I write about coffee. This is a relatively strange niche, but it's one I love. Unfortunately I, and the approximately two other people in the world who do what I do, have a problem: we have no good way of talking about coffee. I mean that literally. We don't have the words for it. We have tortured a small group of coffee-related nouns beyond respectability.
Take "java." Have four letters ever been so badly abused?
Finding a title for my book, Left Coast Roast, was therefore grueling. It's difficult on a good day to sum up in a clever phrase something you otherwise spent 45,000 words trying to explain. But the task becomes more difficult when your topic is coffee.
If you have ever been to a drive-through coffee stand in America, you know what I mean. The wordplay starts out innocently enough: Brewed Awakening, perhaps. But it quickly gets worse, and you can almost see the endorphin-riddled gears turning in the minds of well-meaning, impossibly dorky small-town espresso stand owners*: Bean Me Up Espresso. Hill of Beans. Brew Ha Ha.
If you were me or two other people in the world, you would have encountered the following situation: You have a sentence that requires you to use the word "coffee" at least two times, probably right on the heels of another sentence about coffee and right before a third. Example: "Coffee lovers are rallying to a new coffee roaster experimenting with different techniques for processing coffee, coffee coffee coffee coffee." And if you are a magazine editor, you will want to change this sentence because you will not like the repetition of "coffee." It impedes flow. So you will dip your ladle down into the incredibly wide but shallow pond of coffee synonyms and pull up a "java," "joe," "black gold," or, if you're feeling international, "caffe." If you are trying to replace the phrase "coffee lover," you might come up with "beak freak," "caffeine fiend," or "java junkie." (For some reason, writers and editors of coffee-related writing — and the names of drive-through espresso stands — have an incontrollable, passionate desire to use alliteration and loose rhyme.)
It may be the least sophisticated subgenre of food writing in existence. Begin with this generally dismal state of affairs and add in some emails from your publisher explaining that this is the most important decision of your life, and then about a hundred hours of googling things that rhyme with "roast" or "beans" or "grind" (yes, this was basically my titling process), and you have achieved a state of inverse nirvana I can only describe as never go there.
Finding a title for this book felt like banging my head against the brick wall of the Internet and Middle America and the limits of my imagination all at once. It started in a bad enough place and then spiraled quickly downward. Below is a short list of some of the dozens of terrible ideas I had for what to call this thing.
Where It Rains, They Pour
The Fire Crew
Dripping for It
Toast... of the Town; ...and Jam;
Coast-ing... on Empty; ...to the Finish
Post... Partum; ...Dumb as a
You know it's over when you revert to the doomed use of ellipses.
A book somewhat infamous among coffee nerds, accurately titled All about Coffee (1922) by William Ukers, begins with a reverent thesaurus of coffee descriptors — "encomiums and descriptive phrases applied to the plant, the berry, and the beverage." They are ordered shortest, "nepenthe," to longest, "this invigorating drink which drives sad care from the heart." In between, they careen around some spectacular gender stereotypes — from "gentle panacea of domestic troubles" to "autocrat of the breakfast table" — and lurch between severe ("grave and wholesome liquor") and chatty ("a restorative of sparkling wit").
It seems coffee can be all things to one person. But nowhere in this verbal mayhem is coffee impugned with shitty puns, and they are all (at least to a point) reverent on the subject. Behold what 100 years can do!
What's my point in all this? Writing book titles is hard? Harder if you spent the last of your limited creative juice on writing the book itself? Yes! But also: we don't have a language for talking about coffee that matches the pleasure it brings us.
I can't claim to have fixed this problem. The title I settled on — Left Coast Roast — isn't offensive toward coffee, but it's also not making any great leaps toward dignity either.
The problem is esoteric at best. Most of us can get by with a simple phrase I've heard a 100 times since my book came out: "I looooooooove coffee!" It's really people like me, who are trying to do something relatively silly in the scheme of things (write about coffee), who have a problem. We need stand-ins, thesauri — sparkle dust — for our sentences. Until we get it, or invent it, we have one consolation: driving down I-5, marveling at the boundless linguistical ingenuity of drive-through espresso stand owners.
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Hanna Neuschwander has written extensively about the coffee-roasting movement in the Pacific Northwest for publications including Portland Monthly, Willamette Week, and Edible Portland. She lives in Portland, Oregon.
Books mentioned in this post
Hanna Neuschwander is the author of Left Coast Roast: A Guide to the Best Coffee and Roasters from San Francisco to Seattle