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Long ago, asking for a cup of coffee was simple. Every place that served food offered a cup o’ joe; and in some joints, they’d refill it when you drank yours up. But in the last half century (since Starbucks opened in Seattle in 1971), coffee has become as complicated as oenophilia. Forget such primitive terms as small, medium, and large. The words to know are tall, grande, venti, plenta, and micra, not to mention doppio, quads, red-eyes, black-eyes, breves and skinnies and a whole world of cappuccinos, frappuccinos, machiatos, mistos, and mochas.
A few regional styles of serving coffee have endured the proliferation of national corporate double-talk. These include New Orleans cafe au lait, which is a mix of chickory coffee and scalded milk (preferably accompanied by sugar-dusted beignets) and the term “coffee, regular,” which in New York, for reasons nobody knows, means coffee with cream and sugar.
The Pacific Northwest remains the hub of American coffee culture (Anchorage has more coffee shops per capita than anywhere else), but it’s Rhode Island that has declared coffee its official state drink. Well, not exactly coffee: coffee milk. Like chocolate milk, but coffee-infused, coffee milk is omnipresent on menus in diners and cafes, available in every market and convenience store, and a favorite among home cooks who make it using readily available coffee syrup. Historians speculate that its popularity derives from the state’s Italian heritage and the Old Country tradition of gentling strong coffee with a lot of milk and sweetener. Rhode Island coffee milk, as popularized at drug store soda fountains in the 1930s, tends not to be strong at all; it is milk with a slightly sweet, mildly caffeinated flavor.
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