Café notes: Coffee, the Congo, and Lynn Nottage’s play, “Ruined”

I had a great cup of single origin Congo Ituri coffee at the mall last week.

NZ restaurant espresso - 1This is remarkable for several reasons:

  • First, I was at the mall.*
  • Second, I got a great cup of specialty coffee therein.
  • Third, my beautiful pour over arrived with a side order of coincidence.

I simply haven’t the foodie palate or terminology to give you a better explanation for why my cup of coffee was so great, but the barista on duty that day was particularly knowledgeable. He probably prepared my cup with great skill. Certainly the flavor profile of the beans and the roast landed right in the sweet spot for my tastes.

What struck me as I sat down in the café with my cup and opened my library book was the coincidence. Here’s the top of the first page of Lynn Nottage’s play, Ruined, setting the scene:

“ACT ONE, Scene 1: A small mining town. The sounds of the tropical Ituri rain forest. Democratic Republic of the Congo.”

The tropical Ituri rain forest? It rang a bell. I went back up to the café counter and read the menu board once more.

That day, the Nordstrom Espresso Bar was offering a Congo Ituri microlot coffee in the light roast** I prefer. Probably why I’d chosen it from amongst several offerings, including a light roast Kona I’ve enjoyed before.

I drink Ethiopian Yirgacheffe pretty often, and regularly select it preferentially, but I haven’t hit upon another African region for beans that’s become a steady favorite. I’ll certainly seek out more Congolese coffees moving forward, however, on the strength of this one notably wonderful cup.

But here are a few painful questions that I can’t answer, all stimulated by the tough subject matter of Nottage’s play that I read while sipping said cup.

  • How sustainable is coffee cultivation in DR Congo?
  • Does coffee cultivation there typically help the Congolese people, and especially the vulnerable women of Congo whose plight is underscored in Ruined? Is it a path helping average people rise above the legacy of the nation’s bloody civil wars?
  • Are major brands like Nordstrom and Starbucks doing enough to support the individual coffee farmer in the Democratic Republic of Congo? Or are these rich corporations paying less than they should for their beans because they’ve got the might to get away with it?

Honestly, I can’t answer any of these questions after a few days of searching.

Coffee is a delight to me. It is one of my daily pleasures, and, yes, a minor addiction. Coffee is also one the world’s most valuable legal commodities, like petroleum or precious metals. It’s big business on the order of tens of billions of dollars per year, and the needs of the coffee plant itself dictate that it be grown in what are often unstable, developing regions.

It can be hard to evaluate for oneself whether a coffee purchase meets one’s personal standards for ethical sales, environmental sustainability, etc.

Thanksgiving Coffee bean package of Ethiopia YirgacheffeThanksgiving Coffee, an artisan roaster I’ve patronized many times, encapsulates best what a consumer like me seeks with their motto: Not Just a Cup, but a Just Cup. I want to drink great coffee, but I’d prefer not to do so on the backs of modern day slaves.

Nottage’s Ruined is not, I should add, a play about coffee. Its setting is a bar/brothel, and beer, whiskey, and Fanta are the beverages I recall from the script. The subject matter is intense, and should be painful to anyone with an interest in social justice. Or to anyone with a heart.

Like other works I’ve read/seen by this playwright, Ruined is a story about women getting by in a world where someone else wields most of the power. It’s a tale of making do with one’s terrible circumstances, and coming to terms with it all as best as one can.

One needn’t look as far as the Congo to find such injustice and resilience, either. We’ve got plenty of it here at home in America. One of the best plays I’ve seen performed this decade was Nottage’s Sweat*** at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Aside from being a masterful work in and of itself, Sweat also inspired an “immersive transmedia” art project This is Reading in Reading, PA, the Rust Belt setting for that tale of struggle.

It can be hard to unravel the threads of thoughtful consumption in an era of broad scale multinational trade. You could give up completely, or simply begin where you can: by asking questions, and by sharing what you learn. My quick research into coffee farming in the Congo led me to more new questions than answers. Yours may yield better fruit.

Where we all benefit is by calling attention to those with less power than ourselves, and making even small efforts to do them good. Our strength increases with numbers; so, too, does our ability to enact positive change.

*The mall is not my natural habitat.

**As I understand it, it is easier to identify the flavorful nuances of a particular bean when the roast is lighter. I think I’m looking for extra complexity in my cup.

It’s a common misconception that dark roast coffee is “stronger” in every way than light. Roasting destroys some of the caffeine in the beans, so breakfast blends are usually a medium roast to maintain their power to perk!

Dark roast coffee has a deeper color, but it isn’t stronger in every sense of the word.

A few days later, I found two distinct Reserve varietals from different regions of the Congo at a local Starbucks with a Clover machine (used for making specialty single brews and not offered at most locations.) I enjoyed a cup of Idjwi Island Reserve, but not quite as much as the Nordstrom Congo Ituri.

