We were recently asked, “Are you surprised by the increased use of coffee in cooking (implied fine dining)?” To which we replied, “We’re surprised that it hadn’t happened sooner,” grounding our remarks on the Modernist Cuisine’s statement about coffee’s chemical complexity relative to wine. Essentially, a la M.C., coffee has 700-800 aromatic and flavor compounds relative to wine’s 300-400. Thus, our reasoning goes, more chemically complexity equals more possible combinations or culinary opportunities. People have been cooking with the less chemically complex wine for centuries, refining and re-refining; why wouldn’t people do the same with the more chemically complex coffee. A prolix ‘duh.’
Well, it’s easy to say ‘duh’ about a great many things armed with the M.C. The question is, if it’s so obvious, why now and not sooner? Well, kind reader, we have a theory (it is a blog post after all, so theories are at the ready). We’ll name this theory ‘the law of the instrument’ (borrowed heavily from Abraham Maslow and/or Abraham Kaplan). This theory states that if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
As briefly as possible, it’s very likely you’ve heard a grandparent say that such and such a fruit didn’t exist when they were a kid. Well, they were right. To them it didn’t exist. But with faster transportation, advances in refrigeration, packing and sealing technologies –viola, such and such fruit is now available where once thought impossible to exist. Essentially, we’ll allege the same thing occurred with coffee in order to broaden coffee’s distribution and ‘shelf’ life and, in the absence of federal regulations about product labeling, coffee was roasted dark and blended –sometimes not even with coffee. The more you carbonize something the more it tastes like ‘carbon or ash’ and less like the thing it started as. The suggestion here is, if you roast it dark you can essentially roast it with many things, things much less expensive than coffee, (and in the absence of regulations) and extend its shelf life (flavor profile, i.e., carbon) and thus reach farther and travel longer and by doing so it will all present as a single essence –carbon. (As an aside, our belief is that it is at this point that milk, cream, sugar and flavorings come into the picture –as a reparative aid. Habit and custom then take over.)
So back to the original question. Individuals have not collectively played with coffee or extended its use in food beyond a few rubs and such until recently because coffee was essentially only presented to them as a ‘hammer’ instead of the many faceted, chemically complex agricultural product it is. Once liberated from this older and singular perspective, coffee lays ready for the taking for those of curious and creative spirit.