Nutrition on the go: what coffee to go reveals

Nutrition on the go: what coffee to go reveals

Where does the habit of taking food out into the street and eating it on the go instead of lingering come from?

A hand balances a disposable coffee mug

Coffee to go is completely normal. Or maybe not? Photo: Isai Henandez/imageBROKER/imago

If you had to describe a classic German, French, American, let’s say Western street scene, one of the most important ingredients would be a person rushing down the sidewalk with a coffee mug. This mug could come in all sorts of versions. Depending on where you were, how old the person was, how rich or poor, the cup would have green trimmings and would include things like pumpkin, treacle, gingerbread, and similar made-up stuff.

Or he would simply come along. It would have sprung from one of the many coffee shops that celebrate alternative forms of milk, and would likely have sparked early-morning discussions in the drinker about how the beans were roasted and how the coffee was dripped. In a particularly rocking version, it would come from any baker and would contain a banal coffee with cow’s milk.

Coffee mugs carried away tell something about the people who are clutching them. They say something about who you want to be, how you want to be seen, maybe even how you feel about capitalism, climate change, your own body, your time, other people, public and private space.

At least they do that in Germany, France and Co. In Italy, or rather in Rome, the few coffee mugs you meet between Monti, Trastevere, Parioli and Esquilino actually only say one thing: Hello, I’m not from here. People who are “from here” don’t actually do that. At least rarely.

smells and others

Hardly anyone ever holds a mug in their hand and walks through the streets sipping it. Drinking while running seems just as absurd to most people as eating while running. Nobody does that. You can eat on the street, yes, a piece of pizza for example, an ice cream, of course. You just stop for it. You get what you want, stand in front of the appropriate place, eat, drink, walk on.

You don’t sit in the subway like in Germany and pull pieces of pretzels out of a paper bag. You never bother your neighbors, as in Bavaria, with the smell of a meat loaf roll eaten on the go. And when you’re standing at a traffic light in the evening, you don’t poke around in your baguette like in France. The cornetto is not eaten on the way to work like the croissant, nor is the cappuccino.

When I ordered a cappuccino “da portare via”, i.e. to take away, from the café around the corner this morning out of habit, the waiter gave me an amused, perhaps a little pitying look, as he does every time I do that . He says nothing and everything. At least that’s how I imagine his questions to be: Why can’t you just stand here like everyone else? Don’t you want to pause for a moment before the day starts? What is this madness of simultaneity?

And above all (because that’s what coffee to go is all about): How busy are you really that you don’t have five minutes to drink your coffee here? It wouldn’t take any longer. Push yourself to the counter, shout your order to the barista, take a quick sip of the water that is already flying towards you while the machine is still whistling and the hubbub of voices increasing, down the espresso in two gulps, pay at the till, go out: three minutes around. If a cornetto is involved, the maximum is ten.

Alone and collective

Only maybe it’s not about time at all, but about a relationship to the collective, to other voices, other bodies. Instead of walking past others alone with your drink, you throw yourself into a short dance every morning here: you stand shoulder to shoulder, bend, slide to the side, step forward, backward.

The movements are very clear and precise, everything follows a skilful harmony of hectic and calm, chaos and concentration. You blend into the human ball, celebrate even the tiniest of food and drink as a moment to share, and then split off again. You step back onto the street. The coffee was drunk. The hands are free.

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