But NOT the world’s second most valuable commodity, as you’ll see misstated all over the internet. My brief bit of research suggests that was true back in the 1970’s or so, but hasn’t been factual for quite some time. If you want to read more, try this article.

***And, in what has been my favorite performance in years, I must draw attention to the quiet dignity of actor Carlo Albán who traveled with Sweat from its world premiere at OSF to New York City. He played an often nearly invisible busboy in the play, usually reacting to the “bigger” characters swirling around him, and did it with such a beautiful, aching intensity that I was frankly honored to spend a few hours with him at an OSF dinner later on. I’m not the only one who was similarly affected by Mr. Albán!

New England’s glory is autumn: musings on a Hallowed Eve

At some point if you’re lucky you realize you’re old enough that half your life has happened after college. For me, that also marks the division between growing up “at Home” in the American Pacific NW, and then living for almost two decades in the Northeast, first in Central* New York, then still further eastward until I ran out of land and stopped just short of the Atlantic Ocean.

While Home is still where my heart resides, autumn is the season when I most appreciate living in New England. I find that my otherwise least favorite chore—driving on the region’s rarely planned, oft overcrowded roads—becomes a source of radiant joy on crisp, clear fall mornings.

garden view of bench on frosty autumn morningI am the sort of person whose heart really does feel swollen to bursting in the face of beauty. I get moved to tears easily and often, especially by evidence of the enormous capacity of human beings for goodness and generosity. I literally jump for joy when I get excited. I’m not what you might call “hard to stir” at any time. And yet…

Simply passing along our suburban lane these past few days has been a wonderland of well-framed vistas, with all credit due to Mother Nature. I may hate the new McMansions thrown up around the corner, but even they look fantastic bedecked with pots of purple mums and overhung by turning leaves in yellow, orange, and blazing red, mirrored by their fallen comrades drifting the street below and browning into dust.

With the ground heavily frosted this morning, I stole a moment I couldn’t spare in the yard to snap a photo of rimed flowers, drooping toward death, yet somehow more magnificent than ever in their regal fading.

Frost rimed flower and fallen autumn leavesThe best photos, I’ll never capture. It is the empty road embraced by fiery foliage that stirs me, moves me, but can’t be caught. I’ve always loved the promise of whirring along en route to the pleasures of a destination, and it is this combination of robust kinetic energy within the season of winding down and wrapping up that makes these moments so momentous for me.

I hope someday to return Home to stay, resuming the mantle of grey days and soft, cool mist that is my birthright. I miss the sight of constant, snow-capped mountains swathed in evergreens, and even the ubiquitous rain. But, if I do depart, I will always miss New England’s blazing autumns. These daily miracles will remain forever etched on my soul.

Happy Halloween, dear readers!

*Not “Upstate” New York, which means somewhere else in the large state that also happens to house that glory hog, New York City. This is a distinction quite dear to those who live near my alma mater. I went to college in a rural part of the state, where cows outnumbered even students. Our little village didn’t even host a gas station.

Here’s where I can’t help but make a terrible and rather inappropriate joke, so I’ll keep it below the fold. Stop here, children. Continue reading

Exposé: Cuisine-ophobia or the xenophobic kitchens of another generation

While celebrating a family birthday around a crowded, multi-generational table, I pontificated at my children about the way certain dishes and cuisines have shifted within American society from outsider status to everyday favorites. My immigrant in-laws nodded in agreement as we all discussed the way “normal” home cooking varies over time and between homelands.

pizza“Why, when Grandma was a child,” I intoned, “spaghetti was an ethnic Italian food that your American great-grandmother would never have made at home. Isn’t that funny, since we eat pasta and pizza every week?”

“Ah yes,” replied my younger son, “cuisine-ophobia is a terrible thing!”

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Café notes: Brew Lab Coffee, Edinburgh, Scotland

Fortified—or, perhaps, better described as “fat-ified”—with a salted caramel doughnut, I embarked upon the best espresso I’ve yet tried in the UK at Brew Lab Coffee.

doughnut on plateespresso with foam art served with sparkling waterBrew Lab is in Edinburgh, Scotland, an easy walk from the tourist madness of the Royal Mile. Located near a university, its clientele seemed to consist mostly of students and…pregnant ladies.

These notable women may also be students, but I was mildly amused to find myself seated next to someone immensely gravid on both of my visits. And, no, it wasn’t the same woman, unless she was a Mission: Impossible spy wearing an unimaginably perfect fake face. I think it is safe to describe Brew Lab Coffee as a family friendly establishment.

