Crafts of the Hand

Several months ago, my wife and I went to dinner at one of our favorite Mexican restaurants – a place we frequent every few weeks.  As we pondered margarita options, we asked the waiter for an order of table-side guacamole, a delicious specialty and a great way to kick off the meal.  Much to our disappointment, our waiter informed us we could no longer get guac table-side; rather, it would come already prepared and straight from the kitchen.  Sigh.  Add another item to the demise of handmade food and beverages.  Rekindle the pour-over argument.

What’s the “pour-over argument”?  It’s perhaps the most contemporary example of the struggle between handicraft and automation.  At your local coffee bar, most drinks are poured-over, meaning individually-prepared using a single paper filter, adding the coffee grounds and finishing with a slow pour of the water.  If your coffee arrives with foam-art, consider it a pour-over.  The argument asks whether it’s worth the wait for an individually-prepared coffee, when a large-batch machine can produce the same result in a fraction of the time.  One estimate claims large-batch can produce 100 coffees in an hour, while a barista creates less than ten.

I’m not here to defend the pour-over, but simply to discuss it.  In fact, my first thought when I heard “pour-over” is what you see in the photo above.  Admittedly, I love the speed and consistency of Keurig’s K-Cup’s, and I’m an unashamed frequent-flier at Starbucks.  But that’s not to say there’s not a chair at the table of life for pour-over’s.  Even if the quality of handmade can’t be distinguished from large-batch (taste test, anyone?), what about the calm of watching “drink-art” creation, and the opportunity to socialize with the barista?  Perhaps it’s the fringe-benefits making pour-over’s the healthier option.

Table-side guac is just one example of “pour-over’s” threatened by today’s demand for speed and efficiency.  If I ask you to think of a product previously handmade but now produced by automation, I’m sure you can name several.  Milkshakes. Beer. Even pizza, which can now be prepared start-to-finish by a robotic chef.  But the flip-side of robots is advertisement focused on food-prep the old-fashioned way.  “Handmade” milkshakes.  “Craft” beers.  “Fresh-squeezed” lemonade.  And pour-over coffee.

Business’s bottom line loves the idea of automation.  Labor is typically your most expensive line-item, so who would argue with removing it?  Well, maybe those willing to pay for the experience.  At your finer restaurants, you can still find table-side salads (Caesar), entrees (Chateaubriand or Steak Tartare), and flaming desserts (Baked Alaska, Bananas Foster, Cherries Jubilee).  At Sunday brunches you can still enjoy made-to-order omelettes and waffles.  With those examples, I’d argue you’re not just paying for the food.  You’re also paying for a slow-down moment: a chance to enjoy a chef-artisan do his/her thing while engaging in a little conversation. As a recent Wall Street Journal article puts it, “[pour-over]… is more about delivering peace in a fast-paced time”.

Here’s my plea.  The next time you’re having something prepared in front of you – whether a simple burrito at Chipotle or an elegant Steak Diane adjacent to your white-clothed table, put away the phone, take a deep breath, and just enjoy the moment.  Have a chat with whomever is preparing your meal.  It’s an experience worth poring over.

Author: Dave

Three hundred posts would suggest I have something to say… This blog was born from a desire to elevate the English language, highlighting eloquent words from days gone by. The stories I share are snippets of life itself, and each comes with a bonus: a dusted-off word I hope you’ll go on to use more often. Read “Deutschland-ish Improvements” to learn about my backyard European wish list. Try “Slush Fun” for the throwback years of the 7-Eleven convenience store. Or drink in "Iced Coffee" to discover the plight of the rural French cafe. On the lighter side, read "Late Night Racquet Sports" for my adventures with our latest moth invasion. As Walt Whitman said, “That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.” Here then, my verse. Welcome to "Life In A Word".

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