One Small Sign of Society’s Unraveling

by guest blogger Renee James, essayist and blogger

When someone studies early 21st-century life to try to pinpoint exactly when society started to unravel, I have no doubt they’ll identify the small-appliance department in Bed Bath and Beyond, and single-cup coffeemakers.  Exhibit A.

Coffee used to be communal. It meant friendship, family, a kitchen table conversation. An unassuming pot called everyone together to sit, sip, and share the good or the bad. Perked coffee was the standard, and when someone “put on a pot,” it was a universal signal: Time to get comfortable. We’re staying. “They put on coffee, honey.”

Once in a while, people would partially take up the offer with something like, “Only if you have it made….” This was code for, “How much do you really want to hear from me?” Nothing says “I care” more than brewing a pot of coffee to accompany a heartfelt conversation.

At some point, we moved on to Joe DiMaggio and Mr. Coffee. Why I can’t tell you, and while it didn’t offer happy, peppy percolating to let us know coffee was coming, it still signaled community. When it took over kitchen counters from coast to coast, our moms stored their percolators on shelves, plugging them in only when they wanted to make “the good coffee.”

Quick aside: For purposes of this little theory, I’m leaving out the arrival of flavors, types of coffee, and the dozens of vendors who sell the stuff now, from gas stations to grocery stores. In the old days, you bought coffee-flavored coffee. With or without caffeine. You drank it with cream, sugar, both, or black. The occasional powdered milk. End of story. (When someone made instant coffee, you knew they probably didn’t really like you.)

So there we were: percolators tucked out of sight, our Mr. Coffee or Krups dripping steadily. Then came the built-in timers to start the process before dawn so we’d wake up to coffee. But this, my friends, was the beginning of the end.

A timer was the very first sign that coffee was changing from a beverage that was all about us to something that was all about me. What started as a convenient timesaver in the morning—coffee ready to serve a household buzzing with activity—has become a self-serving, egocentric, and indisputably single-minded cup of coffee.

Choose your cup (never easy, given the 250 flavors available—dear God). Pop it in. Once the growling, buzzing, and spit-drip have stopped, you have your own personal coffee. Isn’t that the point?

Well, here’s the confounding thing: I kind of love my one-at-a-time coffeemaker.  For decades, I was the only coffee drinker in the house. Brewing coffee for myself—even just a few cups at a time—seemed excessive. I usually poured at least some of it down the drain the next day, but buying coffee at a drive-through was expensive. I love that I can brew a travel mug on my way out the door every morning or brew six different cups of coffee a day (and I have).

But it’s a sad little story, isn’t it? And no, maybe just having my coffee isn’t the point. Where are the people? Where is the camaraderie? Where is the love, people, where is the love? Dropping a cup into place and pressing a button for coffee isn’t warm and welcoming. It’s robotic. It’s solitary.

I know, I know, I know. I’m a Luddite. “We live in the future,” as my son likes to tell me. Great coffee? Absolutely. It’s just that I miss everybody.


Renee A. James works at Rodale Inc. and also wrote an award-winning Op-Ed column for The Morning Call, in Allentown, PA for almost ten years.  Her essays have been part of two humor anthologies: 101 Damnations; A Humorists’ Tour of Personal Hells and Mirth of a Nation Volume 3, and are also found online at Jewish World Review and The Daily Caller. Her blog, It’s Not Me, It’s You, addresses topics that mystify her on a regular basis.



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16 Responses to One Small Sign of Society’s Unraveling

  1. Nikki Lindqvist January 25, 2013 at 6:49 am #

    What a wonderful article! And how true! It’s GOOD to recall how it used to be. Maybe even important! To make note of these subtle changes… yes, thanks!

  2. Paula January 25, 2013 at 6:59 am #

    Amen! “Dropping a cup into place and pressing a button for coffee [is not only not] warm and welcoming, i.e. nearly anti-social, but it is wasteful on a huge number of fronts. Percolator: no filter, grounds can be directly composted, if it’s an on the stove version (not electric) that pot with the filter insert can be used for at least half a lifetime, no matter what kind of stove you have. And you can make coffee just for yourself: just use less water and less coffee.

    And “250 flavors available … your own personal coffee”: don’t even get me started on how marketing and “personalization” have given us the illusion of ultimate freedom in choosing our own products, lifestyle, etc. Hogwash. We hardly have the opportunity to choose something that is sustainable, non-chemical, non-GMO, non-petroleum.

    Soon we’ll be gathering in darkened, silent rooms, each of us armed with our own glowing communication device and cup of personalized coffee, chatting with people (or clever “interaction apps”?) we don’t know and never will know about how great it is that we can have whatever we want.

    Luddites, unite (in reality)! The end is near.

  3. maria (farm country kitchen) January 25, 2013 at 8:19 am #

    Just had morning coffee on the couch with my daughter…coffee ritual is alive and well in my house! Thanks Renee!

  4. Amanda January 25, 2013 at 10:58 am #

    A toll booth operator thanked me yesterday for still presenting a ticket rather than rushing through the EZPass. Although I could probably save $0.40/day (approx $100/year) by getting EZPass, I would lose out on knowing and visiting with a whole host of lovely people with incredible character. “Purple sweater lady” has seen me through two pregnancies and I’ve seen her battle heart disease. “Old World” gave me a cure-all recipe for colds involving hot whiskey and blankets and I’ve seen him lament and celebrate raising a growing daughter. There something to be said for holding on to these little brushes with humanity and community of which we seem to be losing more and more every year. Everyone talks about “building community,” but maybe it isn’t that hard–we just have to recognize it when it is staring us in the face.

  5. Susan January 25, 2013 at 11:04 am #

    I’m not a Luddite, and I easily embrace new technology, but I don’t like these one-at-a-time coffees because of the additional and unnecessary waste (plastic, right?).

