Traditionalism for the sake of traditionalism

March 22, 2011

I don’t want to get in the habit of confronting other blogs head-on, but there is one post that continues to irk me. While this post is close to two years old (it has really bothered me for that long), I think its misguided embodiment of traditionalism is still extant and worth confronting.


The thesis statement of this piece offers:

“The purpose of this post is to demystify, debunk, and, well, defrock the Gibraltar before the misconceptions behind this invasive species are allowed to propagate any further.”

While the author does a good job demystifying the origins of the Gibraltar, the “misconceptions” are exacerbated by the end of the post. I’m not taking the stance of a Gibraltar apologist, nor am I posing as an angry blogger out to  slash and burn other blogs. Rather, I take the above post to be emblematic of traditionalism for the sake of traditionalism, and I’d like to address that using some of the rhetoric of the post, while simultaneously making a case for the symbolic importance of the Gibraltar.

The author of “Gibraltar: The Fool’s Cappuccino” employs the repetition of a handful of phrases that are rooted in traditionalism: “regulation cappuccino”, “proper espresso drink,” “proper cup.” Furthermore, he laments “how badly America screwed up the cappuccino”, “America’s milk-engorged bastardization of the standard cappuccino” “…in a cheap restaurant supply glass.”

My gut reaction is “Who cares? I’d love to see a blog of an Italian living in Italy bemoaning that he can’t get a proper American hamburger.” In that sense, it would be easy to dismiss the article. What really bothers me, however, is that the Gibraltar is taken strictly for face value, as a corruption of a precious Italian import, rather than a symptom of a larger trend. It is that lack of context that makes traditionalism for the sake of traditionalism an empty outsider ideology.

My experience with coffee traditionalists is that they seem to rely on a rose-tinted, selective culling of features of Italian espresso culture. Traditionalism only applies to beverage portions, glassware, and when convenient, notions of “proper” dosing and brew ratios. What is overlooked or ignored are the other features of Italian espresso: stale coffee, coffee ground to fill a doser, and the widespread usage of Robusta and lesser-quality Brasils.

These things too have context, and I am not criticizing them; they work in Italy for plenty of reasons. (Disclaimer: I have never been to Italy) Italian espresso is a utilitarian beverage, made fast, sweetened, and consumed fast. Espresso was born out of a recovering post-war economy, a time when Italy was rapidly mechanizing but economically weak. The price of espresso was nationally standardized, locking roasters into a low baseline for sourcing coffee, hence the prevalence of robusta and commodity Brasils. It is these conditions that inform the tradition  of Italian espresso in Italy, not in the United States.

I should say at this point that my experience with traditionalism might be limited and not consistent with yours.  There is not one Tea Party banner of traditionalism. There is, of course, the online presence of people like Giorgio Milos and Todd Carmichael, but beyond the internet, my experience is informed primarily by working in San Francisco. San Francisco has long had a visible Italian population, and the North Beach neighborhood boasts stalwarts such as Caffe Trieste and Steps of Rome. While San Francisco has had a strong Italian identity attached to espresso, more significant, I think, is the post dot-com leisure class that encounters espresso in Italy and returns seeking an “authentic” experience back home. “I’ve been to Italy, it just isn’t the same here!” It is this population that remains strongly attached to the 90s second-wave Frasier Crane continental affect, and it’s this traditionalism that I speak to.

I know a lot of coffee professionals, and I know that the vast majority have never been to Italy. “Have you ever made the pilgrimage?” I’ve been asked. For many of us, the first transcendent espresso epiphany has happened domestically, perhaps in the very cafes we work in now. What made us excited about coffee in the first place likely had little to do with espresso, “traditional” cappuccino, or any other vestigial Italian by-products.

