Why the allusive algorithm recommends anything is beyond me. But on a warm April afternoon, I sat on my sofa, finally watching a video on YouTube that had been recommended for (what felt like) weeks.
Despite my usual viewing habits consisting mainly of Mariah Carey compilations, coffee influencer – yes, that’s a thing – James Hoffmann managed to somehow slip through the net and onto my screen.
Self-proclaimed ‘weird coffee person’ James slurps his way through 37 – on my count – brands of instant coffee. Besides the overwhelming anxiety that viewing that much caffeine on screen brought on, it was his introduction to the ethics and, more importantly, the quality of instant coffee that got me thinking.
Right from the off, Hoffmann points out the obvious issues involved in mass-producing huge quantities of instant coffee for prices so low that it brings the average cost of a cup down to pennies. But before going into obvious socio-economic factors that remove ethical consideration for many consumers, I’ve spent the last week trying to work out why on earth I am such a fiend for a cup of Nescafe despite everything that’s wrong with it.
As a teenager, I remember my first cup of coffee. A drizzly day, the Liverpool One Costa our destination. My best friend leading the way, buzzing with excitement that she was about to blow my mind. Her newest craze, the vanilla latte.
I remember that first milky sip like it was yesterday. Before oat milk was all we talked about, and certainly before veganism was even a glimmer on my horizon. Before worrying about sugar intake and if I was going to end up like my diabetic grandmother. It was before I’d ever had a cup of Nescafe.
Walking around the shops with a coffee in hand was the pinnacle of chic. Our taste levels were not yet distinguished enough to know if what we were drinking was good coffee. But it didn’t matter. It was all about the vanilla syrup.
A far cry from the precision with which my Dad would craft espresso and steam milk for cappuccinos after a long day at work, it was my Mother and Grandmother who I’d always considered the real coffee drinkers when I was growing up. Neither was ever far from a mug, and the sound of the kettle boiling was a near-constant. Looking back, it’s hard to imagine how either of them ever slept.
So, when the fated day came, and I glugged down my first mug of instant as a pick-me-up, everything changed. Not just the convenience, but the comfort. The way Nescafe Original smells with a splash of milk (though, it is Oatly now), reminded me of my grandmother sat fiddling with the phone cord while she gleefully received gossip from a family member in Bangor.
Even the things we all rightfully hate, coffee breath and stained mugs, began to remind me of sitting beside her on the sofa and leaning into her scratchy mohair cardigan while we watched game shows. Somehow never missing a second of what went on, despite always having a book of crosswords on the go.
The more I thought about why things that are supposedly so obviously ‘bad’ tasted so great, or more specifically, evoked so much pleasure in their consumption, the more I started to think about Zoe Bee’s analysis of ‘White Trash Food’. Coming from the Appalachian Mountains, Bee’s video essay explores how the food of her childhood, though not highly nutritious, never even concerned itself with quality. Instead, with sustenance and innovation.
The processed food in airtight packaging meant families on a low income could survive and rural, disconnected communities could store enough to get through the unpredictable weather conditions. And all of this is without even considering the still pervasive presence of food deserts in areas with low socio-economic growth.
It seems to me inescapable that instant coffee, much like baked beans and freeze-dried meats, both came into existence to fulfil the same need. Not just for convenience – something that itself can often mean the difference between hunger or getting enough food in for low-income families – but to extend the pleasures only previously afforded to those with the adequate resources to access them.
These ‘bad’ versions of foods and drinks might have been politically neutral in their conception, though there is certainly an argument to be made that they never were. But the cultural baggage they have taken on has been massive. Either through the building of ritual around their consumption among the social classes that embraced them. Or perhaps those who grew up and left home longing to connect to and experience the memories of safety and comfort.
So, for me, coffee is always better bittersweet. Because sometimes, the pleasure and comfort from the nostalgia of a cup of Nescafe are more than enough for me to find an anchor and self-soothe, the further I move away from the safety of my grandmother’s sofa.