Suck, Baby, Suck 

Smoothies are the food of the future ... and the past

Writers with a theistic axe to grind like to point out that fruit's unique anatomy, the sweet pulp sealed tightly in skin, proves that God exists. He made fruit this way, they chortle, expressly so that humans could carry it to work in sack lunches and eat it at their desks. Surely it was us He had in mind, since other fruit-eaters, such as bats and flies, given a choice would want it served another way.

But while an orange, say, is neat in theory, try peeling one. Carnelian jewels of juice spurt and glimmer, wobbling, on your fingers in the glow of the halogen lamp. Licking them off leaves a sticky smear. And then the seeds: how to spit them out soundlessly? And spit them into what? Plums, peaches, and apples offer traumas all their own. Fruit's nasty little secret -- the elephant in the living room about which, like an alcoholic father, everyone knows but which no one dares discuss -- is that it is not so much fun to eat at all, especially if others are watching. Bananas are a rare exception, but with some of the most desirable fruits of all, you do not stand a chance. One only need think of coconuts to conclude that fruit is not the gift of God but of Satan.

Which means that smoothies are either a blasphemy -- a mangling of His holy gift -- or a miracle. What better way of outsmarting the Evil One than to shuck the peels, pop out the seeds, put three different pulps together, add juice and ice and a wodge of frozen dessert, and blend to a seductively velvety smoothness? But more on seduction later.

Like blasphemies and miracles, they sure go down good. And like blasphemies and miracles, smoothies are having a brilliant moment in the sun that might or might not last.

Central Berkeley, just to pick a zone at random, is a veritable sea of smoothies. Nearly every cafe has some on its menu -- usually chalked in on the lower right-hand side, revealing them as recent arrivals. A few places thrive on selling smoothies alone. You know something's really trendy when businesses dispense nothing else.

So this high point in the smoothie's career, whether it's the crest or just the foothills of what will be a long, frosty, and ultimately corporate climb, is an intriguing moment in culinary history. Cruising the zone and sampling the local talent yields a wealth of contrasts and comparisons. The territory is vast and uneven. No two establishments make smoothies exactly alike. With the exception of those chain stores that are milking the smoothie market for all it's worth, and which may or may not be setting a standard, almost anything goes. It is a world of wild guesses, improbable and tenuous couplings, a fruity free-for-all. Blueberries here, raspberries there; bananas fresh here and frozen there; the crunch and glitter of shattered ice here, a creamy pastel sheen there. Brewed Awakening, on Northside, blends generous concoctions just a touch on the icy side and serves these with a smile, but takes its time doing so. Across campus, Michelle's Yogurt & Sweets offers a "People's Choice" smoothie: you select your own fruit. Berkeley Espresso Café slips lemonade into its coconut-pineapple blend for a sweet bite that just won't quit. Even Starbucks serves its own deep pink Tazoberry, a tea-based burst of chilly sweetness. And surging through it all, from ordering to puréeing to sipping, is a sort of frontier thrill: the fledgling hysteria of the new.

But blended cold beverages are anything but new. The smoothie's less ambitious ancestor, the milkshake, entered the lexicon in 1889, the malted milk two years earlier. Both depended heavily on ice cream, which first saw the light of day in France circa 1688. These drinks were so popular, so ubiquitous, that if you had polled a crowd of guys and gals in some malt shop sixty years ago they would have laughed at the idea that a time would come when tattooed hipsters drank blended bananas. With wheat bran, yet.

With the advent of portable electric blenders, Muscle Beach types such as Berkeley's own Jack LaLanne used to whip up protein shakes with milk, fruit, wheat germ, variables such as lecithin and vitamins and honey, and raw eggs. In the frothy result, the egg was indistinguishable. You could not detect it. Yet its primal symbolism, its disgusting rawness, infused such drinks with an unseen power, making each swig a test, a personal challenge, a breakfast of champions. The implied challenge gave these drinks and their drinkers a superior air, an exclusivity, as if to whisper, Weaklings keep out.

Smoothies bear a stunning resemblance to those weightlifters' shakes. But in this all-inclusive age, when shunning weaklings means selling less product, what cafe is foolish enough to offer raw eggs, which might in any case make people sick instead of strong?

But smoothies owe a lot not just to Muscle Beach but also to frozen yogurt, their sine qua non. Frozen yogurt's late-'70s debut was greeted with the sort of applause that greets smoothies now. It was, in principle, nutritious. In the Himalayas' Hunza Valley, where yogurt has always been a mainstay, are some of the longest-lived people on earth. The fact that what came swirling out of those big silvery machines while Stevie Nicks whined through the speakers overhead was heavily sugared and spiked with chemicals to aid a freezing process which, in turn, affected its nutritional value paled alongside the self-congratulatory experience of eating it.

The fact is, from malted milk on down, these concoctions are smooth and sweet and soothing, and they need not be chewed. It's all about not chewing.

Sucking meals through straws is arguably the realm of infants, invalids, and accident victims whose jaws have been wired shut. Fans of chewing would sneer that making such meals a fad makes us a nation of babies, passive slurpers: an insect nation forfeiting its evolutionary imperative to incise.


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