“Just coffee” or The Tyranny of Choice
Patricia Ryan Madson written in 2002
Who hasn’t longed for “simpler times,” or wished for an added two hours of personal time each day? No one these days complains of time on their hands or a dearth of choice when it comes to food, but I don’t believe we have considered the costly connection. As a child of the 50’s in America I grew up with choice as my birthright. The cost of this privilege wasn’t on my mind, however. Sundays following our hour and a half at the Christian Science Church my family sometimes stopped at our local Howard Johnson’s for a double dip of their “Twenty-one Flavors.” I believe Howard Johnston’s rainbow of flavors predates the Baskin Robbins craze. The sight of the peach and turquoise logo at Howard Johnson’s inevitably brought up a mixture of delight and panic in me.
By age ten I had already learned the deep angst of standing in front of the ice cream counter, facing the employee in a starched uniform and crisp cap, trying to decide which flavor to choose. It seemed possible to me at the time (and it still does) to make a wrong choice. Shall I go with my known favorite, coffee ice cream, or should I venture into wild territory, throwing my whole cone into the butter brickle or peppermint chocolate chip camp? No matter how delicious the cone I was eating I always carried the thought that I might have chosen something even better, if only I had known what. The village of Ubud on Bali didn’t have an ice cream parlor, but it did have Murni’s restaurant, hangout for ex-patriots, hip tourists, and fast-talking guides always eager to sell you something. Everyone went to Murni’s for a decent cheeseburger as well as the skinny on what was happening culturally and socially on the island. Either Murni or her Australian husband could tell you where the Katak dances were being held late at night or if the Shadow Puppet Show was going to take place. You could also find out when the next Teeth Filing Ceremony or funeral celebration was going to be held. These were events not to be missed.
As a newcomer to Ubud I needed to know where to find provisions. For the three months I was to be living there studying Balinese dancing I had rented a two story, thatched hut set beside a terraced rice field, just over the bridge from Murni’s restaurant. While I had no kitchen in my little hut, each day began when Pak Adur’s daughters’ set a large enamel hot-pot thermos filled with boiling water on my patio. My morning routine began by making coffee using the steaming water. While I’d brought a small jar of instant coffee with me, soon it became evident that I’d need to learn where to go to buy coffee in the village. Murni suggested that the local market would have what I wanted.
The local market was a pretty simple affair. There were fewer than a dozen vendors, each sitting on the ground with a pile of something for sale. It didn’t take long to find the vendor selling coffee. The plump,middle aged Balinese women wearing a batik sarong and rubber flip-flop sandals smiled at me as I approached her stall. “Coffee . . .?” she inquired. “How much . . .?” was her only question. As I looked down at her stock I noticed that she had only one thing: ground coffee, a three foot diameter pile of coffee. Just coffee. The only thing I needed to decide was how much I wanted. Shall I buy 10 grams or 100 grams or a kilo? Just coffee. Not even two kinds: there was just coffee. I bought a half kilo and she measured it into a thin paper sack. I happily carried it home wrapped in a cotton bandana. With the hot water from my morning thermos it made a wonderful drink, just coffee. Delicious.
My year of meandering and living in third world environs, India, Nepal, Thailand, and Indonesia came to a close in June of 1983. My transition back into Western culture included two weeks in Honolulu just before I came home. Still living on the cheap I found a summer dormitory room at the U. of Hawaii. Here, too, I needed to find provisions. The dorm had a small kitchen, and I set out to find some coffee to brew at home to avoid the inflated cost at restaurants. I was directed to the suburban shopping center nearby and it’s modern grocery emporium. It’s not clear in my memory if it was a Safeway, but it was a large store.
However, I will always remember standing in the aisle designated “Coffee.” I looked left and right, behind me and in front of me. Everywhere there was coffee. There was ground coffee, instant coffee, packaged coffee with flavoring. There was decaf coffee and regular coffee. There was French Roast, Columbian, Viennese, Hazelnut, Vanilla, Chocolate flavored, Kenyan, Macadamia Nut, Hawaiian grown, South American grown, Mexican grown. There were pound bags and five pound cans and eight ounce jars of instant Espresso. Each type or brand came in many sizes. And every type of coffee was offered by multiple manufacturers: Folgers, Maxwell House, Sanborn’s, et al. There were fancy packages of processed mixes with names like “Mocha Latte Café Delight,” “Café Fusion Vanilla” and “Americano Latte.” The choices seemed unrelenting.
The memory of standing with my nose pressed against the ice cream parlor glass display case came back to me. So many choices. Standing in this Hawaiian supermarket I was gripped with the sense that this time I would make the wrong choice. Nothing could taste as good as my morning cup of Joe on Bali. How easy it had been there. Coffee. Just coffee. “How much?” the only choice.
Our American obsession with variety and choice may be robbing us not only of our time, but of our sanity. When I consider the time I spend reading a menu in most restaurants while worrying that I’ll not choose well. His lamb chops really did look better when they arrived than did my glazed salmon. Compound this issue every time we stock the larder. Choosing daily items at a large grocery store expands this problem geometrically. Besides coffee—milk, bread, cereal, cooking oil, sugar, pasta, yogurt, canned soup, salad dressing, pickles, fabric softener, bathroom tissue, shampoo—even aspirin—each have a staggering array of varieties. My head hurts thinking about it. Do we really need 127 types of breakfast cereal? And have you stood trying to choose a paint color lately?
I believe our “great economy” has gone mad over variety. The only possible reason for the coffee aisle’s cornucopia is the all American dollar. We’d all do just fine with fewer choices. It takes a lot of discipline to walk past all the impulse items, the newest—latest innovative new brands, the “special two for one sales” and head directly toward your pound of simple coffee. Is there a solution? Yes, but it will rock our capitalist world. Don’t buy all the new brands and the new flavors and all the new products that are dangled in our faces morning till night. Make your shopping list and stick to it. Then you’ll see just how much free time you can have to really enjoy a cup of coffee and savor the taste. Just coffee. Mmmmmmmm, delicious.