The diner is where I learned to drink coffee. When I was quite young, maybe four or five, my mother met a quirky group of friends each week at a legendary establishment called Southern Kitchen, in my native Charleston, West Virginia (may you rest in peace, Southern Kitchen). She would bring me along, so I could be one of the ladies for the afternoon. The women would meet for brunch, but linger for hours over the coffee. Their cups would be refilled again and again, and they’d spruce it up with yet another creamer, a few more packets of Sweet’n Low. I loved the way they all told stories while nursing the warm mugs in their hands; they’d sit in those booths for hours, their raucous laughter emanating through the air. Even as a child I thought, “This is really special.” It was something I wanted to be a part of — the connection they shared, the fun they seemed to have. And it all centered around coffee.
The iconic ’90s sitcom Seinfeld took this familiar ritual and used it as a platform. The diner was the meeting ground for Jerry and company. Watching the show as a youngster, I dreamed of meeting my friends over coffee, in a diner on the corner, having something interesting to say. Still to this day, when I’m sitting in a corner booth at a diner in the city, I feel a strange feeling: I feel like I’ve made it. (Yes, my aspirations are different than yours).
Jerry Seinfeld recently called into NPR’s Morning Edition during Coffee Week, reflecting on coffee’s social and ritualistic role in his life. It happens to be the basis of his new online show, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. It’s exactly that: Comedians driving around the city in really cool cars, getting coffee. The coffee is the catalyst to authentic, brilliantly comedic conversation. Enjoy!
COFFEE CONVERSATIONS is a new section of the blog, profiling inspiring and interesting people. Essentially, they are conversations with extraordinary human beings about art, design, music, and world events, usually over a cup of coffee. This particular conversation was had over the phone, but no doubt with coffee in hand.
“Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead
A growing group of Christians, Muslims, and Jews in Mbale, Uganda have sought to create change in their own community, by taking on a lofty goal: interfaith peace through coffee and music. Led by Jewish musician J.J Keki, the cooperative calls themselves Peace Kawomera, or “Delicious Peace.” They grow, pick and process organic coffee, side-by-side, in a country that remains divided by religious and ethnic barriers. Music is a strong part of Ugandan culture, used for communicative and joyous purposes; the farmers of Peace Kawomera follow in this tradition, writing and performing songs which promote their peaceful worldview, educate those around them, and celebrate the crop that brings them economic prosperity.
In 2001, J.J. Keki was invited to visit the states on a lecture tour. While in line at the World Trade Center to view New York City’s skyline from above, he found himself in the midst of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, running for survival after witnessing the first plane strike the towers. After Keki’s experience in New York, he returned to Uganda on a mission: to use his gifts and the resources around him to promote religious peace. Rabbi Jeffrey Summit, a research ethnomusicologist and Jewish Chaplain at Tufts University in Boston, met Keki while recording his Grammy nominated album, Abayudaya: Music from the Jewish People of Uganda(Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, 2005). After being introduced by a friend to a recording of Peace Kawomera’s songs, Summit felt compelled to visit Mbale to hear the music himself.
Delicious Peace: Coffee, Music, and Interfaith Harmony in Uganda (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, 2013) was recorded and produced by Summit. Speaking to the rabbi by phone, the day after two bombs tore through crowded streets during the Boston Marathon, I remarked on the timeliness of the album’s release. “What better thing to put into the world right now, a project about peace,” I said. “You know, I wish it wasn’t so relevant,” he replied, clearly shaken by the events of the previous day.
In a short documentary filmed by Rabbi Summit in Uganda, Keki explains his driving philosophy: “Whatever you have, use it for peace. If you have music, use music,” he says. “We have coffee,” he explains. And coffee may just be the perfect crop for peace. He holds a ripe coffee cherry in his hand, peeling the skin to expose two beans inside. “We should copy the example of coffee to bring peace” Keki says. “You see this one?” he asks. “Two beans in each coffee. Which means it is friendly, it doesn’t want to live alone.”
Rabbi Summit traveled to Uganda three separate times, recording 400 farmers. “Recording in East Africa is its’ own special challenge,” Summit told me. Originally they set up recording sessions right in the middle of the vibrant, chaotic goings-on of the village, which, though beautiful and authentic, proved to be “very distracting” while recording. “We [along with recording engineer John Servies] were out in the bush,” recording in rural landscapes, as well as finding acoustic solace in synagogues, mosques, and churches. The music itself is a layering of women’s choral voices, African guitar music, and indigenous instruments — including the tube fiddle, shaker, and wooden xylophone — and even a Casio keyboard.
