Latte art is just one manifestation of the aestheticization of food and drink. Before flavor and texture comes appearance. The significance of visual appeal is as old as food itself: Vibrant colors and pleasing shapes doubtless drew early humans to good sources of nutrition and encouraged experimentation and the pursuit of variety. Medieval and Renaissance feasts often featured elaborate renderings of animals and castles in aspic or bread.
Today, in Seattle (and, increasingly, other parts of the coffee-drinking world) latte art is de rigueur. What once was a flourish of added value at the fanciest cafes is now an expected feature of the coffee experience. Years ago, when I was working as a barista at a coffee shop in Greenwood, a customer asked me if I could make a rosette in his macchiato. I tried (with middling success), but the implication was clear: If I was going to call myself a barista, I had damn well be able to create latte art in a 2.5 ounce drink.
When I got a macchiato at the Fremont Coffee Company a few days ago, the barista made me this:
That’s right: It’s a skull wearing a bow.
Today, I got a unicorn in my latte.
A leaf or a heart speaks of sophistication, an elevation of the act of drinking coffee. It flatters the drinker, assuring them of their good taste.
A skull or a unicorn is playful, reminding us that delight can be found in the simplest of experiences, and urging us not to take ourselves so seriously.
Both kinds of latte art – the classic and the whimsical – soften the blow of paying as much for a drink as we might for a sandwich and showcase the prowess of the barista. It’s sort of strange if you think about it, but also really enjoyable.