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!

Holiday wishes for readers of every stripe: why I may wish you Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, and Good Yule, too

Looking forward to a holiday season that promises merriment and stresses, joys and missed opportunities, I send my sincere wishes for a healthy, happy, well-balanced Celebration of Your Choice to every reader.

X New Year - 1

Beginnings of a feast to welcome the New Year

Contrary to what some pundits believe, I am not partaking in a “War on Christmas.” I just happen not to be one of the Americans who makes a Christmas holiday in her home. I am delighted by the fact that so many do, however, and honored to be invited to participate in Christmas and alternate holiday parties held by friends, family, and my community.

I cherish every card I receive wishing me the best, whether the sender is joyfully recounting the birth of Jesus or illuminating the darkness in remembrance of a miracle of light. Some of the greetings are silly cartoons and puns, and I like those laughs, too.

I’m especially fond of the irreverent ones because they tickle my fancy, though I don’t think most who know me would accuse me of a lack of reverence in my personal or spiritual conduct.

Xmas - 1

Ёлка (yolka)

I even appreciate the commercial cards from my dentist or the auto repair shop, especially when an employee took the time to sign his name; it may be advertising, but it is also a human expression in an age when some would call corporations “citizens.” Ahem. It’s an effort to spread joy. I’m all in favor of that.

Counting your blessings, sharing glad tidings, and lighting up the darkness are Really Wonderful Things.

I begrudge no one her wish to draw her family close and celebrate the season as she sees fit; I wish for everyone the comfort of being embraced by his family and friends during these darkest days of the year.

It is human nature to need a bright and warm “coming together” in the heart of winter. I hope every reader finds that, whether the bosom that welcomes you is secular or holy, crowded or solitary.

May each of us find the love we need to keep our spirits lifted, now and going forward.

And I pray for extra doses of relaxation to find their way to all of us who join in multitudinous cultural festivals due to the rich complexity of our intermingled lives. Let all the in-laws and outlaws* revel together in harmony this season.

Shalom! Peace be with you and yours. Happy holidays. Blessed be.

X Hanukkah - 1

Homemade hanukkiahחַנֻכִּיָּה, only slightly flammable. Adult supervision required!

 *Outlaws may be a distant possibility unless you celebrate a real, old-fashioned Saturnalia. Enjoy a law-abiding holiday season… unless you are living in place that suppresses your religious freedom. Secret personal observances in defiance of culture police? Yes. Drunk driving? No!

Travel must have: an LED light

I always travel with a light, at least a small flashlight,* but more often a mini lamp capable of rendering a strange hotel room safe for use late at night.

Pictured are similar keychain flashlights and rechargeable, motion sensing LED light bars like those I packed on my last trip.

My reasoning is fairly straightforward. It’s only happened once, but I was on a flight where the overhead light in an airplane lavatory went out in mid-flight. You can imagine how gross an unlit restroom in motion could become, so I’ll say no more about that except that now I always carry my own source of light.

I’ve had similarly unexpected needs for my own method of illumination in a retail store back room when an unreachable overhead bulb burned out, and when caught outdoors in nature after dark. Stuff happens. Life with reliable electric light is decidedly more convenient!

Travel lights, like electronics in general, have undergone more evolution during my adult life than almost any other item routinely packed.

We are all also carrying more chargers for electronics, but they aren’t much different from those that powered the much bulkier Gameboys and Walkmen of my youth. The wall wart might be a bit smaller, but plugs and cables remain fundamentally the same.

When I was a child, there was no reasonable way to fully illuminate a campsite–or a hotel room–without burning fuel or carrying an battery-powered flashlight the size of a large hardbound dictionary. Our old fluorescent lantern—the cutting edge technology of its day—didn’t even use standard batteries (AA, C, or D) most of us keep at home. It used these 6V behemoths which are the size of a cup of coffee but much heavier.

Booklights were common by the time I was a teenager. The popular Itty Bitty Book Light original used incandescent bulbs (breakable, and likely to burn out within the product’s useful life) and AA batteries. It looks like this model is still in production by Zelda!

I always packed extra AA batteries and a spare bulb when I traveled for more than a day because devices devoured them in short order. You could go through dozens of AA batteries per day if you listened to hours of music on a portable CD player.

I got the wondrous gift of a fluorescent book light** in college. The lower power requirements meant I could safely leave home without additional AA’s. The light itself was bulkier, however, than the incandescent competition. It was about the size of a two decks of cards side by side when folded flat. Its clever Z-folding design did mean that it could stand resolutely on a night table, not being easily upset, and work as a mini bedside lamp.***

I note the self-supporting feature because, even before I developed arthritis in my hands, I didn’t enjoy the excess weight of a lamp clipped to a book. I dislike the off-balance feeling.

Though I use a 15+ year old, battery powered, dual LED Mighty Bright booklight even at home for late night reading (insomnia, sigh!), I constantly fiddle with the aim of the beam, and I’m often left feeling peevish about the experience. This particular is about equal in value to my greater comfort with the lighter weight of my Kindle Voyage in making e-books my bedtime favorite format.

If you don’t travel with any sort of light, I’d recommend carrying a tiny button-cell battery powered flashlight, at least. They cost about $5 and are smaller than your little finger. You can spare the weight and space.

For those frequenting hotels or traveling with kids or partners who fumble for the toilet late at night, the motion activated feature on a mini light sporting three to 10 LEDs provides a lot more service in just a little more space. Mine’s roughly the size of a candy bar, but weighs less. It has a long lasting rechargeable battery.

Often, these rechargeable units use the same standard mini USB cable as a Kindle or phone, requiring no further accessories to pack. My light rarely needs recharging during a typical one week trip. I’ve repurchased similar bar lights on Amazon, with none of the specific models still available as of this writing. They work well in the home, as well, for spots where no convenient outlet allows for a traditional plug-in nightlight.

How do you illuminate your travels? Or am I just more afraid of the dark than the average voyager?

*Actually, I keep a tiny flashlight in my handbag at all times and I add an LED bar light for travel. I really don’t want to be stuck in the dark.

**No longer available to purchase, but you can still view the venerable Phorm Light Voyager on Amazon.

***Carrying a standard flashlight would also be an option, but I don’t enjoy the act of reading while I’m actively training a focused beam on the page. Perhaps if I’d read under the blankets with a torch, like all the bibliophile kids in stories I enjoyed growing up, but my parents were very lax about bedtimes so long as I was in bed and reading. I just used my standard bedside lamp late at night!