy chocolatey bite while waiting for my latte. It was foam-artified and my name was called. I admired the art, threw a lid on it, and took a sip as my friend and I waltzed out the door.

While I typically cook for myself during the week, I explore San Francisco’s expansive coffee and food scene over the weekend. On this particular weekend, however, I was completely stripped of my gustatory freedom.

I was victim to San Francisco’s foodocracy. The one in which what you like or don’t like and what you consume or don’t consume is decided by some other entity. The one in which a word like “organic” trumps your preferences, dietary restrictions, or semblance of control.

A week later, I arrived at a bus stop to see a young couple enjoying a to-go-box meal while huddled over a trash can. They hadn’t been guilt-tripped into purchasing their meal. They weren’t susceptible to the foodocratic policies. No, they were empowered to choose from a plethora of options. Options castaway by ungrateful foodocrats. Options that resided in a city trash can.

Observing them from afar, I was struck by a not-so-tasty reality, one that I was forced to ingest whether I liked it or not: Some could only dream to experience a problem so first-worldly as the San Francisco Foodocracy. To spend over five dollars to taste too-sweet ice cream. To devour a sandwich whose combination of ingredients has been carefully chosen and perfected for decades. Oh! To be a foodocrat!

This evening, as I bake a pie to be enjoyed under a roof with loved ones tomorrow, I wear my food-beliefs humbly on my chest. I am privileged to be a foodocrat. I am thankful to be so well-fed.

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coffee, focus, fruit, honeydew melon, World War II

Honeydew is the money melon

Last weekend, I was introduced to a coffee shop by a friend who is sort of my partner in crime when it comes to a well roasted bean. In fact, the early days of our friendship brewed over espresso. “You’re going to love this place. I know you’re on a tight schedule but I can’t let you go without trying this,” he insisted. If there is one thing in this world for which I will make sacrifices, that which I cannot sacrifice in itself, it is a good cup of coffee. Upon entering, I was immediately moved by the interior design; it was simple and sophisticated. A classy warehouse feel. Classy because it wasn’t a cluttered storage facility. The shelves were instead lined with a select few boxes, to establish mood. The vast open space had an unexpected way of filling the space with warmth.

I couldn’t help but stop to take it all in. “Oh yeah, I forgot. You’re a tourist,” my friend joked. “Okay order, order.” His enthusiasm is sometimes uncontainable. There wasn’t a menu in sight, but my coffee preferences are not especially dynamic, anyway. “A nonfat latte please.” The cashier looked at me sympathetically. There may have even been a twinge of pity. She knew I had never been there before. My order had been a dead give-away, akin to ordering a “small” at Starbucks. “We don’t have nonfat milk, only soy or whole,” she said. It wasn’t apologetic. It was more just matter-of-fact. My friend whispered that this was one of those places that would only serve what they thought tasted good. One that didn’t trust consumers to make the best gustatory decision. “They probably don’t want you to ruin the taste,” he offered. I deferred to soy.

The latte was delicious; that is undeniable. But the company’s resolute commitment to quality, and that to, quality over quantity, was inspiring.

If there is one thing in this world that could parallel my love affair with coffee, it would be seasonal fruit: Succulent strawberries, blueberries bleeding purple, sweet but firm peaches. That same day, the day of the coffee shop, I was doing some writing at a cafe while waiting for my friend. I ordered a bowl of seasonal fruit, expecting the aforementioned bursts of flavor. Moments later, a bowl of disappointment was set down in front of me. A sprinkle of blueberries and strawberries garnished what was primarily a bowl of honeydew melon.

(Aside: Does anyone actually like honeydew melon? In my humble opinion, it’s widespread prevalence is completely indirectly correlated with its popularity. It’s just cheap and available year-round. What a pathetic excuse of a fruit. There’s no winning with honeydew melon. It’s either overripe mush or hard as plastic. That it can be allowed to socialize with the real fruits is infuriating to me. It is nothing but a filler fruit.)

I took my time picking out the berries and eating them one at a time, especially careful not to combine. Few and far between, I made the additional effort to chew slowly and enjoy the taste of each one. (I of course left the honeydew melon. Miserable fruits, as they are.)

When it comes to seasonal fruit, this particular cafe (and most with “seasonal fruit” on their menus), springs for a cheap variety, which beyond adding some color was ineffective and perhaps even counterproductive when it came to taste. The more, the less merry, in this case.

