Culture of selfishness
New coffee house opening c. 1970. Photo by Bob Beel Le Dawn Studios archive, State Library of Victoria.

Recently I’ve been pondering the culture of selfishness we live in. The one where people pull out in front of you rather than waiting a few seconds for you to drive past. Or tap their feet impatiently while you count out your cash payment. Or cut in line to order their coffee. I’ve been wondering how we got here.

And then, while I was watching the Australian version of Back in Time for Dinner, I started to get an inkling.

For me, the show’s been a gripping portrayal of domestic history. Or to put it another way, women’s history. Not all women of course, but what we might consider the archetypal middle-class housewife and mother.

Obviously, this means that male journalists, historians, etc. have poo-pooed the show, dismissing it as trivial. Or as Karl Quinn puts it “as history goes, it’s more convenience food than three-course meal.” I can’t say whether it’s me or him that’s missing the point. I wonder a little if he’s married, and whether he washes his own socks and underpants or cooks his own dinner. And whether he’d consider loaning me his house elf.

For me, one of the interesting things about the series has been the family bonding arc. From the 1950s gender divided household, through to the close-knit family of the 1970s, and to the more recognisable separateness we live now. We’re in the same building, but in our own spaces, doing our own things on our own devices. And Mum is still busy doing the cooking and cleaning with precious little help from anyone else.

I can’t help thinking that a lack of family meals is contributing. If you don’t spend time together, you can’t grow intimate relationships because you’re not talking. They don’t say “a problem shared is a problem halved” for nothing. Not that it isn’t still a problem, but a second perspective can be useful.

Too many years ago I was given a soup tureen for one. If you don’t know, a soup tureen is a big covered dish with handles. The idea is that you fill it with dinner (stews or soup) and carry it to a communal table to share. It may have its origins in the ancient history of hospitality; honouring and protecting guests. The notion of taking care of the universe by caring for the strangers among you. Regardless of history, a soup tureen for one is a contradiction in terms – there can’t be hospitality when there is only one.

More recently I’ve been confronted by Nespresso machines. What with George Clooney and Penelope Cruz I’d be surprised if you didn’t know what I mean. Apparently, if you love good coffee, but are too lazy or impatient to make one, these are the machines for you. Drop a pod in the top; the machine sucks up water heating it as it goes and then pumps it at high pressure into the pod, from which it drips into your cup in a minute or two. Your single cup.

Which makes me question its place in friendship, yet alone hospitality. Do you make your friend’s coffee first? If you do, and they politely wait for you to make yours, they’ll be drinking a cold cup while you have a hot one. Yet, if you make your coffee first, they’re watching you drink yours which is a much worse scenario.

My mother would skin me alive if ever I ate or drank while guests were waiting. And let’s not start on making coffee for six after your Stress Free Dinner Party just now! (Or the wider social and environmental impacts.)

Yes, the coffee is nice. Yes, it’s quick. But it transforms a social and hospitable event into a private one. Something to be savoured alone, preferably on the Amalfi Coast. Where other people become an imposition.

Why would you consider another person’s needs or wants when your day starts with the selfishness of coffee for one?

As a writer working from home, I drink a lot of coffee for one, but I treasure my morning coffee for two with DB. And I love sharing afternoon coffee and cake with Katy.

Is your best coffee alone, or with someone else?


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