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.

On the one hand, yes. Smoothies are a sneaky way of stealing back to the nipple, sucking an elixir whose rich, concentrated goodness we can never, no matter what, forget. The straw tautens the facial musculature in that same familiar way — well, so do cigarettes. So smoothies are a shockingly primitive food, a stark response to growing up too fast in a scary world. But at the same time they are as futuristic as sneakers that fasten with Velcro. They’re easy. They’re complete. Like liquid Power Bars, they speed straight to the bloodstream. Foretelling all of this, a song that sped up the charts in the summer of 1969 predicted that in the year 2525, “You ain’t gonna need your teeth … you won’t find a thing to chew.” So why fight against the future?

Within a stone’s throw of downtown Berkeley BART, Juice Appeal is part of a prolific smoothie chain. As such, it offers a printed flyer with nutritional information for twenty of its most popular smoothies: calories, fat content, protein, carbs, fiber. Sugar is conveniently not mentioned, but the protein count runs as high as sixteen percent in a Boysenberry Boost and a whopping twenty-one percent in the Health Shake, a drink as quirkily retro in both name and ingredients, which include that total anachronism, carob powder. The flyer takes a controlling tone, promising “the ultimate experience in customer service and product satisfaction.” Yet during our visit, Tuffy noted that on the menu board, the price for twenty-four-ounce smoothies ($3.50 for all) was clearly chalked, while the price for their sixteen-ounce counterparts had been erased and even the phrase “16 oz.” was half-erased and ghostly.

Asking whether sixteen-ouncers were indeed available and what they cost, Tuffy was surprised when the clerk mocked him.

“Yes, we have little smoothies for little stomachs,” Tuffy was told — and Tuffy is not a little man. The undertone implied little budgets as well, and who knows what other little things.

Reeling — even in a town where customer service quite often comes with a superior smirk — Tuffy squinted at the menu, making his choice. The words “South Seas Sensation” were about to leave his lips when the clerk, not abiding ditherers, began serving the pretty student on line behind us.

And yet the $2.95 smoothies, when they came, were exquisite. The snappy South Seas Sensation melded passion fruit and mango juices with peaches and pineapple sherbet. A Cantaloupe Quencher, spiked with papaya juice, frozen yogurt, and melon, gave that conservative old fruit a new lease on life. And the Pineapple Bliss, employing pineapple in its fresh and sherbet forms along with both frozen and unfrozen yogurt, had a dairified softness that pleasantly overwhelmed the fruit’s aggressive natural nip. Free extras come with every purchase: a variety of fortifiers varying in trendiness from bran to ginkgo biloba.

Nearby at the athletically oriented Capoeira Arts Café, smoothies are formulated with workouts in mind. But they’ll cost you. A verdant Green Power ($4.75) includes tropical fruit along with spirulina, chlorella, algae, and herbs. The appetite-suppressant Burn-Baby-Burn ($4.25) includes guarana, chromium picolinate, and bracing bitter melon. Only the brave dare order the Fiber-a-Day ($3.95), stocked with psyllium husk and pectin. Unlike most smoothies, those served here employ milk and juice but eschew sherbet and frozen yogurt. This gives them a decidedly thinner consistency, but the absence of a sugar rush provides dividends all its own. Even more basic are the blender drinks at Gourmet Ghetto’s Juice Bar Collective, where $3.50 buys a rather small serving of plain yogurt swirled with OJ that is squeezed right before your eyes.

At these prices, smoothies are clearly no mere substitute for a can of soda, nor are they meant to be. A bean-and-cheese burrito costs less. But smoothies are curiously filling, unless you are accustomed to steak lunches. And you have to chew burritos.

Jamba Juice’s ubiquity is bad if chain stores upset you, but good, in that this chain proudly adds antioxidants to its product, not to mention fructooligosaccharides (they promote bowel health; do you really want to know?). Then again, it’s bad, if it wants us to believe that 450-calorie cups of sherbet-rich semiliquid are the most nutritious things in the world. But compared to other fast food, it’s more than merely good.

Flyers here, too, explain the ingredients. (Peaches, we learn while waiting on the long line, are “fuzzy and full of Vitamin A.”) A small fascistic touch are the Comment Cards on which waiting patrons are asked to report on whether or not the clerks say “thank you” and whether or not their greetings seem sincere.

Chain that it is, Jamba Juice serves a consistently smooth product, alive with flavor, in a huge cup that lasts a long time. Made with plain unfrozen yogurt, the Aloha Pineapple ($3.50) is a kissing cousin of Juice Appeal’s Pineapple Bliss, and a Mighty Cherry Charger ($4.25) offers a rare and satisfying encounter with a favorite fruit. Pitting that many cherries at home and blending them would be exorbitant and take forever. This way, their merry all-American sweetness races directly to the tongue without passing go.

Lines also form, come weekday lunchtimes, outside Northside’s tiny Hummingbird Café. Smoothies here have a homemade heartiness: so thick you almost have to eat them, all the way to the last drop, with a spoon. Alone among their kind, they are decorative as well, topped with artful dollops of frozen yogurt and bright bits of fruit. In the nicely priced Hawaiian Punch ($1.95), shredded coconut adds a novel bit of chewiness to creamy tropicality. Equally jungle-inspired, the gingery Mango Mania ($2.50) sings with a pure fruit flavor and a texture that approaches that of very cold pudding.

Combining the lure of the future with that diaper-bound dream of the past, smoothies have got it going on at both ends of the continuum. Each trip to the straw, each sip of superfood and sugar, sends us racing in both directions at once, at breakneck speed. No mere sandwich can do that.

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