Wish You Were Here in a You Are Here demitasse

Starbucks packaging describes this little demitasse cup as an ornament, but it is food- and dishwasher- safe in addition to being tiny and adorable. Starbucks wish you were here ornament demitasse - 1

Part of the You Are Here collection, the box is dated 2016. It was a gift from my mom a few years ago, from one of her last Christmases.

Mom died in July 2019.

Being something of a sentimentalist, a pack rat, and terrible at imposing order on objects in general, I’d stuck the Starbucks ornament in the back of a kitchen cupboard that includes coffee stuff I use only for parties.

Unlike my mother, I never developed a proper holiday stashing system, nor do I tend to decorate seasonally. Unless we consider the accumulation of Amazon shipping boxes on the landing before a gift-giving holiday a form of décor?

For my autumnal birthday this year, my dear husband finally gave in to enabling my caffeine addiction and bought me an espresso machine of my very own. Due to the pandemic, I hadn’t enjoyed my favorite beverage since March 12.

Starbucks wish you were here ornament demitasse - 3That’s more than six months without tasting espresso!

A week or two later, I happened upon my You Are Here Oregon demitasse while putting away my thermal cooker. Since then, I’ve enjoyed my daily espresso or two—okay, yes, now that the machine is in my home, I’m drinking three single shots per day!—from Mom’s gift.

A year and a third since her death, that only brings me to tears once or twice a week.

Starbucks wish you were here ornament demitasse - 4Mom loved Starbucks, though my own espresso preferences are a bit more locally roasted and single origin.

Mom knew how much I miss the state of my birth, and the part of the United States that I still, deep down, consider Home.

Mom would’ve noticed this cup boasts lots of my favorite color.

Of course, to Mom, it was an ornament. To me, it’s a cup. We saw a lot of things differently, but, luckily, mostly we saw eye to eye on the things that really matter.

I can’t bring myself to recycle the little box where Mom hastily scratched through the price tag. She gave so many gifts, just wrapping them was a herculean task. She had to work fast to get it all done. Mom was a perky little dynamo. A half-obscured price tag feels like another spider silk thread from the ghost of her hand to mine when I hold it.

The collection is called You Are Here, but, for me, it’s a Wish You Were Here cup.

Freeze meals in silicone bakeware to store more foodsicles in limited space

Freezing leftovers is not a new idea. Making a big batch of food and storing individual portions for later has been popular at least since mass production made containers cheaper than a home cook’s time. Sheltering at home due to COVID-19 has increased the frequency with which I do this kind of batch cooking.

Mushroom broth frozen in silicone muffin tray and stored in baggie

Recently, while browsing on Amazon, I noticed a product called Souper Cubes. These are specifically designed for freezing food in tidy, portion sized, rectangular chunks. They look incredibly functional, and I’ve added some to my Wish List.

This fairly expensive* specialty kitchen product reminded me of a similar hack I’ve employed for years. It might work just as well for you as it does for me, and it could save you money, too.

Smartware blue silicone brownie and bread pansWhen silicone baking pans first showed up at mass market stores a decade or so ago, I received a Smartware set as a gift. Since then, I’ve added a few shapes of individual silicone “muffin cups” to my collection of full size baking pans, mostly for use to create “bento style” packed lunches for my kids.

My orange Wilton muffin pan snuck into the kitchen along the way.

Frozen broth popping out of flexed silicone muffin tray

A standard size muffin compartment creates a very useful “puck” of homemade stock or broth. Half a dozen fit in a quart size freezer bag. These are easy to combine for recipes requiring larger quantities, and the small rounds melt more quickly than a solid frozen quart or even pint would.

A bread pan freezes the right portion of soup or stew for nights when I’m feeding just the kids. Couples with desk jobs would probably find this a useful size for the purpose; one large, athletic type might eat just as much. Keeping the fill to half depth or less, these “bricks” defrost in a reasonable amount of time. I reheat them back in that same blue bread pan. Being silicone, it is suitable for use in the microwave or oven.

Several stew bricks fit in a single gallon size Ziploc bag. I separate the bricks in the bag with parchment or freezer paper for tidiness and convenience.

Writing identifying descriptions and the date directly on each wrapped brick also prevents loss of external labels that tend to peel off in the chill of my freezer. I re-use the same large Ziploc over and over as long as there’s no obvious food residue inside.

A typical muffin tin or metal bread pan could obviously be used to freeze portions just as well. The main benefit of silicone containers is their flexibility. One would have to allow frozen portions to defrost quite a bit more in a rigid dish on the counter to remove them for more compact long term storage in baggies.

