January 2, 2011

All in the Wrist

Art is subjective, they say. And like so many other bits of wisdom offered up so frequently, there is truth to it. What looks appealing to me, may look like nothing much to you. The same is true for just about any sensory stimuli.

And yet while art is subjective, and beauty in the eye of the beholder, there must be some common frame of reference. I say that, because there are things which people find beautiful -- or at the very least, worth noting -- across cultures, and across time. It is that shared sense of wonder and awe that one might feel when admiring a particular vista, treeline, or other natural phenomenon. It is, perhaps, more subjective when one moves to things created by human hands. But nonetheless, though there can be disagreement about merit and quality, so too can there be a shared admiration.

It is with that in mind that I discuss latte art. I've mentioned it before, but never in any great detail. This owes to two things, primarily: First, latte art is non-essential. That is, a latte without art can taste just as good as one with. But second, and perhaps more relevant, I was never all that good at it. Truth be told, until recently, I could never manage anything like a decent rossetta, or even a consistent heart. Now, both of those seem squarely in my grasp.

How? Practice. I wish that I could say I had some revelation, some divine bit of technique which has lent me the wisdom needed to perform. But no. That wouldn't be true. I simply tried, and tried, and tried. You get the feel for things after a while, and that feel becomes better. Eventually, like milk steaming itself, you learn basic concepts to adhere to. But you also learn that there is no one way to do things. Every drink is different, every pour a new challenge.

And that is a good thing, and a satisfying thing. Though I should be clear, this is not because of any overwhelming response from customers. At most, I've heard a "Huh. Cool." So is latte art almost purely masturbatory then? Well, perhaps in a sense. It's true that latte art evolved as a means for talented baristi to show off. And it persists today as a similar exercise. But that demonstration of skill is also an indication. That is, the barista that can produce a pretty latte can also produce one that tastes right, and has the proper texture. I have made this argument before, and I say it again only to emphasize the point.

I would never argue that my rossetta is Art with a capital "A", never say that's it's much more than an impressive demonstration of barista skill. But even still, I would never say that an impressive display of skill and concentration at one's job is, in any way, frivolous. Quite the opposite. There is a beauty to the simplicity of it. Because it is simple. Easy? No. Quite difficulty, actually. But it's not complicated. And that, I think, ought to mean that latte art is something most people can enjoy looking at -- or at the very least, drinking.

1 comment:

  1. Great thoughts on latte art. I agree that it's not an end-all, be-all of barista skills, but it is something that will definitely happen over time if a barista cares even a little. My usual response to those who over-glorify a rosetta or scoff at the pretentiousness of latte art: "Does the person drinking it enjoy and appreciate it? That's all that matters."