In high school, I was involved with a service organization that documented the experiences of World War II veterans in short, five-minute videos. The videos were a mix of photos pieced together using video transitions, along with short video clips. I still remember the moment I discovered how to successfully incorporate video transitions in Adobe Premiere. And the options were endless. From cross-dissolve to page-peel to zooms and fades, I was that kid in a candy shop. I used almost every single one of those transitions in my first video. What I found surprising back then, however, was that our organization leader was less than moved when it came time to view my masterpiece. “There are way too many distracting transitions in here. I can’t focus on the storyline,” he stated stoically. It was a large pill for me to swallow, especially given my general insecurities when it came to anything involving a computer. Looking back, I admit that if a video could have been diagnosed with schizophrenia, this one would have made the cut.

It took several videos before I finally understood the art behind creating these documentaries: Every decision was in an effort to establish a specific sentiment by direct attention to the narration and imagery. As an amateur, I had wanted to show off every tool I had discovered all at once. Every transition. To show everything I had learned with all my cards on the table.

In our world today, for the most part, answers can be instantly or at least rapidly discovered, leading us to feel a burdening pressure to know and show it all. We think that by addressing everything, we can guarantee perfection. Create an indestructible thesis. If you ask me, though, half of the beauty lies in that which is not presented outright. That which allows for wondering, for imagination, for further discovery. Elimination is your way of establishing knowledge — it demonstrates the sophistication of summary. It encourages focus.

Force yourself to turn down the noise in the different aspects of your life. From your social life to your activities to your work. To focus and help others focus. Make yourself known for few things, but doing those few things well. This is the only way we as individuals, and as society, will ever achieve anything of worth, to harvest the sweetest fruit, if you will. Because let’s face it. There’s enough honeydew melon in this world already, and we certainly don’t need anymore.

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coffee, linguistics, peace, Pearl Harbor, Starbucks, travel, unity, WWII

Lokahi

Freshman year of college, I took a course called Introduction to Language Change. Maybe because the class met immediately after lunch or maybe because our classroom was perfectly positioned to bring in the midday sun, I would often find it extremely difficult to stay focused (as in, awake). My narcoleptic tendencies, however, were no match for my professor’s overflowing passion. Forever ingrained in my memory is one basic fact (and arguably the most important): language changes over time, and in a systematic way. This means that not just one language, but a family of languages and even languages from different families have changed in similar ways, following the same rules, over the course of history. I find this to be pretty mind-blowing, especially given that these languages were native to completely different peoples, cultures, countries. They didn’t have Twitter and Facebook back then to tell each other what’s what.

I’ve been on many family vacations over the years. We’ve done Kenya, Cancun, Barcelona, Singapore, Vancouver, the list goes on.

Africa was about ten years ago. I distinctly remember one afternoon in South Africa, around lunch time, when we were deciding what to eat. I was much younger then, and more stubborn about my gustatory preferences. I want a Subway sandwich. That’s the only thing I’ll eat. (Yeah, yeah, I know. There are starving kids in Africa who will eat anything and here I was being a whiny brat. But also, if you asked me at that moment, I could have said that I was a starving kid in Africa.) Surprisingly or maybe not surprisingly, we were able to find a Subway establishment and all was well in the (my) world.

This week, my family is traveling in Hawaii.

On our first afternoon in Oahu, I not so surprisingly was in desperate need of coffee. I asked a local-looking passerby to direct me to a nice coffee shop. She looked up at me, confused by my confusion (#meta). What do you mean? There is a Starbucks right there. I told her I didn’t want Starbucks. In hindsight, this was rather patronizing of me. I commented to my dad, “I refuse to come here and drink Starbucks. I want Hawaiian coffee. Shouldn’t that be pretty easy to find?” (Kona…?)

That afternoon, we watched music and dance performances native to different Polynesian islands. I appreciated differences among them, but also repeatedly remarked how all of them were so similar to Indian, African, and Latin dance and music (I’m only really an expert in the first, more an enthusiast of the other two). These ancient art forms originated in completely different political and geographical climates, but with an uncanny resemblance.

On Wednesday, we headed over to the USS Arizona Memorial. In reading through the little history boards at the museum (we don’t get conned into those touristy audio tours, thank you), I noted the text to have a slight US-centric, anti-Japan point of view. Makes sense, but given the relationship of the two countries today, I couldn’t help but feel a bit uncomfortable. And also wonder how the multitudes of other, foreign tourists were taking this in. I guess my sentiment was a common one. Before we boarded our shuttle bus to the memorial, a park ranger did a brief introduction. She reminded us that while this site honored those who had served and were lost at Pearl Harbor, World War II, as the name suggests, involved many many people from many different countries. Whether at war or at home, we, as people of the world, were going through similar war-time experiences.

I spent most of high school working with American WWII veterans, never really considering the war from a non-American lens. The park ranger’s introduction was a point of realization for me.