It is also a “coffee snob friendly” cafe. I find the coffee shops I wish to visit when traveling by searching for “single origin espresso.”

coffee shop menu board featuring espresso from Colombia and Peru

I’m not so elite a coffee snob that I refuse to drink any blend of beans, but I do find that the overall beverage quality is higher in shops that at least offer the option of exclusivity. Brew Lab Coffee features two different kinds of beans at the espresso bar: one for straight, black shots, and another for drinks blended with milk. That’s a clear marker that the drinks are going to be good.

And, yes! Yes, their espresso drinks are excellent. It is well worth a moderate walk up and down Edinburgh’s ubiquitous hills, through sometimes heavy rain, past a multitude of other shops offering fair espresso, and even with arthritic feet. Brew Lab’s coffee was so good, I did not explore the other fine options I read about online, but returned to savor it again.

heavy rain falling outside cafe doorcafe interior made of old stone, brick, and reclaimed wood

As luck would have it, Brew Lab Coffee is as charming a setting for a good sip as it is competent in the making of one’s drink. Like much of Edinburgh’s Old Town, the visitor will feel steeped in history here. The cafe’s brick walls and reclaimed wood elements are atmospheric, warm, and inviting. The warren-like layout offers cozy corners enough for all patrons, though admittedly this may not be the best hangout for those with extreme claustrophobia.

Hints of the space’s former use as an office remain in the rather cheeky access to the men’s toilets. I felt a bit indelicate photographing it as the large window offers a rather generous view. I liked the “Meeting in Progress” sign, however, and risked my Victorian sensibilities and the poor gents’ modesty with a quick snapshot.

phone displaying map to Brew Lab Coffee shop

Brew Lab Coffee is located at 6-8 South College Street, Edinburgh, EH8 9AA. It’s open seven days a week, and worth the walk from the Royal Mile.

http://www.brewlabcoffee.co.uk

info@brewlabcoffee.co.uk

0131 662 8963

And two more coffee varietals for pour overs at their brew bar, making four types in total. I stuck with my preferred straight espresso shots having only a few days in Edinburgh and a tragically low threshold for caffeine consumption.

Key Straps save my stuff: how Tom Bihn’s bags keep arthritic fumblefingers from ruining my day

In other posts, I’ve referred to the way Tom Bihn bags often make my life better. I want to expand upon that point lest I sound like a mere company shill.

Tom Bihn PCSB and Cafe Bag with Sunday Afternoons hat on hotel desk

Tom Bihn bags and Sunday Afternoons hat

Today I’ll talk about how one “key” feature of this particular brand helps me stay organized and deal with the ongoing issues of a chronic medical condition. I’m talking about removable Key Straps that can be attached to O-rings integral to Tom Bihn bags and many other anchors on luggage or in hotel rooms.Tom Bihn Clear 3D Organizer attached with Key Strap to handicapped rail in hotel bathroom

Key Straps are the “key” feature

I carry a Cafe Bag ($70, size: Medium, color: Original/black Halcyon with Wasabi lining) almost every day, sometimes swapping it out for a Travel Cubelet ($40) or my Packing Cube Shoulder Bag (PCSB, $34) when I travel light. My Cafe Bag is generally fitted out with six separate Key Straps at once, each serving a unique function.

Tom Bihn yellow Key Strap on Cafe BagKey Straps ($5) come in 8-inch and 16-inch lengths, and are currently offered in seven colors. Many of mine are the older style, sewn from folded Dyneema/Halcyon nylon fabric. Newer Key Straps are made of webbing instead. Key Straps come in two varieties: with a snap hook on both ends, or a snap hook on one end with an O-ring on the other.

Additional Tom Bihn accessories that go virtually everywhere with me include:

  • Clear Organizer Wallet ($17) for cash on Wasabi TB Key Strap
  • Coach purple leather card wallet on Steel/grey TB Key Strap
  • Solar/yellow TB Key Strap left empty for… my keys!
  • Pocket Pouch ($10) in Aubergine with Wasabi lining for lip balm attached with its own integrated clip
  • Eagle Creek pouch on Ultraviolet TB Key Strap
  • Aubergine Small Q-Kit ($18) on Iberian/red TB Key Strap for medication
  • Wasabi Mini Q-Kit ($15) on Wasabi TB Key Strap for electronic charging cables and earbuds
  • Clear pouch with red back for paper and longer objects I want to carry, often including a checkbook, a full length emery board (nail file), or a passport

I attach non-Bihn items by various methods. You can see the Key Strap snap hooks attached to a key ring on my card wallet and a fabric loop on my Eagle Creek purple pouch in my detail photos. The integrated O-rings and detachable Key Straps are tiny things that make a tremendous functional difference in my Tom Bihn satchel, but these accessories play very nicely with other brands.

By designing modular pockets, pouches, and parts for the end user to attach or not with separate Key Straps, every bag can be customized precisely for its specific purpose. This works really well for me.

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