The songs are performed at community events, in an effort to attract others to join the cooperative. Sung in various languages — including English, Swahili, Arabic, and Hebrew — the impact is far reaching. These songs are used as engaging ways to transmit information. Many are educational or instructional, such as “In Uganda, everyone grows coffee,” and “Construct a processing factory;” others celebrate peace, like “Let all religions come together.”
An integral part of the success of Peace Kowomera is Fair Trade. “It’s not just about paying people more,” Summit explained. It helps fund important practices like providing credit for famers to expand their coffee farms, preventing harmful child labor, and protecting the environment. The benefits of Fair Trade are less obvious when the volatile coffee market is high, Summit told me. “Coffee prices dip precipitously,” he explains. During these market lows is when large companies, taking advantage of desperate circumstances, offer attractively higher prices to farmers. This short-sighted relief does not maintain stability; if during the the following year, the market jumps again, the farmer will sustain large cuts to prices. Fair Trade provides a stable income, helping farmers weather the highs and lows of the market. Most importantly, “For many farmers, the Fair Trade price is literally the difference between abject poverty and being able to afford malaria medication, basic health care, and school fees for their children,” Summit writes in the liner notes of the album.
The results of Keki’s efforts are nothing short of astounding. In the liner notes of “Delicious Peace,” Rabbi Summit tells the story of two farmers of Peace Kawomera –Patrick, a Christian, and Mohamud, a Muslim — sitting down to lunch. They told Rabbi Summit about their childhood, under the dictatorship of Idi Amin, when they were not permitted to socialize with people of other faiths. “When I asked if it was usual for a Christian and Muslim to eat together, they both laughed and said that even four years ago, before they joined the cooperative, it would have been inconceivable to them,” Rabbi Summit writes; he notes that outside of the cooperative, tensions and divisions are still present, an acknowledgement that interfaith cooperation remains an issue in Uganda.
How can we work to overcome religious and ethnic divisions in our own communities? The answer is shockingly simple, according to these farmers. “These communities have made peace a priority,” Summit explained. They often speak of the importance of “being one” with others. Summit recalls a time he was lectured about America’s fighting in Afghanistan. “They didn’t understand,” he says, instructing him to “be one person” with all people.
Indeed, perhaps all citizens of the world should see the world as such.
Purchase Delicious Peace through Smithsonian Folkways, here. All proceeds go towards supporting the children of Peace Kawomera members. Buy a bag of Delicious Peace coffee through Thanksgiving Coffee Company, here.
Coffee co-op and roaster Equal Exchange has embarked on a journey to source coffee from deep within the world’s protected biospheres. Recently, a group of three Equal Exchange worker-owners traveled to Peru’s Bahuaja-Sonene Biosphere, and explored farms that are part of the CECOVASA co-op. Their journey was captured on film, a glimpse into what it’s like to grow and pick coffee in these rugged and untouched regions.
It’s a beautiful and exciting journey, providing these farmer’s a fair opportunity to share their beans with the rest of the world. Enjoy the two-part documentary below. (To read more about their journey, click here.)
At Abuela’s Kitchen, a newly opened Cuban restaurant on Lincoln Road — Miami’s crowded and eclectic outdoor shopping mall — the women at the counter greet sólo en español. Since I don’t know much Spanish, I stick to what I do know: coffee. “Cortadito, please,” I ordered on a breezy Friday morning. “Non!” the robust waitress countered, shaking her head. “Too small. You want a cafe con leche — very strong and good.” It was early, and Cubans, like Italians, drink their heavy milk drinks in the early hours of the day. I nodded my head; really, I’d drink whatever she told me to — I didn’t want any trouble.
Cubans are one of the many cultures that make up the vibrant and multifaceted community of Miami, and the influence of their culture is unmistakable. Walking around Miami Beach, it can often feel like one is wandering through foreign streets; as one Colombian immigrant told me, “everyone in Miami is from somewhere else.” While I’m sure Miami natives exist, the city’s strong Latin presence is evident in Miami’s coffee scene. In nearly every cafe, one will see a café cubano on the menu.
A café cubano is a shot of espresso, often made with Bustelo beans, pulled with sugar, or sometimes, poured over sugar. The sugar caramelizes and turns into a kind of syrup, creating the notable sweetness Cuban coffee is adored for. Bustelo beans are darkly roasted (I know, I know, wrong on so many levels), so the sugar is never overpowering because the undercurrent of the coffee is so strong.
A café con leche is one part café cubano, two parts steamed milk. Often, condensed milk is used, creating an extra sweet treat.
Finally, a cortadito is the perfect blend of the two. It is a Cuban version of the macchiato: a potent shot of Bustelo, laced with sugar, cut with a drop of steamed milk.