  6. John January 25, 2013 at 1:45 pm #

    I use a single cup coffee maker in the office and at home, the wife doesn’t drink coffee and in the office the only coffee available is not for human consumption… Btw, I compost ALL my single coffee grounds. I stack the cups up until they dry, open the aluminum foil on top and empty the grounds into a bowl. The grounds then end up on the compost and the plastic cup in the recycling bin

  7. Andrea January 25, 2013 at 2:13 pm #

    Love it…. and so incredibly true!!!!

    Remember when a much-loved neighbor would walk in the (unlocked) back door & grab themselves a cup of coffee without being offered? Your kitchen was as much “home” to them as their own was.

    Those were the days, my friend!!


  8. Lacy January 26, 2013 at 2:26 pm #

    Great article, Renee! I have my Cuisinart 10-cup, my Gaggia Espresso maker and my Le Creuset French press…always ready for one to 10 guests to say ‘let’s have coffee!’

  9. Donna in Delaware January 26, 2013 at 3:18 pm #

    How timely! I was talking to a neighbor across the street a couple of weeks ago about coffee. She invited me over (she’s a new neighbor) and I brought over a pear something-or-the- other in puff pastry. we had a wonderful conversation and drank the whole pot of freshly made brew. I was telling her that it is time that I got back to the old perculators! I miss that! I can still smell the coffee that my grandmother use to perc on top of the stove in the mornings for my grandfather and herself, before he went off to work. It always woke us, the smell was wonderful, even if I wasn’t old enough to consume a cup. I use to love to watch the coffee bubble up into the glass knob on top, and when it stopped, coffee time was on. We were discussing coffee machines, and how we thought how much of a waste of money they were. My husband purchased a $500.00 espresso machine some years ago that I seldom use. It decorates my counter top and is only used for when there is a gathering. I told my next door neighbor over Thanksgiving (also new to the neighborhood) that I was going to buy a perculator. She had one, albeit an electric one, and the coffee tasted so much better.

    I think that we have lost much since these new-fangled machines burst upon the scene. In our neighborhood, we have started getting together over coffee again. It is picking up nicely, and it is a much needed, neighborly thing to do. The comaraderie is wonderful, and we get to know other neighbors that live a little farther down the street. These flavored coffees are atrocious. They are full of chemicals and thickeners. I really don’t see how anybody would want to drink such poison! Sometimes the smell alone want to make me upchuck! There are times when it is best to leave well enough alone. But for those who are single or are the only coffee drinkers in the family, the one-cup grinder/drip pots are really useful.

  10. Donna in Delaware January 26, 2013 at 3:19 pm #

    Quite right Andrea!

  11. Marlene January 26, 2013 at 8:21 pm #

    Great article, Renee – love reading your stuff. I’m happy to report that the coffee ritual is still alive in my family. You will always hear “who wants coffee?” at our family dinners, and the coffee is PERKED.

  12. Renee January 26, 2013 at 8:31 pm #

    Thank you all! I have hope!!! I remember reading a study years ago that tried to define friends who had “refrigerator rights:” those friends who could walk in, open the fridge and no one thought one thing about it. Truly a treasure and sadly – according to the study – disappearing. I’m all in favor of the old-fashioned coffee-klasch (sp?). Sitting over an entire perked pot and talking sounds like it would cover at least six sessions of therapy in one shot.

  13. Janet January 30, 2013 at 12:27 pm #

    I am the only coffee drinker in my house. I was brewing the coffee
    for several years and stopped, because it seemed like too much. I so enjoy our visit to friends who put a pot of coffee on or a breakfast at my sister’s house where a family breakfast and coffee are still the tradition. Really enjoyed the article.

  14. Patricia H January 30, 2013 at 12:49 pm #

    I too, remember the percolator, and my step dad hollering in the morning, “Jackie (my mom) or Patti (me) make the coffee!” Which meant, fresh, not the one made an hour ago, I am the king and I want fresh hot coffee now. Where was the k cup when I needed it? What we did find, however was the Melita cone filter, so we put the water on to boil, poured the less fresh coffee in to the pitcher which would be used for iced coffee later in the afternoon, and served his highness his hot fresh coffee with the appropriate amount of sugar.
    I have owned just about every coffee making system over the years, including the Melita pod individual brewing system, good coffee, but try to find the pods….they went the way of the VHS…(I own hundreds of the tapes and 2 players…can’t seem to give them up), but you know I end up going back to my good old Melita style cone filter system, and if I grind the beans in the morning, my son knows I am making coffee, and the young prince will get up, toddle into the kitchen, and get the coffee I made for us. It is now a way for me to get my morning hug and kiss, we may not talk too much, but I live for that affection.
    On a side note, a company made 6 refillable K-style cups, meant to be refilled. I bought a package of them for my ex-mother in law thinking, what a great idea, less waste, less expense, but I was told prior to giving it to her, she’ll never use it. She is on a walker, and has macular degeneration. So if I end up with a K-style coffee maker, I am prepared, and I will feel better about the enviornment.

  15. Janet Walbrink January 30, 2013 at 2:03 pm #

    I still use my percolator!! Makes the best coffee, and I put leftovers in the fridge for tomorrows iced coffee 🙂 I completely agree that society is becoming (or has become! ) antisocial! 🙁

  16. cathy-lee January 30, 2013 at 11:56 pm #

    Great article – words for thought for sure.
    Has made me think what to say to future friends, family & colleagues when they come by – as so often when I ask them if they would like a coffee and do the filter coffee they act like it’s a great big production which puts me off – thinking, do they want to be here, do they want to stay, do they want this coffee or just being polite, are they in a hurry ? Will be interesting to see how they respond 😉

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