I Think About This a Lot is a series dedicated to private memes: images, videos, and other random trivia we are doomed to play forever on loop in our minds.
While I have not read In Search of Lost Time, I did get a degree in creative writing from Emerson College, and therefore feel comfortable comparing myself to Marcel Proust. In Swann’s Way, the first of his seven-volume masterwork, Proust’s narrator takes a bite of a petite madeleine dipped in lime-blossom tea and is transported on a journey of “involuntary memory” in which the “essences of his past” are revealed to him.
I’ve had a similar experience.
A few years back, as I sat in the parking lot of a Dunkin’ Donuts in my home state of Rhode Island sipping from an iced coffee, savoring the distinct terroir of Southern New England and the subtle notes of ashtray, I glanced down and realized, as if for the very first time, that my coffee cup was actually two cups: a plastic cup inside of a Styrofoam cup. Just like Proust, I was transported to the essence of my childhood. I ran back into the Dunkin’ Donuts holding my coffee aloft, my mind and body electric with sensory memories of my life to this point.
“This cup!” I declared. “What is this second cup called?”
“You don’t want the hot cup?” asked the woman behind the counter.
The HOT CUP! So elegantly simple and — not unlike the unassuming architecture of a Puritan meetinghouse — a distinctly New England convention. A cup for hot beverages … encasing a cup for cold beverages! Ten years in New York, ten years of drinking sweaty plastic cups of ethically harvested cold brew — sometimes wrapped in a soggy napkin, sometimes a flimsy cardboard sleeve, always dripping all over me — and somehow I had forgotten about my roots. I’d forgotten about the Dunkin’ Donuts hot cup —that nonbiodegradable Styrofoam barrier keeping my iced coffee cold and my hands condensation-free.
The hot cup was thrust into the spotlight earlier this year when a customer took to the Dunkin’ Donuts Facebook page to complain about the practice.
“Can your New England stores stop doing this? Wasteful?!” they posted.
It’s safe to assume that by “wasteful” they were referring to the environmentally questionable practice of using not only two cups at a time, but of having one of those cups be made of a material that science tells us can take more than a million years to decompose.
But any good intentions were met with vitriol. In the maybe most–New England insult ever, another poster responded, “GOOF we want our hot cups!!!!!!!! u don’t want them, then don’t get one.” A barrage of like-minded responses followed, most along the following line of thought: “You need to leave New England.”
The local papers reported the exchange with glee. There are few things New Englanders enjoy more than insulting a stranger. And even greater is combining that insult with the defense of a beloved New England tradition like eating a grinder, drinking from a bubbler, wearing shorts in the winter, or having your parking ticket fixed by your cousin’s husband who works for the state. It’s just the way things work.
I think about this Facebook argument a lot. It seems silly — it’s just iced coffee right? Would a little condensation really kill you? But you know what? Maybe it would! Like most other good Southern New Englanders out there, I drink iced coffee well into the winter season because, above all, it’s the most efficient delivery mechanism for caffeine, and the Hot Cup is just as useful at keeping hands warm in the cold as it is at keeping hands dry in the heat. There aren’t a lot of things right now that work just the way they’re supposed to work, but the Hot Cup does.
Boston had the Big Dig, rerouting a major highway underground to expose an underutilized waterfront. The city of Providence relocated two rivers to in an effort to revive the city center. Through all of these massive upheavals of the very infrastructure of Southern New England, the hot cup remains, an immovable force in the face of change.
When I reached out to the Dunkin’ Donuts global media relations office to inquire about Hot Cupping, I received a very nice official statement which read, in part, “As the number one retailer in the iced coffee category in the U.S., we know that people across New England and throughout the country have their own preferences for how they love to enjoy their iced coffee, but we can’t say if using a hot cup is more popular in any particular regions or markets.”
I like this line of thinking. Corporate communications aren’t always great at playing dumb, and they do it well here. It’s the form-letter equivalent of a wink-y shrug.
I recently texted my cousin, a Rhode Islander who has lived in Florida for the last few years, to ask if Dunkin’ Donuts stores give out hot cups down there. “They do not!!! Wish they did!!!” she responded instantly. “They want to save the environment here lol.”
Lol, indeed. As Proust himself might have said.