The Keurig, the Chemex, and Dietary Gnosticism

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There’s no way that anyone could be that happy while drinking instant coffee.

 

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.

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105 Comments

  1. Alyssa, some fantastic thoughts here. I am ironically sitting at a coffee shop tasting the delights of Chemex as we speak. I was intrigued by the process and am glad to be fighting gnosticism – one sip at a time. 😉

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  2. This line had me at go: “Of course, these differences all come down to Gnosticism.” This so describes my Christian liberal arts small-college debates. After I cackled for five minutes I got down to reading the rest. Getting down with coffee is indeed a great start.

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  3. I started reading this for the coffee and finished reading it because I agree that we’re going in the wrong direction with food and drink. My dad actually has started roasting coffee beans himself (I bought him a roaster for Christmas) and he’s brought coffee beans over for me to try and we’ve ground them and made the coffee all while chatting. I think we need to spend more time making and appreciating the things we are eating and drinking. It makes life more fun. Great post! Also if you’re still interested in an Espresso machine my dad just purchased a “Rok” Espresso machine and it’s actually really cool, very interesting to use. You should look it up 🙂

    Reply

  4. Great article. In my home, we will not ever have a microwave. We one day hope to have the time and ability to grow many of our own foods. What you discuss is so important. I appreciate your non-cynical approach. Food for thought: the Cuban trade embargo. This decision changed America’s reliance on cane to corn, and we found the next generation of mass packaged food production with countless derivatives of this starch. Fast-forward to “fat-free” everything, and watch the groundwork be laid for the diabetes epidemic of America. The point is, things became so convoluted, and it is important… so I appreciate you bringing it back to such a centrally focused place. We worry so much about the extra pocket-change we have for our luxuries, but our food is our brain power, and we cannot even respect ourselves enough to put our bodies and minds first -this is where our money should be going. Gnosticism …. how well put.

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  5. I agree with you that our search efficiency makes us less detached to the nature and probably to our vital needs as humans. I’m scared about it. Do you know that when you go to a mall, they monitor your cell phone signal in order to learn where people spend most of the time. It is scary. Also, I realized that just a couple a year ago, I barely used my cell for other reason than to call. Nowadays, my job became increasingly dependent on new applications. I have to invest my time to learn how to use them, and it takes time. To conclude, I know next to nothing about gnosticism, but I do know that the way this go scares me, and makes me more dependent on technology, which can be used to contrain my own liberty.

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  6. Although I possess some ideological differences I found this comparison fascinatingly original. I am pro keurig in my home but will gladly pay for real coffee whilst the cafe experience, not once did I sit and think, what does this say about my ideology, and now this morning over my coffee I will have to come to a conclusion.

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    1. I am enjoying a cup of Keurig-made coffee right now. I will also enjoy a cup from Starbucks. I will also enjoy coffee from Temple coffee… Old Soul… AND…. *dramatic pause*… I have EVEN enjoyed coffee from a Chemex!! (although I don’t think there was quite so much fuss used when making coffee from it as with the process the OP described)

      Point being… I like coffee. I don’t really care how the stuff gets into my bloodstream so long as it gets into my bloodstream… (“Drinking” is a great method, but I would consider using an Injectex™ coffee infuser if I had to… if it existed… *rushes to get a patent*)

      In truth, my energy levels aren’t even really affected by drinking coffee… so that’s not even really why I drink it. “It’s sterile and I like the taste.” The main effect coffee has on me is it gives me regular BM’s and makes me take an above-average number of pee breaks. Those aren’t the only benefits to coffee drinking, however… the coffee breath is also a nice plus xD

      I’m going to continue to enjoy coffee in all its myriad forms… whether the beans were handled exclusively by machine or if the tears of Costa Rican orphan slaves are part of their wet processed Arabicas. (No wonder their coffee’s so salty… and mournful.)

      Reply

  7. Tactfully written, as a developed nation it’s surprising how much we depend on third-world poverty stricken folks to bring us our daily trivialties. The world needed this essay, looking forward to more.

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    1. Does it, in actuality, mean there are no poverty-striken folks in your so-called first world. Is everyone well-fed, well-clothed or sufficiently housed in the ‘first world’?

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      1. You’re misinterpreting the comment. Of course there are hungry people, of course there is homelessness in first-world countries. The point of the comment was that the corporations of the first world prey on the under-developed third world countries for cheap labor. I hope that clears up your misunderstanding.

      2. In fact, that was the register of your comment to me initially; that you are disparaging us like so many slurs I have heard/read about us in the so-called 3rd world.
        However, based on your last response, I now realise that you are, reassuringly; in our corner. There are some people in their ‘gilded cages’ (that is what the 1st world is said to be) who are in the habit of talking down on us, the South.

        Thanks and continue rooting for the underdog.

  8. My wife and I were recently noting how curious it is that Christians get so into coffee. I am from Louisville, KY originally, and suffice it to say the Christians are really into coffee. This anti-Gonostic viewpoint may have solved the mystery!

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  9. Hey, we were making coffee with Melitta filters before Chemex, or the word pour-over, existed. I make my coffee daily into a thermal jug with a plastic filter and paper liner. It’s really easy and once you get the hang of it for your own taste, you won’t go back. You don’t even need a Chemex or to call it a pour over. Just boil your water and pour it over the coffee. Even Chemex is now designed to intimidate: everyone has to be a gourmet to do the simplest things we did for ourselves in the past. It is ridiculous. You never said what you got your mom…

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  10. This is fantastic. The way you managed to use coffee as an example of gnosticism and an overall bigger issue is phenomenal. I’ve looked at nutrition and what I eat as part of treating my body like a temple but I never applied that to coffee. Although I do drink the high end coffee purely from a coffee snobbish idea, you have me rethinking this entirely and my approach to coffee, let alone other aspects.
    Thank you for this

    Reply

  11. one thing I learned about The Keurig coffee maker is that it does not travel well. I was moving across the country and could not find information on how to empty the reservoir that holes the preheated water. I called the company and they said it was okay not to empty out that water and they would make it right if it did not work after my move. It did not work and they offered to give me one for the bargain price of $179 I paid a hundred thirty nine at Bed Bath and Beyond and then they took 20 percent off. He even offered to throw him 6 K Cups. I hung up with him and call Bed Bath and Beyond. I asked for the manager and I set my Keurig, and before I could say anything else he said bring it in I’ll give you a full refund. And they did.

    Reply

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