And so enter the Gibraltar. Right now, it feels a little like beating a dead horse to talk about a beverage  now long-in-the-tooth, but as I said, traditionalism is still extant and worth confronting. The Gibraltar was conceived as emulation, but once it took hold, it became an endemic creature, rather than a non-native invasive species. Its success and proliferation, and possibly its standardization, is not simply a trifle to scoff at, but rather it’s a signifier of a larger cause: the creation of our own regional, national, global coffee culture.  As the words “traditional”, “regulation”, and “standard” get thrown around, we can ask: whose traditions? Whose regulations? According to whose standards, and what do they have to do with me?”


As an aside, I’d like to relate this so my own experience. When I was a student of linguistics, there was a big black line drawn between grammatical prescriptivism and grammatical description. Prescriptivism was to be avoided and left to the staunch Oxford grammarians. Those notions of “proper grammar” are hold-overs from when Latin grammar rules were superimposed onto English for grammatical pedagogy; the split-infinitive and sentence-final preposition indeed  make no sense in Latin, but when you and I use them in English, they are perfectly understood. The job of the linguist is to describe. Language is a continually changing thing; if dialect, whether ethnic or regional, induce a shift in language that would previously be considered ungrammatical, it is not the job of the linguist to take these shifts for face value, to say they are wrong and bemoan the degeneration of English. Rather, these new language features are taken to be significant products of cultural shift, expressions of changes of society at large.



  1. I follow some of what you’re saying here, but I think you missed my main premise. I didn’t write that piece to defend traditionalism and to honor Italian culture as the mother, perfect cappuccino.

    Rather, I was calling to the carpet the abused, lazy-marketing-driven practice of spinning old ideas with new names and claiming it either as your own, as something brand new, or as something elitist and special. You cannot put a new paint job and an old Datsun and tell me you have created a Nissan.

    Today’s coffee industry is overflowing with wannabes who fashion themselves as revolutionaries when they’re most often just repackaging old ideas as their own inventions. When someone in a gossip rag orders a Gibraltar “off the menu” because they think it buys them insider cachet, when they clearly know nothing of what a regulation cappuccino is like, it’s all pretense and zero invention.

    We should celebrate invention and creativity. But we dilute and diminish real invention when it gets polluted by so many pretenders.

  2. Greg, I see your point, and I appreciate the feedback, but my post was mainly a response to the rhetoric you used as an appeal to traditional authority, and how that empty authority holds no relevance to an emerging coffee culture.

  3. Greg, as often happens on your blog, at least in my analysis, you’ve got a strawman. Again.

    You’re confusing invention and innovation with a little fun and creativity. To say something as innocuous as the “Gibraltar” thing as something that would “dilute and diminish real invention” is beyond overstatement. Not to mention, “when they clearly know nothing of what a regulation cappuccino is like” is true pretentiousness. Let people have their fucking coffee the way it’s being offered, on-menu or off. What does that have to do with “know nothing of a regulation cappuccino?” Which sorta begs the question: WHAT DO *YOU* KNOW ABOUT HOW TO ***MAKE*** A REGULATION CAPPUCCINO?

    We don’t need a coffee-nomenclature-police. Review your Bay area cafes–that content is interesting. Comment on what you see–that’s cool. But then prattling on with snarky indictments like this completely undermines the good content. There are some good points mixed up in most of what you write, but stuff like this is a great big “miss” for me.

  4. Well, Nick, we sorta do need coffee-nomenclature police, when Starbucks has done a really good job teaching Americans the wrong names for things.

    That said, Blue Bottle isn’t really where the coffee-nomenclature police need to have foot patrols.

  5. @Nick: the lack of nomenclature police is precisely what turned your and Trish’s “Third Wave” into the navel-gazing, self-marketing bragging stick that it has become today.

    To my point, where do you draw the line? Is there a line? Should every coffee shop on the planet create their own cappuccino with a slightly different vessel, call it “innovation”, and each have a special off-the-menu name to call it so we each can feel like cool insiders for doing so?

    There’s no real harm in saying “yes” to that question. But what’s the point? Creating and worshipping our own false gods was a habit I hoped our civilization got out of a couple millennium ago.

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