If you order a coffee on a Great Northern train in the United Kingdom, they have to put it in a paper bag, even if you’re sitting three metres from the buffet car counter. This is presumably so you can wait until you’re back in the private comfort of your seat before you burn yourself horribly, as opposed to doing it in the aisle where everyone can see you.
Not that coffee on trains is really drinkable – or at least, not if you’re a coffee snob like me. It’s all instant, which is never a good thing; television advertising might seduce you into thinking there’s no discernible difference, and that if you choose the right brand you might end up sleeping with Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but these are damned lies. Coffee granules invariably taste like reclaimed material from a combination desalinisation and sewage treatment plant; a heady mixture of seaweed and poo. To make matters worse, train coffee is all Carte Noir, a brand made by Kraft, which in turn is owned by a cigarette company; travellers can comfort themselves with the notion that not only is sea-poo eating into their flesh, but their hard-earned money is also giving other people cancer.
The paper bagging is probably to shield the train company from frivolous lawsuits. This all goes back to a civil case against McDonald’s years ago, which has now passed into folklore and occasionally forms the basis of policy decisions for unscrupulous or ill-informed politicians. The story goes like this: a woman spilled coffee on herself, and it was hot so it burned her, so she sued and got some money. Imagine the cheek! Of course the coffee was hot! And she got money for spilling it! The fact that it was actually super-heated and literally ate through her body down to the bone is lost on most people. So is the fact that her settlement was reduced to take into account her responsibility for spilling it, and the fact that almost all the copycat cases were thrown out of court. Great Northern have, in fact, nothing to fear from coffee lawsuits – if I ever sue them, it’ll be because their fares are too high, their trains are old and dirty, their station staff unhelpful and their food more expensive than God. But that’s a story for another time.
(Train coffee cups also all say, “Caution! Contents May Be Hot!” I keep hoping, but it hasn’t happened yet.)
The real question is, what was that woman doing buying a coffee at McDonald’s to begin with? That’s like marrying a death row inmate or trying to eat soup with a slotted spoon; it’s got disappointment built in. Despite their hilarious protestations, McDonald’s is for burgers, fries and milkshakes. Everyone knows that; you go there to eat greasy food and feel like a minger, not to enjoy a triple latté with cinnamon sprinkles. For one thing, you have no guarantee that’s actually coffee you’re drinking, as opposed to reconstituted chicken fat modified with a retrovirus, and for another, there’s a certain amount of elitist posing that goes along with good coffee, and you’re never going to get that at McDonald’s.
No, they have another fast food chain for that, and it’s called Starbuck’s. Every Starbuck’s in the world has a subdued, khaki-and-brown theme, designed to make you think of coffee and cake. The advertising around the sides is all painted in whimsical hues with delightful, swirling lettering; the staff greet you with a friendly smile that almost looks genuine, and the cakes all have that down-home cooked-by-mom look. Even in Swindon, which is a clue that perhaps all is not what it seems. Those smiles have been burned on at the factory with a high velocity staple gun; so have the happy little ripples on the cakes. That’s not the gleam of butter catching the light on the flapjacks – it’s partially hydrogenated vegetable fat, a substance only slightly better for you than ripping your veins open and manually packing them with lard. And the coffee, although you can get it in more than two varieties, is overpriced, not particularly tasty, and was probably picked by slaves.
Frankly, like any kind of food, there’s only one way to enjoy predictably decent coffee: make it yourself. Of course, you can’t grow or pick the beans (which is just as well, because the amount of coffee I drink would require a plantation of my own), but you can buy the beans whole, grind them, stick them in a caffetiere with some boiling water, plunge and drink. It’s cheaper and better, plus – if you buy right! – you can get socially conscious beans that yield a good living wage for the growers, taste better than their intensively-farmed, famous-brand alternatives, and actually give you a hug when you wake up in the morning.
Of course, there are still pitfalls. Americans enjoy their coffee with a substance called “half and half”, which is apparently half cream and half milk. Packed with a couple of spoonfuls of sugar and some flavoured syrup, their morning cup o’ Joe is suddenly worse for them than the aforementioned McDonald’s milkshakes. Particularly when, as is often the case, their drink is enjoyed from a 22oz mug with whipped cream and a dash of chocolate powder, placed in one of their SUV’s twenty-three cup holders and drunk rapidly while they listen to Sarah McLachlan. But on the upside, anyone who drinks this freak of nature on a regular basis is going to die soon.
Me? For all my moaning, I’ll drink anything. During the course of writing this, I’ve had a latté and one of those paper-clad train drinks. (Trust me about the poo.) Maybe I’m an addict; maybe I should cut back and swig more water instead. But you know what they say: life’s too short to live it leisurely, and intestinal cancer probably isn’t as bad as it sounds.
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