Thursday, August 16, 2007

Better mud everywhere

The Starbucks package on Slate this morning takes me back to the halcyon days of my 2007 summer vacation -- i.e., to last week and the week before, when Ereck and I drove to Townsend, Tenn. for outdoorsy fun plus the odd Weird Al Yankovic concert.

Time was a trip anywhere except France or Italy meant drinking terrible coffee; I drank a lot of Nescafe in Bangkok. Understand, my java tastes are not sophisticated. Since high school I have drunk boring drip coffee, black. (Slate informs me that this means I am Lame, which I knew.) I like it very, very strong, though, but until recently what passed for coffee in many parts of this country, and especially in my native Dixie, was little more than brown water. That stuff doesn't work for me -- if I don't get a big whallop of caffeine early each morning, something like the D.T.'s sets in.

That's why, when I travel, I often bring a product that the South got right: Durham, N.C.'s own BC, a powdered pain reliever that's one part aspirin and one big part caffeine. If, some morning, a strong cup o' joe appears not to be forthcoming, I down a BC. Better that than brown water.

But my recent trip cheered me, because I learned that, as never before, the blasted wasteland that is rural interchanges on the Interstate highway system has a new fixture: Starbucks, which has quietly been opening standalone outlets on those sites alongside the Cracker Barrels and McDonald'ses. Which means that in more and more towns, there is reliably okay coffee.

Now I recognize there are all sorts of reasons to object to Starbucks, reasons having to do with globalization and corporatization and sprawl and the cost of milk. But the chain also is teaching a nation accustomed to culinary mediocrity that there's more to coffee than brown water. I applaud that.

Of course, we didn't need Starbucks by the time we got settled in Townsend, because we brought our espresso machine and everything else we needed. Which was just as well, because the nearest Starbucks was -- panic! -- 15 miles away in dreadful Pigeon Forge. But certainly we were grateful for the chain as we were coming and going.

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