In 1973, General Foods introduced a line of instant coffee geared toward the demographic known to be consuming several million dollars' worth of Harlequin romances on an annual basis: gullible women desperate for a little chic, a little luxe, a little worldliness in their otherwise pre-QVC drab and miserable lives. The first three flavors: Suisse Mocha, Cafe Vienna, and Cafe au Lait (later renamed Cafe Francais). Actress/singer Carol Lawrence was the shill for the line until about 1980, at which point vignette-style commercials were introduced.
One, in particular, would have a galvanizing effect on my teenage psyche:
Two women (one blond, one brunette) sit on a couch, facing each other, holding steaming cups of coffee. They are perfect homogenized simulacra of real women, sitting in a perfectly homogenized simulacrum of a real living room.
BLOND WOMAN to BRUNETTE WOMAN: "Do you remember that time in Paris?"
BRUNETTE WOMAN: "That cafe!"
BLONDE WOMAN: "That waiter!"
BOTH SCREECH IN DELIGHTED UNISON: "Jean-Luc!"
When I was eighteen, this commercial had the power to literally enrage me. I wanted more than anything to go to France. The idea that these women not only had gone to France, but that it had been so obviously wasted on them, made me furious. I knew it was a fiction. I knew it was just a stupid commercial. But then again, that does tend to be the template for American life for many people. American women just like this were out there, going to France, coming back with nothing to show for it but a fond recollection of a cute waiter. Life is wasted on the vast majority of American suburbanites. If it had been me and my friend, it would have gone like this:
SARAH: Do you remember that time in Paris?
GABRIELLE: Which time?
S: That cafe?
G: Which cafe?
S: The one we went to after the Matisse show at the Centre Pompidou.
G: Oh, that cafe!
S: That waiter!
<long pause, as both women stare off into space, a twin flush rising to both set of cheeks>
BOTH SCREECH IN DELIGHTED UNISON: "I can't believe we did that!"
S: What was his name?
S: Yeah, "y'on something, or are you just happy to see me?
G: This coffee-in-a-can sucks.
S: Yeah. It was a stocking stuffer. Want me to make real coffee?
G: Pope wear a tall hat?
S: French waiter ambidextrous?
It took me a pretty long time to get over my visceral hatred of General Foods International Coffees. I hated the idea of them. I hated the idea of bastardizing the concept of European places to sell crappy instant coffee bulked out with powdered milk and a metric buttload of sugar, especially when any self-respecting European would never in a million years drink anything as profoundly crappy as an International Coffee beverage.
I still think they suck pretty bad, but I have a can of Cafe Vienna (Low Calorie Austrian Style Coffee Drink Mix) for emergencies. Whenever I feel like life just couldn't get any worse, I make a cup. The sweet steam wafts out of my mug. I smile beatifically at the non-existent camera. I sing "Celebrate the mo-ments of your liiiife" under my breath. I take a sip. I choke, sputter, and gag. I pour the rest out into the sink. My life is now better than it was thirty seconds ago. It's all looking up from here, baby. You bet.
French Vanilla Cafe
Hazelnut Belgian Cafe
Swiss White Chocolate
Viennese Chocolate Cafe
A Recipe From The Makers
Take these with you to the next Junior League tea, and watch all those beauty-shopped matrons-about-town act like monkeys on crack after just one of these beauties:
Gooey Mocha Lava Teacakes
1 pkg. (8 squares) BAKER'S Semi-Sweet Baking Chocolate
1 cup (2 sticks) butter
2 cups powdered sugar
1/2 cup GENERAL FOODS INTERNATIONAL COFFEES, any flavor
4 egg yolks
3/4 cup flour
Butter eight (6 oz.) custard cups or souffle dishes. Place on cookie sheet.
Microwave chocolate and butter in large microwavable bowl on HIGH 2 minutes or until butter is melted. Stir with wire whisk until chocolate is completely melted. Stir in powdered sugar and flavored instant coffee until well blended. Whisk in eggs and egg yolks. Stir in flour. Divide batter among prepared custard cups.
Bake at 425°F for 15 to 16 minutes or until firm around edges but soft in centers. Let stand 1 minute; run small knife around cakes to loosen. Carefully invert cakes onto dessert dishes. Sprinkle lightly with additional powdered sugar and garnish with raspberries, if desired. Serve immediately.
It's just one more way to celebrate the moments of your life, brought to you by Kraft Foods. Ahem.