I think most of us are trying to shop less often to help prevent community spread during the pandemic. Freezing perishables helps me do that while avoiding feeding my family too many processed foods.

freeze silicone packed freezer - 1My freezer is crammed full, so every efficient storage trick is worth a try.

My scientist husband is particularly nonplussed by my use of the same Rubbermaid Commercial bins he uses to move frogs around his lab. It’s weird for him to pull the kids’ dinner out of one when his day-to-day experience primes him to expect a fecund xenopus.

I would enjoy the convenience of a Souper Cubes tray with its calibrated portion sizes stamped right onto the container. Those tidy rectangular prisms would probably improve the appearance of my messy freezer compartment, too. That said, I’m getting most of the usefulness of this method by using silicone items I already had at a cost of $0.

* ≈ $20/tray

Or in a Stasher silicone bag for those aiming to live plastic free. I’ve tucked a quart size Ziploc bag between the largest Stasher Half Gallon (white) and the pink Sandwich bag for scale in my photo here. The little aqua one is Stasher’s Silicone Pocket. I’ve purchased most of my Stasher stash at a slight member’s discount from online organic grocer Thrive Market.

Large, medium & small Stasher silicone storage bags with quart size Ziploc bag to show size

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!

Disposable paper coffee cups aren’t good enough for a 4 star hotel like San Francisco’s Westin St. Francis

Due to my husband’s travel schedule and a favorable fare war over the flight path involved, I had the great pleasure of spending five (5!) nights in the heart of San Francisco. His professional obligation put us up at the Westin St. Francis on Union Square.

I would be unlikely to pay for a 4 star hotel in this location—unless, perhaps, it was in an historic building I admired—but I’m eminently capable of enjoying it.*

My husband in particular dislikes a hotel which increases the fussiness or snootiness of the service at the expense of obvious value added to his straightforward tastes.**

Overall, the Westin St. Francis did a great job providing the unpretentious service we prefer at a level above what we demand to be satisfied. It was a very comfortable and gracious place to stay in a bustling San Francisco neighborhood.

Housekeeping gracious manners - 1

It’s my habit to leave a brief thank you with the tip for Housekeeping. A first for me: Westin Housekeepers thanked me back!

Though not quite to the level of get-it-before-you-ask intuition shown at five star properties, we found Room Service to be quick and attentive to detailaspicky eaters on a weird schedule. Housekeeping was very thorough, friendly, and, like Room Service, paid careful attention to special requests.

I can’t fault any of the service personnel at the Westin St. Francis, though the Front Desk was often busy or otherwise slow to serve.***

There was one item both Housekeeping and Room Service failed to providefor us when asked, and I did make requests of both. I asked Housekeeping in a note, and DH asked Room Service on the phone. I was told they could not provide a reusable mug for the in room coffee service.

Even when ordering espresso via Room Serviceor seated in the lobby cafe, it was provided in a tall 12 oz paper cup with Starbucks branding. Yuck!

My complaint here is twofold:

  • I love my coffee, and it tastes better from a ceramic cup.
  • Throwing away a paper cup for a beverage I’m drinking seated and indoors is needlessly wasteful.

I prefer a paper cup to styrofoam, but we all know there’s got to be a coating on that paper to make it waterproof, right? Coffee is hot. Wax and plastic coatings melt. Plastic, even without BPA, still contains chemicals that probably impact human health.

No, I don’t think the paper cup’s interior coating enhances the flavor of my organic medium roast.

And as for the unnecessary creation of garbage for drinks I’m consuming in the comfort of my hotel room? No, just no!

I think it is tolerable—if not my personal preference—for the Westin or any other hotel chain to choose to default to paper cups for in room coffee services. I don’t know the statistics on hotel behavior, but it’s absolutely possible that most guests most of the time are preparing, then carrying out, their room-brewed morning beverage. I understand that the glass carafes on the old 4-cup coffee makers broke regularly, creating headaches and hazards for Housekeeping and guests.

In this Tower room at this Westin hotel, the location of the coffee service near the tiled bathroom, but outside of its perils on a carpeted floor, would seem to reduce the risk of broken service items. A ceramic mug also seems less likely to crack than the thinner glass of a drip coffee machine’s carafe.

Most emphatically, if guests can be trusted to eat from ceramic dinnerware and glass cups delivered via room service, there can be no increased risk from coffee mugs of the same materials!

I suspect that the partnership with Starbucks is a part of this equation. Lots of people love Starbucks. It’s viewed as a premium brand. It probably “means something” to use that mermaid logo on your in room coffee service.

