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!

Color pairings: Tom Bihn travel bag in Viridian with Angelrox accessories in Teal

I’m a colorful traveler as most of my capsule wardrobe posts will attest.

You might also fairly describe me as a bag addict and a brand aficionado. When I find one I like, I keep going back for more.

Today, I’d like to present a pairing of products from two different brands which go beautifully together. Assembled atop a few other items from my teal/purple/acid green travel capsule are:

Tom Bihn viridian cubelet travel Angelrox teal lagoon ocean violet Ahnu shoe Sugarpine - 2Here’s a rare case where my photograph shows the colors blending just as nicely as they do under natural light. If you like a vibrant, color-coordinated look involving shades of teal blue/green, consider these pieces by these brands.

Why Tom Bihn?

Some of the best lightweight (carry on) travel bags in America are made in Seattle by Tom Bihn. Quality and customer service are both outstanding. I use their products daily to keep my handbag organized and can say with sincerity that doing so makes my life easier and better.

Though I’m often loathe to return items, preferring to think my purchases through beforehand, I’ve exercised their reasonable return policy to try pieces out at home and create the ideal combination for the way I want to carry my stuff. Sometimes, you just have to pack a suitcase to see if it works for you.

I’ve sent back bags because they don’t work for how I pack; I’ve never seen even a hint of a flaw in workmanship in a Bihn bag. They are meticulously sewn from high quality materials.

Afraid to commit to expensive bags on just my say so? Spend some time on the very active Tom Bihn forums first. You’ll hear from plenty of other obsessives fans who share generously their opinions and experiences. I lurked for months before placing my first order.

Tom Bihn bags are made in a good range of colors that tend to be available for reasonably long periods of time. I.e., you can come back a year later and buy a second bag in the same colorway. That said, not all colors are on offer for all styles. You might need to sign up for a waiting list to be notified when the bag you want is in production, especially if you are picky about color.

There’s also a healthy market for used bags in discontinued combinations on ebay, etc.

Why Angelrox?

Angelrox is a woman owned small business in Maine where fashion is balanced by wearability (i.e., comfort!) Their signature cotton/bamboo knit can be a bit heavy (weighty) for ultralight carry on travel, but its softness, stretch, and tendency not to wrinkle keep it in contention for me.

It’s rare that I so much as leave the house without at least one pair of their “sleeves” (fingerless gloves, available in Opera/long and Aria/short lengths), however, so at least a few of their accessories have gone with me on every recent trip.

For lovers of layered, joyfully artistic styles in a rainbow of mouth-watering colors, Angelrox is worth a look.

Their customer service is personal, warm, and responsive; expect to be called an “angel” and to see a hand written thank you note on your invoice if ordering by mail. Packaging is simple/minimal, but includes a graceful tissue wrap and raffia tie that I’d say elevates it to suitable for gifting.

While not every item is available in every color on the website, I’ve had great luck talking to customer service and finding out which pieces are in the production pipeline. I also got custom hemming for a long gown at no extra expense though it was no longer returnable after customization.

Jigsaw puzzle as travel diversion: Wentworth offers tiny wooden treasures you can work on a tray table

I’ve written about the joys of wooden jigsaw puzzles before.

Jigsaw puzzle wood Wentworth Artifact Dowdle Liberty Ravensburger - 1They are exactly what you’d expect if you’ve ever done a modern cardboard puzzle. Visualize a similar product cut from thin sheets of wood instead of flimsier paper. For those who get annoyed with ill fitting or torn pieces in the Springbok or other puzzles sold at the local big box store, wooden puzzles offer a much more satisfying experience.

Ordering my first wooden puzzle was a leap of faith. They cost a lot more than mass market cardboard ones. No one I knew had any experience to share, and the least expensive choices seemed to have tiny numbers of pieces compared to my usual 1000 piece behemoths. I was afraid I would feel I’d wasted my money.

I didn’t. Now I own about a dozen, and I covet a great many more.

While its true that the most common wooden puzzles are smaller—and made of fewer pieces—than the typical paper version, this didn’t affect my enjoyment of the new type. In fact, I found they offered a whole new realm of possibilities for portable puzzling.

Something about the cut of a wooden puzzle, and perhaps its more three dimensional nature, makes me focus more on shape and less on the image. I feel like my brain gets a different kind of workout from doing a wooden puzzle.

But aside from that difference, my wooden puzzles are so small, I can work them in more places. Instead of needing my much loved but bulky Jigthings Jigboard 1000 plus half of the dining room table, I can sit on the couch with a lap desk or a half sheet baking pan to complete most of my Liberty and Artifact puzzles.

I ordered my first Wentworth wooden puzzle for $16.99 from Amazon when I noticed how tiny its listed dimensions were. I wondered if they could possibly be accurate. They were!

Wentworth 40 piece puzzle retail price appears to be $19.99.

Jigsaw puzzle wood Wentworth AirNZ tray table - 3

Wentworth 40 piece wooden jigsaw puzzle on Air New Zealand Premium Economy tray table

The finished puzzle is about the size of a printed photograph: 4 x 6″. A 40 piece Wentworth puzzle is easily completed on an airplane tray table, and the pieces themselves take up just a bit more room than a deck of cards in their roughly 3.5″ square box.

The 54 piece Artifact puzzle, Kessel Shells, with which I’m comparing the Wentworth in most of these photographs is scarcely any larger. It just comes in a bigger, higher quality, tissue lined box with an elegant magnetic closure. I paid $18.

Small (< 90 piece) Artifact puzzles retail for $18-40.Jigsaw puzzle wood Artifact shells inside box - 1

Assembled, it fits easily inside its own box with an inch or more to spare in all three dimensions. Please note that this wouldn’t be true of all Artifact puzzles; they use one type of box for puzzles from this size on up to a medium.

