Over this past holiday season, I found myself in the coffee-machine sections of several retailers, in search of an espresso maker to give my mom. None of these stores had what I was looking for, instead, their shelves were well-stocked with assorted variations of Keurigs, Nespressos, and the accompanying accessories.
For those who may be unaware, a Keurig is a coffee-making device that is designed for convenience. There’s a small reservoir which users fill with water every couple of days, and coffee – which comes in pre-measured little pods (“K-cups”) – is dispensed in seconds through a small valve. Clean-up is a breeze – when you’re done, all you need to do is throw away the used plastic pod.
If the Keurig is at one end of the coffee-making-device spectrum, then the Chemex is at the other. For those who may be unaware, a Chemex is a glass vessel that is designed for making pour-over coffee. The coffee itself needs to be ground a certain way, and carefully measured (usually with a scale). The water needs to be heated separately, and brought to a specific temperature. When it’s just hot enough, it’s carefully poured in concentric circles over the coffee. The water-to-coffee ratio is important, and varies depending on the coffee itself; one coffee shop I frequent keeps their Chemexes on little digital scales, so they know exactly how much water they’ve added. The coffee slowly drips into a glass basin, and is served immediately.
The Keurig is fast and nearly mess-free. The Chemex is much more laborious, requiring several gadgets. The Keuring produces coffee that is mediocre at best. The Chemex produces coffee that is excellent and nuanced.
But the difference that I find most interesting is the interaction that one has with the coffee itself. That is, when using a Keurig, you don’t see it at all. In this process, the coffee isn’t a bean that is grown, roasted, ground, and measured – it’s just a little plastic pod. To contrast, I’ve noticed that many coffee shops that offer hand-poured coffee will tell you where the coffee beans have come from. Some even (I kid you not) display a picture of the farm where they were grown or the farmer who tended to them.
Of course, these differences all come down to Gnosticism (because when you have a Philosophy degree from an orthodox Christian institution, everything does). For those who are unaware, Gnosticism is the belief that the material world is inherently depraved and should be overcome. The Christian narrative, which starts with God creating/loving the material world and culminates with him becoming embodied and being birthed into it, is blatantly anti-Gnostic.
But even for Christians, it’s easy to slip into Gnosticism, in word, deed, or both. One way that I see us (myself very much included) doing this all the time is in our diets.
Food technology has advanced rapidly in the past century or two. Not long ago, most diets consisted of food which came from individual household or otherwise local farms. As farming and other technology developed, societies became industrialized and urbanized. Food started coming from farther and farther away. Now, it’s not uncommon for me to eat an orange from Spain or an avocado from California. And in many ways, this shift in the way we get our food is a good thing. It’s good that my body doesn’t have to rely on Pennsylvania’s climate for nutrition, and it’s really nice that I can spend my time working at a church, reading, and writing blog posts, instead of farming.
At some point, in addition to our food coming from far away, we became really fascinated with processing it. There’s a vintage advertisement hanging in my kitchen that speaks to this era: “Bakers make finer cakes with DEXTROSE food-energy sugar! Pure, white, sparkling DEXTROSE…” accompanied by a picture of a patriotic white lady and a very pink cake (“Buy it baked…it’s better!”). This ad points to a time when food technology was new, exciting, and seemingly limitless. The results of this include everything from Splenda, to Spam, to the cookie butter ice cream in my freezer. And of course, K-cups.
I highly doubt that the people who developed these processed foods were heretics in lab coats maliciously seeking to advance Gnostic ideals by way of our stomachs. This food technology simply comes from a desire for efficiency and convenience. But, the further we distance ourselves from the stuff that goes into our food – the dirt, the climate, the plants, the animals, and the people who care for these things – the easier it is to forget that these things are good, they are loved by God, and they ought to be loved by us. What disturbs me about Keurigs isn’t the terrible coffee they make, it’s that they represent the many ways that technology separates us from the natural world.
The technology that is a part of our work, our households, our lifestyles, and our diets leads us to think of ourselves as separate from the earthy material world. It leads us away from being fully present in the material world that we are called to love. It leads us to want to further “escape” the physical constraints of bodies, space, time, and climate.
What would it take for us to be fully present in this world? What would it take for us to love it as God does? As I conclude most of the stuff that I write, I have no solution here. But creating, touching, and smelling coffee grounds could be the smallest start.