This summer, one of my best friends was in town for an all-too short two months. After meeting in preschool and essentially growing up together, we parted after high school to attend different colleges, then make different post-graduate career choices in different geographies. We haven’t spent huge amounts of time together over the last six years (arguably our “formative years”), but we’ve certainly grown and changed in similar ways. The exact experiences a bit different, but with comparable end results. I don’t say this often, but to me, this is simply beautiful.

It was with her that I traveled through Europe after college. In France, we happened upon several Indien-Mexicain restaurants. A native Indian or Mexican would probably find this to be extremely insulting perhaps even blaming the French for being culturally ignorant or unwelcoming of anything non-French. But if you step back, the cuisines are actually quite similar. Rice, lentils/beans, roti/tortillas, vegetables, meat.

While there is something to be said for appreciating and accepting differences across countries, cultures, religions, what have you, true unity (basically “world peace” but I was trying to be less cliche) comes from recognizing how similar we all are. Not imposing (read: Subway-addict in Africa) or dismissing (read: Starbucks-hater in Hawaii), but recognizing and embracing. From language to entertainment to food to cherishing a $4 cup of coffee-to-go, we’re traveling the space-time continuum as one.

And we should never need a World War to convince us.

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addictions, coffee, habit, psychology

Coffee and smoking are the last great addictions

Especially because I grew up in the Bay Area where vegan and vegetarianism is a serious form of activism, I often receive a lot of unmerited praise regarding my dietary “choice.” The reason I say unmerited is because it’s actually a dietary restriction. I was born vegetarian and have never voluntarily eaten meat. This means I don’t see it as something I’ve given up, but something I’m missing — and I don’t know what I’m missing. Giving up something that you love, on the other hand, takes true conviction and commitment to the cause, and deserves high praise.

Two weeks ago in a talk on self-control, Dan Ariely commented, “We have an infinite capacity to care about our own egos.” No matter which way we spin it, in the end, everyone is working towards whatever makes him or her happiest. In my opinion, there is absolutely nothing inherently wrong with this notion. The problem arises when people’s undying love for themselves becomes a detriment to their social contribution, for example, the ability to empathize with others.

A couple weeks ago while getting lunch with some friends at work, the group suddenly started attacking one particular member of the group who happens to smoke. Citing the usual health hazards and enjoying the fuzzy “I’m a good friend because I’m saving you” mentality, the conversation became an ambush. One thing led to another, and my competitive nature drove me to make a statement that, for three days, I deeply regretted. I bet I could give up caffeine for longer than you could give up cigarettes I said with what in hindsight, was haughty overconfidence. In my mind, I only drank coffee for the rich flavor, not for any energy-inducing benefits, let alone an addiction. My friend, equally competitive, took the challenge in a heartbeat (via pinky swear, obviously).

My first day off caffeine was a nightmare. I was constantly complaining, my body was fatigued, my brain was slow. Running on the treadmill that evening felt like wading through molasses. At one point, I was lying on the floor of the gym, immobile. When I talked to my friend that evening, he told me how “giving up” smoking had already made him more productive. He squashed cravings by keeping his mind incredibly focused on his work. He took less breaks. He was actually trying; I was passing off my lack of willpower in the guise of some charity case that wasn’t for me, but to help a friend.

The second day was miserable for both of us. He caught me yawning at dinner. I caught him standing outside at a party, breathing in the second-hand smoke from his friends. We were irritable and not ourselves. I felt like some alternate version of myself that should never again be socialized.

When I woke up on the third day, I ended the bet. As much as I care about my friend, I realized I was not doing this “for him.” And I was proving to myself just how weak I am when it comes to this substance my body has grown to crave. I give up. I don’t need to give up caffeine. I don’t want to give up caffeine. My caffeine intake is not harming anyone. And coffee has so many health benefits anyway.

Illusory superiority is a cognitive bias that causes people to overestimate their own positive qualities and underestimate the negative in relation to others. Somewhat related to an inability to empathize, illusory superiority prevents us from accepting the truths of our own shortcomings but allows us to magnify them in others. It was so easy for us to sit around the table blaming our friend for his “bad habit” without even thinking for a second about our own laundry lists. We, humans in general, are just so quick to judge. My music teacher once told me that every time you point a finger at someone, three fingers are pointing back at you. Go ahead and do the gesture right now; you’ll see what I mean.

The coffee abandonment experience was a pretty frightening personal realization. My “love” for coffee is quite frankly an addiction, just like addiction society associates with cigarettes and other drugs. My body has grown to depend on two cups a day. It’s up to me to decide if and what I would want to do about that, but in the end, it’s inappropriate for me to deny. I also recognized just how difficult it is to wake up one morning and decide to stop or start some behavior. In the end, no matter how adventurous, we are all creatures of habit, and arbitrarily cutting ourselves off may sometimes be less effective than slowly but surely working towards the goal. Kind of like how you can’t just run a marathon on a whim. You need to train.