Note also that the particular Artifact puzzle that I photographed for this post has a unique conceit: all of the pieces are very similar squares, and straight edges are used in the middle of the puzzle as well as for edges.

It turns out that I don’t enjoy this type of puzzle as much as a standard cut ideally with whimsies, like most other Artifact options, but it does make for pieces that are easy to re-package and transport in a small cardboard jewelry box or one’s Wentworth 40 piece box if one so desires.

Say, for example, to bring along on a plane!

Jigsaw puzzle wood Wentworth Artifact travel - 6

Re-packaged Artifact Kessel Shells puzzle’s 54 pieces into Wentworth puzzle box to show how compactly they could be stored for travel

For use after re-packing in this manner, I tried assembling the Kessel Shells puzzle using a photo stored on my iPad for reference, and that worked fine. If your puzzle fits in your carry on bag but its box won’t, just snap a quick picture.

Harder core jigsaw puzzlers than myself are known to work puzzles without using the finished image at all. It is harder that way. Personally, I don’t enjoy the process as much, but I have done it to test myself. I find it boring with a paper puzzle’s usual standard shapes, but better with a wooden one; the pieces are almost universally more interesting when cut from wood. More care and expense goes into a typical wooden puzzle’s hand- or laser- cut craftsmanship, after all.

The smallest Liberty wooden puzzles retail for $39; they aren’t sold on Amazon, but direct from the manufacturer. I think all of their XS options are round, and most contain more pieces than other brands’ size Small.

I’ve given a few Liberty XS puzzles to my mom for gifts, so I’ve laid hands on them, but don’t have any to photograph for comparisons. They had 107-115 pieces and I found them wonderful to assemble. The attractive gift box would be bulky for travel, however, like the Artifact boxes are.

The tiny Wentworth 40 piece puzzle comes in a much smaller box than any of its competitors. It also proved to be cut from noticeably thinner wood.

Jigsaw puzzle wood Wentworth Artifact travel - 14

Wentworth piece (top) compared to Artifact piece (bottom); both from wooden jigsaw puzzles

Jigsaw puzzle wood Wentworth Artifact travel - 7

Storage box sizes for wooden puzzles of similar finished size; Wentworth (top) & Artifact (bottom)

Though this might affect my overall ranking of “best wooden jigsaw puzzles” for gifting purposes or in terms of total quality, it doesn’t mean Wentworth is a low quality brand! The pieces click together well enough to make for satisfying puzzle building. They just aren’t quite as luxurious as Artifact or Liberty puzzle pieces, and the whimsies seem a bit less special.

I would absolutely consider ordering another Wentworth puzzle if I liked the image depicted. My ideal puzzle size is at least several hundred pieces, and I’d love to try a really large 1000+ piece wooden puzzle someday. I do lean toward a brand with thicker pieces for the high price a large wooden puzzle commands, however.

A thinner puzzle does make for one which is easier to transport. For example, to bring along on a plane.

Jigsaw puzzle wood Wentworth cardboard Ravensburger zoom

Compare jigsaw puzzle pieces of Ravensburger cardboard (top) to Wentworth wood (bottom)

A “thin” wooden piece from Wentworth is still thicker than that of a high quality cardboard puzzle. Here’s a picture of one to compare with a Ravensburger piece in cardboard. You can judge for yourself.

My recent trip to New Zealand was my first time bringing along an actual jigsaw puzzle for entertainment in midair. I’ve tried an iPad “jigsaw puzzle” app, but found it unappealing in practice.

Usually, I find the hours of a flight pretty easy to while away with a few books loaded on a Kindle to conserve weight and space plus some saved video content and a few casual games on my iPad or phone. I stocked up on digital and other distractions much more heavily for the marathon Transpacific flight where no wifi was available even if I got desperately bored.

When I get very tired on a long flight, my eyes stop wanting to read before my brain is willing to sleep. That’s about the only time I resort to screen time, or, more often, the crossword puzzle from the in flight magazine. This time, I followed up a lot of reading with some jigsaw puzzling. It helped me to pass the time in a fun and novel way.

If you take particular enjoyment from completing jigsaw puzzles, like I do, you might consider packing along a small one on your next long haul flight. It’s definitely better for your brain than more screen time, and it’s strangely satisfying to do something tangible with your hands instead of spending all those hours inside your jetlagged, slightly muddled mind.

I used to knit on a plane for similar reasons, but I gave it up when I couldn’t carry my mini scissors any longer. Also, I heard horror stories about knitting needles being confiscated as weaponry. There’s no way I could stay calm if the TSA made me dispose of a project well under way with the argument that my slightly pointy wooden sticks were sufficient to bring down a plane.

I would be livid, and, deprived of my project, I might also be bored.

I’m a pretty creative thinker, but I find it hard to imagine even the most overzealous security agent seeing wooden puzzle pieces as a credible threat. I’ll just avoid any puzzles with scenes of soldiers or battles, or overtly political themes, just in case.

Happy puzzling!

Wooden jigsaw puzzles: what was old is new again

I’ve mentioned this before: I love assembling jigsaw puzzles.

Some of my enjoyment of puzzles relates to fond memories of doing them with my mother when I was growing up.

Another element is the sense of well-being I get from assembling all kinds of things. I also like putting together furniture from IKEA, and building Lego sets.

There’s a reason I worked in software quality assurance (QA) for a number of years. I get satisfaction from methodically completing a series of steps, confirming every expectation has been met. I’m weird like that.

So one of my favorite pastimes is completing a jigsaw puzzle.

After almost forty years of doing puzzles, I was amazed to discover a new frontier in this relatively straightforward hobby.

The wooden jigsaw puzzle difference

wooden jigsaw puzzlesI started collecting wooden jigsaw puzzles. Continue reading