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!

Sandwich generation: no, it’s not my mother’s or my daughter’s

The “sandwich generation” is a constantly moving target of those adults sandwiched between caring for children still at home and parents needing more assistance as they age.

Getting dressed this morning, I noticed that I first used “Not [My] Mother’s” shampoo, then I put on “Not [My] Daughter’s Jeans.” I feel well and truly labeled as a woman living in the current sandwich generation.

I dislike these brand names. Nope, they aren’t my daughter’s. They’re mine! I use the products in spite of their mildly offensive branding because they meet my needs.

I do find NYDJ denim fits me better than most* other jeans I’ve tried on throughout my life. This was especially true during the ultra low rise trend of the early aughts when I found the “pants falling down” sensation of low riders utterly unbearable.

It was also true of my teenaged and young adult self, however. I was frustrated when trying to buy stylish clothes to fit my figure before I was old enough to drive. They sure as hell wouldn’t have been my daughter’s jeans then, but they would have fit!

I used to blame myself and my “defective” figure; I’m now very well aware that the clothing itself is to blame. My figure, whether slightly overweight or at a healthy level of fitness, is exactly what it’s designed by my genetics to be, and that includes an above average abundance of hips.

Trends in preferences for ladies’ figures come and go, but the wide diversity of shapes and sizes of human beings stays more constant. It comes down to pure luck whether you are a narrow waif or a busty bombshell at the right time to rock the latest popular fashions.

My pants—and my shampoo, for that matter—are anything but generational markers. I resent this kind of marketing because it buys into and perpetuates the steady stream of bigotry that is ageism and generational warfare. It’s loathsome stuff.

How many articles have you seen recently about snowflake Millennials and their personal failings? Perhaps you’ve read a few about the entitled Baby Boomers and their legacy of poverty for the rest of us?

Sure, there are trends that can be seen, in hindsight, to identify a group in a certain time and place. Allowing yourself a similar set of assumptions about an individual standing before you is prejudice, plain and simple, and it serves no one when acted upon.

My mother’s shampoo is a very good one, and, if my hair were color treated like hers, it would work well for me, too. I share her fine hair texture, though mine is straighter.

And, if I had a daughter, she might well have inherited my hard-to-fit lower body. If so, I suspect she would be grateful to pull on a pair of jeans that didn’t gap at the waist, no matter how uncool the brand name.

I am living in a sandwich generation. For all its occasional inconveniences, I’m grateful for the gift of my children, though they do require my time and care. I’m happy for the privilege of having elders still with us to share their love and wisdom with those same kids, and with us, too, though more and more often they are turning to us for practical support.

This isn’t a new thing; it’s an ancient role. We’ve complicated it by breaking up the extended family and living in isolated nuclear bunches, but human lives are bounded by periods of frailty.

The very young and the very old are precious resources for us all. They may require more of our time and assistance, but our entire society benefits when someone makes these “sacrifices.” At its most base, this is reassurance that, I, too, will be cared for when I am no longer able to care for myself. And at its pinnacle, it is altruistic love that represents the height of human empathy, compassion, and potential for goodness.

*FYI: the vastly less expensive Riders by Lee also work very well for wide hips with a narrow waist. I can buy five pairs of the Lee jeans for the same money as a single pair of NYDJ jeans. Overall longevity is similar, though the NYDJ details are superior. Look how much better the much older stitched brand label on the NYDJ pair has held up than Lee’s printed logo, below. NYDJ also offers more and trendier styles.

We aren’t REALLY talking about pants today, but I’m always willing to share this kind of knowledge with other women seeking pants that fit.

Jeans Riders by Lee - 1

I order my Lee jeans from Amazon. Most of my NYDJ jeans are purchased from Nordstrom during the annual Anniversary Sale.