Manly Coffee!


Since I started back to regular blogging in May, I’ve mainly been working on a couple of theological/philosophical series that I’d long wanted to do.  When I did the posts on martinis and Manhattans recently, it reminded me that I don’t want to be too ponderous and abstract all the time.  Some culinary stuff and some just plain fun blogging has its place, too.  Thus, I am reblogging a piece I did last summer at Alexandria.  Hope you like it.

The things that come out of thinking about pop culture. Last summer (2010) I took my daughter to a free movie at our local library. It was Flipper–the original 1963 movie, not the TV series of the following few years. I vaguely remember the latter, but I don’t think I ever saw the former, released the year I was born. It is, of course, about a boy living in the Florida Keys who takes in a wounded dolphin against the wishes of his fisherman father, played by Chuck Connors. In any case, it was OK, to the extent I could concentrate with all the milling, restless kids and the mosquitoes. However, I did notice one very trivial thing. The Chuck Connors character is a rough-hewn, tough, capable sailor—a man’s man, as is typical for the way he was cast at that time. Anyway, in one scene the family is having breakfast and Connors reaches for coffee—which is served in a tiny, delicate white china cup!

In fairness, the cup is typical of the kind of cup that comes with a china or earthenware place setting. Nevertheless, it goes without saying that in a contemporary movie in which a character was established as tough and manly, he’d be drinking from a mug at the very least, if not a large, heavy one. In fact, upon further thought, I can’t think of any character, manly or not, who uses anything but a mug to drink coffee in most contemporary movies. For that matter, the same goes for women. This is true in real life, as well. I can’t think of any of my coffee-drinking relatives, friends, or co-workers of either gender over the last thirty years (my father is an exception—more on that later) who uses anything but mugs. My mother-in-law has quite a collection. Most mugs I see are small (but bigger than most place-setting cups), but there’s a slightly larger size you see, too. So what, you ask? Well, let me set the scene with an empirical interlude.

I actually went to the kitchen with a measuring cup (that is, a standard eight-ounce cup) and measured different drinking cups. The results: A small coffee or tea cup of the type in the movie, or of the type likely found in most china place settings, when filled to the typical drinking level (about three-quarters of an inch or so below the brim) holds about eight ounces—that is, an actual, volumetric, measuring-cup “cup”. Filled to the brim (a bad idea if drinking hot coffee!), it holds about eleven ounces. A small mug (I’d estimate these account for half to two-thirds of the cups I see) holds ten ounces at drinking level and about 13 to 14 when full to the brim. Finally, the large mugs (which are not visually that much larger than the smaller mugs) hold almost fourteen ounces at drinking level (only two short of a full pint), and nearly eighteen ounces when brimming over! Thus a typical modern coffee drinker, man or woman, is drinking from a cup one and a half to two times as capacious as Connor’s 1963 teacup! It has been documented that portion sizes have increased over the last twenty to thirty years in America. The statistics are there, dry as ever, but the example from Flipper puts it into great and startling relief.

Stereotypically, men, especially manly men, eat much more than women or children (those of us of a certain age can remember when Campbell’s advertised its soups as the “Manhandlers”). Moreover, coffee is, of course, the archetypal manly drink (the special case of kaffeeklatches excepted). And yet, as is evidenced in Flipper, in 1963 even a rampaging, manly man so seething with machismo as to take on a hurricane with nary a thought and presumably with an appetite to match, makes do with no more than eight ounces of coffee from a teacup! I might point out that I’m not cheer-leading for gender stereotypes–to the extent that our culture has got past them, things are much better.  Still it’s interesting that during the heyday of the acceptance of said stereotypes as normative, even machismo, as indicated by portion size, wasn’t necessarily associated with excess.  Big appetites and passions weren’t necessarily extravagantly excessive.

Part of this may be that in a time in which gender roles were more cut-and-dried (in perception, at least), there was less necessity to “prove” anything–Chuck was so manly that he could drink from the daintiest cup he wanted.  A superficial and trivial observation here, but food for thought. Secondly, the economy was different.  Paradoxically, in real adjusted dollars, workers of that day did better than we do; and yet they consumed much less.  I can remember as late as the mid-seventies that steak was considered a special treat for maybe once or twice a month, as opposed to the eighties and early nineties when many families ate it nearly every day.  This was in large part a result of changes in agricultural policies beginning under Earl Butz in the late seventies.  In 1963, though, the consumerism-as-lifestyle ethos was still in the future. I mentioned my father.  He was born eight years after Chuck Connors, and thus of the same generation.  All through my childhood and young adulthood, the only cups I remember Dad ever using (the only kind we had, in fact) were just the sort of place setting teacups seen in the movie.   I remember using them once or twice in a pinch when the measuring cup was dirty, and I think they were smaller than the ones I mentioned before–eight ounces, IIRC, made them brim-full.  I don’t remember what he used at work, but I don’t think they were big mugs.  Mom and Dad have one or two mugs now, but he still uses the Corelle cups he’s always used.

Interestingly, an official “cup” of coffee is only four ounces.  I measured up to the “two cup” mark on my drip coffee maker, and it’s eight ounces.  Not that anyone pays attention to that! It shows something about us, I think, that the norm for consumption of food (to say nothing of consumer goods in general) now is greater than what five decades ago would have been seen as excessive even for an oozingly virile example of manhood.  Now excess is the norm–and I don’t even want to think about “manly”. Once more, I’m not praising gender stereotypes.  I’m glad that men don’t have to be macho, and women can be strong now.  However, among many in the various movements to reclaim “traditional” masculinity, there seems to be a confusion of form with substance.  Yes, the “traditional” manly man was larger than life–but there was also an expected asceticism, a reticence.  You see this in the strong, silent Gary Cooper roles, and in the best of John Wayne (an actor all too easily written off as a walking caricature).  The moderns who pine for manliness miss this, and wind up setting up a role model of obnoxiousness and superficiality.  Meanwhile, we all buy into the “more, more, more” ethos of unbridled consumerism.  Where does it end? I realize that this post is a bit rambling; but I hope it sets forth some interesting ideas about our culture, where it’s been and where it is, and provides a space for mediation about where it’s going.

Posted on 07/08/2012, in food and drink, social commentary and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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