Cuban coffee is engrained in Miami culture. Gazing at the crowd huddled around the the outdoor window at Abuela’s, one notices tourists, locals, Latinos, Haitians, and Europeans alike: a snapshot of Miami, all drinking a café cubano.
St. Simons, Georgia walks a contrariant line. Part of Georgia’s Golden Isles, it is a sleepy island town anchored by wild, unkempt beach. It is a truly traditional, southern, “bless your heart” and “eat those grits” kind of place, yet also serves as a quirky enclave of artists, writers, and forward thinkers. In the shopping center of Redfern Village alone, one can wander through art galleries, interesting jewelry shops (including Cumberland Island’s Gogo) a Tibi outlet (she grew up here, after all) and — surprisingly enough! — a truly special coffee shop tucked inside, too.
Wake Up Coffee opened three years ago by island native Bo Mann. Upon graduating from the University of Georgia in 2006, Bo became restless with his new nine-to-five job; he decided he needed to set out and explore the world. “For so many years I had studied and talked about the injustice in the world, but I’d never really seen it with my own eyes,” he told me via email. “I constantly challenged others to do something to help but I had never fully done anything myself.”
And see the world he did. Bo spent the next two years traveling through Africa, Eastern Europe, and Haiti. He discovered beautiful cultures and met extraordinary people, leaving him forever changed. Yet he also witnessed the overwhelming poverty that plagues much of our planet. “During my time overseas, one recurring thought ran through my head,” he says. “Now that I know, I must do something.” Wake Up Coffee was born out of this call for action. Inspired by the rich tea and coffee culture he experienced in North Africa, Bo wanted to create a cafe where the local community could gather, a springboard for discussion and education about the global injustices of the world.
Now run by he and his wife, Aletha, Wake Up Coffee serves regionally roasted beans, including Bartdorf and Bronson of Atlanta, and Cafe Campesino of Americus, Ga. All coffee is fair trade certified as well, a pillar of the cafe’s ethos; the fair trade certification “ensures our customers that our products are produced ethically and our artisans are paid a fair wage for their work,” he says. This eliminates the uncertainties surrounding coffee’s production, including child labor and slavery. And with the frustration that often arises from a lack of transparency plaguing the system, the duo may soon be stepping into the role of roaster. Their ambitions are high, as they hope to personally and directly import every product they sell — coffee included — by the end of 2015.
The cafe serves as a unique retail space as well, selling global good like handmade baskets from Uganda and metalwork by artisans from Turkey. Realizing that true change comes from providing opportunities for workers to develop sustainable businesses, Wake Up provides artisans — most of them women living in a country with little to no rights — a chance to sell their goods at more than fair prices. “We believe that development is far more important than aid, and is the longterm way to see a real change in global poverty,” Bo says. By selling things that are both beautiful and practical, they are giving the Saint Simons community a hand in alleviating global poverty. “Everyone wears earrings, or necklaces or carries a wallet or purse,” he says. “Everyone drinks coffee. Buy one from us instead of a big box store and [you are] helping break years and years of poverty.”
Bo and Aletha are inspired by their faith and Christian doctrine. And though they don’t align the cafe professionally with any particular faith, their personal faith is the driving force in seeking to create good in the world. “We’ve never wanted to be a faith affiliated shop but at the same time, we want our principles and beliefs to be reflected in everything we do.”
Creating a specialty coffee culture in this tiny island community, Bo and Aletha have inspired a town to think big, proving that acting locally can lead to sweeping changes globally. “At the end of the day we want people to come into the shop to become educated on [what's] happening in the world and to do something about it, Bo says.” “Coffee is just the medium by which we do that.”
Most importantly, he tells me, “we want people to ‘Wake Up.’”
As I settled into the cold iron seat resting lopsided on the uneven sidewalk, I sighed heavily — a release of the stresses from travel mixed with the exhilaration of my first morning in Paris. I love mornings everywhere, in any city. There’s always a quiet buzz, a certain energy still anchored by sleepiness. It’s a transition period; we are waking from our slumber, adjusting to the bright light of the sun, breathing in air consciously and deliberately. I hadn’t spoken French in a few years, and anxiety crept in as the waitress approached my tiny bistro table. ”Que préférez-vous, mademoiselle??” she asked. ”Un cafe crème, s’il vous-plaît,” I replied, hoping my American accent wasn’t obvious.
The sidewalk café in Paris is a universal meeting place. Found on nearly every street corner, sometimes three or four in a row are adjoined, all equally boisterous, full of tourists and locals. The only criteria, it seems, is that there’s a table available. People are seldom alone (though there are few single patrons, like me), and the entire experience is intimate. The tables are mere inches apart from each other, the groups sit closely, leaning in, lost in conversation.
