It's Straining, It's Pouring
It has been famously asserted that the Eskimos have in their languages fifty distinct words for various types of snow, from the wet kind that’s good for icing a sleigh’s runners to the powdery kind that resembles salt. While this claim has been the subject of ongoing debate among linguists (you know how they can get), its accuracy or inaccuracy isn’t something I’ve lost any sleep over. It’s none of my business, really. Still, I will say, that’s a lot of words for snow. I imagine there’s not much more to do out there in the Alaskan tundra but sit around thinking up words for different types of partially frozen water. As for me, I’m content with just the one, as long as it’s not misspelled.
What I’m much more concerned about is the questionably long list of words for different types of coffee drinks as this touches my life directly. Not a day goes by that I don’t gulp the stuff down like (non-frozen) water. And yet I find I’m still encountering new, ever-more-nuanced descriptions for the process of putting hot water on ground beans and drinking the resultant beverage. Indeed, at this point, it’s gone way beyond all sense.
Throughout much of the U.S., prior to the great coffee renaissance of the 90s, there was just coffee. You could get it black or with milk and/or sugar. Sure, there were other options, like sugar substitutes and nondairy creamer, but for the most part coffee was coffee, unless you visited an establishment that served Turkish food, in which case you could score some Turkish coffee, or Italian food, in which case the options increased to two: espresso and cappuccino.
By now, of course, most of America has increased its coffee vocabulary to include not only espresso and cappuccino but also caffe latte (which is exactly like cappuccino but with more milk and less foam), caffe Americano (which is exactly like espresso but watered down), and macchiato (which is also exactly like espresso but “marked” with a dollop of milk foam). There’s mocha, which is espresso with chocolate, affogato, which is espresso with vanilla ice cream (and sounds like something you might utter if you were to spill it in your lap), and espresso con panna, which adds whipped cream. Add no more than the merest twist of lemon peel and it gets yet another name, café Romano.
Even if you’re looking to stick to pure espresso with nothing added, there are distinct names to indicate how much of the stuff is involved. Doppio is twice as much, lungo is slightly less than that, and ristretto is a teeny tiny bit. Considering the petite size of a normal espresso, a ristretto seems hardly worth drinking, let alone naming.
It goes on. Breve is cappuccino made with half and half instead of milk. Cortado is espresso with steamed milk and no foam. And as for the “flat white,” it seems to fall somewhere between a cappuccino and a latte; honestly, the distinction is so microscopic as to strain one’s mental functions. I found a whole discussion on the subject and I’m still lost. Have at it.
And my friends, it breaks my heart to tell you, this isn’t the whole list.
Now look. The Curmudgeon loves accuracy. The Curmudgeon relishes nuance. I also love coffee. But perhaps all this nuanced coffee accuracy has gone a bit too far. The last time I ordered a cappuccino, I was asked whether I wanted it “wet” or “dry.”
That question still keeps me up at night.