My friend is now back to smoking, and I back to consuming significant amounts of coffee. But we’re both more understanding of the power and control these habits have over us, as well as the habits of others on them. And maybe that’s enough to instigate some future improvement. Until then, I’ll continue to improve my latte art.

NB. My friend and I were hard-pressed to find a meaningful consequence for the loser and we didn’t end up deciding on anything. I’ll use this post as the consequence. I lost. He won. There, I said it publicly.

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change, coffee, friendship, social connection

Coffee Black and Egg White

Earlier this year, I walked into one of many Philadelphia Starbucks locations and made a beeline to the first open table that caught my eye. Like a robot, I sat down, took out my laptop, and began typing away furiously. Noise-canceling headphones firmly planted in my ears and thick glasses compromising my peripheral vision served as protection from any and all distractions. It was one of those days when it felt like the entire cosmos was against me. No, literally. In addition to the job interview, performance, and psychology experiment on my plate was an impending snow storm. One of those days when screaming I want my mommy!! (the be-all end-all, obviously) at any random passerby seemed acceptable and normal. The only thing keeping me going was my own bribe. I had told myself I could order my drink after completing three tasks on my list. Yes, it was one of those days.

Just ten minutes had passed when my violent productivity was interrupted by a large mug filled with my “regular” being thrust at me. I looked up to see the shift manager. It’s one of those days, isn’t it? He asked in his characteristically jovial tone.

I have a couple friends who will agree that the feeling of warmth that comes with being a “regular” at this particular Starbucks location is unparalleled — receiving a welcoming smile or nod from other regulars as I enter, having my drink ready for consumption before I reach the front of the line — sometimes it is touching to know that a complete stranger cares. Returning after a brief hiatus, I was welcomed by one of the staff members who joked Where have you been? Don’t say Dunkin Donuts. That’s like telling a boyfriend you were cheating on him with his brother. It surprised me, but also comforted me, that my absence had been noted at an establishment that received over a hundred customers a day (this is called awesome customer service).

I am a coffee addict.

There is nothing like starting your day with the culmination of malty sweet East African blend with a medley of dark berry notes. The problem arises when you have a 10 PM craving and have no reason to stay up all night because you’re no longer in college.

I don’t know how I compare to this guy, but the only thing rivaling my love for coffee is my love for coffee shops. For some inexplicable reason, coffee shops make me feel like a productive and intellectual individual. A real person. Thus, they make for an obvious study (and blogging!) location.

In psychology, the familiarity effect describes the way in which we perceive commonalities between ourselves and those with whom we have frequent contact — seeing the same person (a stranger) every time you go to a coffee shop, for example. Coffee shops build a sort of secondary community. You look forward to seeing the people you usually see, you feel like you must have had similar experiences, you wonder about their well being when they are absent.

A new revolution, however, is putting the coffee shop as we know it in jeopardy. Some establishments in New York have banned computers and computer-like devices (yes, this means iPads) altogether. Owners argue that their coffee shops are not your “office away from home.” Worse, up and coming coffee places are going Euro: this means espresso shots. Coffee bars will provide bar seating and high tables. The perfect location for a quick refuel and nothing more.

Having recently traveled to Europe, I can vouch for the espresso shots, but not so much the chug-and-go mentality. On many an afternoon, my travel companion and I enjoyed one another’s company while sipping coffee on an outdoor cafe patio. We people-watched. We had deep and meaningful conversations. We enjoyed lighthearted banter. And we weren’t alone. At a cafe in Nice, just moments after sitting down at the table adjacent to ours, two friends spontaneously began conversing with us. One was originally from Colombia but had come to France to study. The other was French with an Italian influence. We shared stories, both parties recognizing that we would never see one another again.

Kaffeeklatsch is not only one of my favorite words in the English language, but also one of my favorite activities. I have lost count of the number of memorable conversations I have had over coffee, the number of acquaintances or friends of friends who, over coffee, have solidified into friendships. That breeding grounds for kaffeeklatsch may soon be a thing of the past is unimaginable.

During my freshman year of college, I frequented a Starbucks located on the outskirts of campus. It was perfect for my one and a half hour break between classes. Incidentally, so did another freshman and fellow member of my dance team. The pleasantly surprising run-ins soon became coordinated visits and in some capacity, lasted throughout our college years. Put simply, what turned into one of my closest friendships of college began with coincidental meetings at a coffee shop.

While I sit at a homey Peet’s Coffee near my home amidst those who are quite possibly changing the world, I can only hope that these new attempts to streamline business do not inadvertently sideline social connection.

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