Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Coffee, Regular

Just about a year ago I had a cup of coffee at the counter in a candy and newspaper store under the D-train tracks on New Utrecht Avenue. I just love that there are still some candy store lunch counters in Brooklyn, and I love yet more what happened, even if I did not especially like the coffee. Here’s how it went. I sat down and asked for coffee, and the fella there said “regular?” and I said yes, thinking regular meant not decaffeinated. So then he brings me a cup of coffee with milk and sugar in. I had forgotten that in Brooklyn, and as far as I know, nowhere else, “regular” means coffee with milk and sugar in. I was so delighted to be experiencing this miraculous bit of New York dialect in real life that I did not even really mind drinking coffee with sugar, something I normally cannot endure.

I remembered this occasion yesterday when my venerable father and I had coffee at Le Pain Quotidien (in some ways the opposite end of the coffee spectrum from a Boro Park candy store). The coffee was so delicious I thought I would take home a package of beans, and asked the waiter what they had. He explained they had espresso and the house blend.

Waiter: But the regular coffee is made with the espresso beans.

Chocolate Lady: How about the caffè latte?

Waiter: That’s also made with the espresso beans.

Chocolate Lady: What’s made with the house blend?

Waiter: Nothing.

Chocolate Lady: Nothing?

Waiter: Nothing.

Chocolate Lady: So the house blend . . .

Waiter: . . . is really not aptly named.

What is most interesting to me the flexibility in where markedness might lie with respect to coffee. Regular coffee can be coffee that is not decaffeinated, or coffee that is not espresso, or coffee that is not missing the milk and sugar. This is how you can know what kind of coffee a particular group finds normal. Recall that in Unmarked: the Politics of Performance (London and New York: Routledge, 1993), Peggy Phelan writes (but not about coffee) that while the norm is unremarkable, the other is marked (5).

So I guess if you sell coffee, you have to offer some non-espresso coffee, even if you don’t prepare it, and I guess you have to call it something. Lindy recalls a figure from American letters who calls this kind of coffee “regulare.” In the Chocolate family we call it caffè locale, you know, because it is not espresso.


Anonymous Ted said...

When one asks for coffee 'regular' on Staten Island -- or -- as far as I know -- anywhere in NYC - one means coffee with milk and (one) sugar. Another option is to say "light and sweet" -- which means two sugars (and more milk.)

(I've recently discovered that Canadians are also familiar with the term "regular" meaning sugar and one milk. But for our "light and sweet" they say "double-double.")

I'm surprised that you think only in Brookly people ask for their coffee "regular" or "black" or "light and sweet," etc. People everywhere in NYC use the term "regular" in this way. I myself have used it in all five boroughs (actually, four boroughs -- I've spent such little time in the Bronx -- but I'm sure one encounters it there.)Just go to a street vendor and ask for a coffee and say "I take it regular." He'll know what you mean.

Ted Wisniewski

2:42 PM  
Anonymous Nomi said...

Actually, Ted, I have to disagree. I lived in Brooklyn and worked in Manhattan for a number of years, and my experience was that Manhattan regular was milk, no sugar; while Brooklyn was both. At that time I took my coffee without sugar so it was consequential. I tried a number of things in Brooklyn to get it to come without the sugar. "Hold the sugar," "just milk," "milk, no sugar": it was just so ingrained they would just interpret whatever I said to mean "whatever you do, don't leave out the sugar!" Whereas in Manhattan I could ask for regular, and sometimes they would ask, "sugar?" and I would say "no" and everyone understood everyone else.

I currently live in Vancouver, and I'm not actually sure we have a "regular" way of making coffee. You can ask for either "coffee" (meaning with caffeine) or "decaf," and then specify what you want in it. The Canadians you met may have come from the east somewhere, I suppose. Canada's a big place with plenty of room for regional variation.

Alas, I gave up coffee some time ago for health reasons, so I can't continue field work on this topic.

4:16 PM  
Blogger the chocolate lady מרת שאקאלאד said...

this is very interesting, thanks! I had never heard of the "double double"

"whatever you do, don't leave out the sugar!" heh heh. poor thing. your account seems to corroborate what has been in the press in the on the subject.

i would love to hear what is regular in other towns. So far an informal survey reveals that in Kansas City regular means black, and in Rochester, not decaf.

2:09 PM  
Blogger Winnifred said...

By me (it's a little unclear what part of Canada I'm talking about, since I've lived in so many) regular means coffee with cream and sugar, a sort of regular amount of both, not worth being particular about. If particular, leave out the regular (it's assumed) and just mention the part you're picky about -- "coffee two sugars" means coffee with milk and two sugars not one. If you want coffee with two sugars and no cream, you have to say so. If you want (or don't want) the cream to be milk, likewise, you have to say so.

1:28 PM  
Anonymous Josh Gutoff said...

In New England (well, Boston and New Haven, anyway), a "regular" coffee meant milk and sugar, too.
And speaking of cream, I remember as a kid hearing my mother, when asked if she wanted milk or cream with her coffee, ask if it was real cream or (only) half-and-half. Been a long time since I've seen real cream on a counter.

8:59 AM  

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