The café is literally part of the sidewalk, one feels connected to the rhythm of the city. Tables litter the path of pedestrians: people walking to and from somewhere, entering and exiting the metro, in and out of the cafe. Though transient — new patrons fill freshly opened tables immediately — the cafe is a place where one may stay for an hour, longer. There is no rush, no limit to the conversation, no haste in time spent with those accompanying you.
As a writer who seeks good coffee for a living, and relishes her morning coffee the most, I found this cafe experience to be a conundrum. The time spent was rich and rewarding, yet the coffee, far from. I expected this, as I’ve been to Paris before. And I’ve talked to many Parisians who acknowledge this, too. The coffee in Paris simply isn’t very good. Most brew low-grade beans, usually ground days, perhaps weeks before, prepared in automatic machines.
Recently, a handful of specialty coffee shops have popped up in Paris. Skilled baristas, quality roasted coffee, and beautifully designed spaces are growing, connecting those who love coffee in one of the most culinary cities in the world. Yet as soon as my plane lands in Paris, all I can think of is sitting at a sidewalk café, a notebook in one hand, and a cup of bad coffee in the other.
Paris is where many of my favorite writers drew inspiration before me, and Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Flanner all wrote at cafés still standing today (perhaps nursing a cafe crème, I imagine). Rarely, one’s environment may outweigh good coffee; in this case, it’s the people that fill those iron seats, past and present, who truly have my attention.
Nearly every street corner of Paris is occupied by a typically vibrant sidewalk cafe, packed with Parisians sipping cafe crèmes and espresso; the image is chic, beautiful, and simply, Parisian. Yet the coffee contained in the delicate china cups patrons sip from is an entirely different story; the coffee is, frankly, bad (Oliver Strand from the New York times wrote about coffee in Paris “sucking” a few years ago, which set off a firestorm of sorts). Even my fifteen-year-old Starbucks-drinking self, nearly eleven years ago, was not impressed by the coffee I was imbibing (though still consumed in copious amounts).
Parisians are often the first to admit, their beans are generally robusta, pre-ground and presented as an unidentified blend. Yet a new wave of specialty coffee is slowly taking hold in Paris, with an awareness of sourcing, roasting, and preparation. Of this handful of cafes, a favorite is Télescope Café.
Located on a Rue Villedon, a tiny side street near Le Palais Royal, owners Nicolas Clerc and David Flynn came together in hopes of revolutionizing the Paris coffee scene. Clerc, a photographer, fell into the coffee business when asked to photograph for an article about coffee in Paris. “At the time I didn’t know there was any interest in coffee,” Clerc explained. “When I understood what it was about, and how amazing it could taste, it quickly became an addiction, and a passion.” Clerc trained at the highly respected (and oldest of Parisian specialty coffee establishments) Caféotheque. While there, he met Flynn, who has honed his skills in the states, at coffeehouse standouts like Peregrine and Murky Coffee in DC.
“Paris was drastically missing a coffee shop the way we intended it,” and their intention is arguably modern, with a rustic flair. The space is tiny, minimalist, white and airy. The palate of sky blue and white creates an ethereal, peaceful energy; a perfect Sunday afternoon. The menu is succinct, offering a few baked goods and afternoon snacks, as the focus is undoubtedly on the coffee.
Télescope roasts their own beans as well, and the barista prepared a cafe filtre, via the Kalita Wave (a kind of pour over with a flat bottom) of my current favorite, a Kenyan Nyeri. It was perfectly roasted: fruity, deep, and sweet.
As for the future of coffee in Paris, Clerc thinks something is percolating. “We have the feeling that something is happening, by doing things the way we want,” he says. “People are following up, you know, like when Forest Gump started running.”
The Short North neighborhood of Columbus, Ohio, once home to abandoned factories and high crime rates, has become a trendy arched district of boutiques and restaurants, particularly blossoming in the past decade. The gentrification would not be complete without a specialty coffee shop or two; one of these shops is Impero, a three year old cafe and roastery located on the main thoroughfare of North High Street.
And though their pourovers and cold-brews are delicious, one particular drink stands out: the espresso and cream-laced John Wayne.
Indicative of it’s namesake, this delicately crafted drink is taken all at once, in one shot. The contrast of hot and cold, sweet and strong, coupled with a dose of caffeine, makes it go down smooth; yet once imbibed, it’ll kick you from behind, in a good way.
Poured slowly and deliberately, the John Wayne is comprised of one’s choice of flavored syrup, a band of half and half, and topped with freshly pulled espresso — all suspended above each other like oil and water. Toss it back, and off to the races one goes.