Perhaps Westin has an agreement to serve all coffee in Starbucks branded cups? Provide a ceramic mug with the iconic green logo, then, but please do have one available when I request a less wasteful coffee cup. If Starbucks is forcing the use of its branded paper cups, they need to be called to account for it or change their stated intent to reduce their environmental impact to a more honest one.

In Starbucks stores, I can always get my beverage in a ceramic cup by asking for it when I order. My estimation of the company would skyrocket if they made this policy a requirement for third parties displaying the Starbucks logo for marketing purposes. That would show a real commitment to the environment.

In a hotel with several bars and restaurants, a full menu of room service, and a complete kitchen that must include commercial dishwashing equipment, it is simply unacceptable to tell me that you don’t have a ceramic cup for me. I find it repellent, walking through the beautiful, marbled lobby, seeing a cafe full of guests settled in to drink from cups that are, essentially, garbage. I expect much better in an environmentally aware city like San Francisco.

Since 2012, the municipality of San Francisco has demanded that consumers pay for every paper shopping bag procured from a retailer. Plastic bags were banned outright in 2007. Even luxury boutique Hermès must ask if you want to pay 10¢ for a bag to carry home your new $12,000+ Birkin handbag.

How does this align with a hotel advertising rooms available “from $620 per night” during my stay that wouldn’t provide a washable, reusable mug for my use in the hotel?

My solution was to purchase a new glass “to go” cup from local roaster Blue Bottle Coffee. Theirs was manufactured by KeepCup. Trying Blue Bottle’s single origin espresso was on my list of adventures for the City by the Bay, so I got a meaningful souvenir and solved my cup problem in one fell swoop.

Blue Bottle espresso - 1 (1)

Yes, Blue Bottle Coffee’s single origin espresso was worth seeking out in its own right.

For someone like my husbandadmittedly, not a coffee drinker, like many most traveling professionals are—whose free time in the hotel is strictly limited by the rigors of his work schedule, this wouldn’t have been an option. As it was, when I offered him a soothing cup of chamomile tea in the evening, I had to clarify that he’d be getting it only after I finished my own cup of Darjeeling. We only had my one glass mug, of course.

Travel dish soap - 1

I often travel with my own refillable coffee cup† and I always carry a tiny 0.5 oz Nalgene drop dispenser bottle of dish detergent in my toiletry kit, but I left the travel mug at home this time. We were staying in a full service, four star hotel, so I assumed there would be proper drinkware on offer. I also knew that I’d have lots of free time while DH worked. I planned to savor my beverage of choice—espresso, straight up—seated in cafes and not on the go.

A recent sale flier by U-Konserve, the company that makes most of my reusable lunchbox components, pointed out the following from this study by ScienceAdvances:

“There is now one ton of plastic garbage for every person on Earth.”

U-Konserve also gives this fact in their Environmental FAQs:

“About 25 billion single-use coffee cups end up in landfills every year. If you buy just one cup of coffee or tea in a disposable cup every day, you’ll end up creating about 23 pounds of waste in one year.”

KeepCup estimates the environmental breakeven point of my reusable glass cup vs disposables to be as low as 15 uses. Put another way, if I use my new Blue Bottle travel mug 16 times instead of a paper cup, washing it between uses, I will have made the more environmentally sound choice.

Paper cups aren’t plastic bottles, but, seriously, are we still debating the wisdom of the throwaway society?

And I’m not even particularly militant on this topic. It strikes me as possible that disposables are more convenient to many business travelers, and I’m not prepared to insist that my opinions dictate what ends up in other users’ hands.

I am, however, quite wedded to my position that a hotel of the caliber of the Westin St. Francis has an obligation to provide environmentally friendlier options to guests like me who want them.

If not, it is greenwashing of the highest order by a company highlighting its sustainability mission and asking customers to “Make a Green Choice” to defer housekeeping that happens to be labor/cost saving for the hotel in addition to water-wise.

*My personal valuation of hotel class often boils down to: if the location is what I want, clean and simple will serve my needs. I prefer to pay extra for more space (i.e., two bedroom vacation rental with kitchen when traveling as a family) over luxury finishes or a more extensive range of services.

**He raved about the Philadelphia Four Seasons, mostly because room service recognized almost immediately that he prefers exactly the same menu every day. They came to answer his afternoon call with, “Are you ready for your berries now, sir?”

***When the shower knob fell off in my hand, the front desk forgot to send maintenance after my first call; I had to ring them again after 45 minutes of waiting. The service technician, once summoned, fixed the problem quickly, thoroughly, and with a total commitment to disturbing me as little as possible while he worked.

†My favorite is an unbreakable stainless steel-lined model by Liquid Solution. It has a non-slip, textured exterior, a simple lid, and holds up to machine dish washing.Coffee cup travel mug - 1