Sunday 20 January 2019

In which I see why the Yanks are full of beans

'you ready for a refill?' Before I even had time to answer, the server in the Chicago pancake house was replenishing my mug with my sixth coffee of the day.

The fact that I was dining alone and tapping ardently on my iPad obviously gave him the impression that I needed to drink my way through the entire pot - which I did.

It was like a bizarre drinking game: the more he poured the more I drank the more he smiled the more I tipped.

And besides, I needed every drop of it. As an 8+ cup a day drinker, I no longer get an energy spike when I drink coffee. Instead, it just relieves the withdrawal symptoms and gets everything back to normal... whatever that is.

They'd be concerned for your health if you drank an entire pot of coffee in a restaurant in Ireland. At the very least management would be worried that you'd have a heart attack on their premises. In the USA it's a cultural norm. They'd be more concerned about the patron who passes on it.

And I rather enjoyed the experience. There was a sense of empathy, almost a communion of ritual inebriation, during this breakfast ceremony. Like a kind soul passing you a bottle of whiskey at a house party that has devolved into a 7am session. 'Get that into you... we're all in this together.'

I came to Chicago for the wedding of a dear friend. Unfortunately jet lag, late nights and general fatigue intruded on my plans. Come the main course I was struggling to keep my eyes open.


But God bless America, the waiter at the wedding reception was soon on hand with the coffee pot. Red or white? No, just cup after cup of coffee, served diligently and discreetly.

Like the waiter in the diner, he understood the fatigue. This after all is a country where you have to work to live and imbibe to survive. Coffee lubricates the wheels of industry and keeps them going long after their minds, bodies and souls have shut down. They call it productivity.

American culture fascinates me. If I had the choice of conducting an anthropological study in the US or a remote tribe in Papua New Guinea where they are closer to monkey than man, I'd choose the former every time.

There is so much more to learn in a country where they are closer to machine than man.

I can't get enough of the Yanks. The teeth that look like polished tombstones and the smiles that suggest they've just won $1m on a TV game show. The pharmacopeias on offer at the drug stores. The gargantuan portion sizes in the restaurants. The self analysis and self mythologising. The constant state of high alert - guns, germs, terrorists - fears no doubt compounded by the megadoses of caffeine.

I think the greatest fear of the US citizen, however, is that they'll run out of energy. Remember that one fourth of American workers have no paid annual leave. Half of their time off for the entire year is over Christmas. There are no laws on the maximum length of the work week. The average productivity has increased by 400 per cent since 1950. And they retire later - my heart breaks every time I go to Walgreen's and a feeble, mottled, arthritic hand comes forth to help me pack my bags.

"You must be so exhausted," I've found myself saying to every Yank I've met on this trip. "How do you do it?"

"A lot of coffee," is the answer every time.


Wine buffs have a lexicon of flowery words like appellation and sommelier - and even fancier apparatus like spittoons and carafes - but when you peel away the veneer, the fundamental objective is to get a little loose. Likewise, coffee culture, with its cremas and ristrettos and macchiatos, is fundamentally all about caffeine and the energy it provides.

I wonder if there'll come a point when we don't even have the time to queue for coffee, a time when we'll want it administered in a more effective way - an implantable caffeine microchip perhaps. I hasten to add that Wrigley last year halted production on a new caffeinated gum.

Although it's much more likely that nootropics or 'smart drugs' will take over. Chris Miller, the president of KOIOS, makers of a brand of these cognitive enhancers, recently said: "Americans' obsession over caffeine and increased energy may be tied directly to the American dream.

"We live by schedules and to-do lists and we are constantly pushing ourselves to achieve higher levels of output, so we can achieve the American dream."

But can you dream when you're dosed up on caffeine... how can you even get to sleep?

When you hear people bemoan the proliferation of a certain US coffee chain in Ireland, remember that they are appalled not just by the taste but the cultural shift that it represents.

But for now, writing from Chicago, I'm brewing another coffee to enable the writing of this column. And I'm drinking it out of a mug that I discovered at the back of a cupboard in the house we rented: It reads: "We will not waver; We will not tire; We will not falter; And we will not fail." George W Bush, 2001.

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