Monday, April 22, 2013

Delicious Peace: Coffee, Music, and Interfaith Harmony in Uganda.A CONVERSATION WITH RABBI JEFFREY SUMMIT

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,” Rabbi Summit recalls, 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, such as “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, including 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, why we couldn’t “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.

All photographs below taken by photojournalist Richard Sobol.

Monday, March 18, 2013


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 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.

Cubans are one of the many cultures that make up the multifaceted community of Miami, and the influence on the culture is unmistakable. Walking around Miami Beach often feels like wandering through foreign streets, from Brazil to Paris, Haiti to Cuba; 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, 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 and 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, it’s full of locals, tourists, Latinos, Haitians, and Europeans alike: a snapshot of Miami, all drinking a café cubano.






Monday, October 29, 2012


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, notebook in hand, and a cup of bad coffee on the table.

Paris is where many of my favorite writers drew inspiration before me, and Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Baldwin 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 occupy the iron seats, past and present, who truly have my attention.

Thursday, October 4, 2012


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. Nicolas, 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,” Nicolas explained. “When I understood what it was about, and how amazing it could taste, it quickly became an addiction, and a passion.”

“Paris was drastically missing a coffee shop the way we intended it,” Nicolas told me as he prepared my coffee on a beautiful fall day in Paris. And their intention is arguably modern and minimalist. The space is tiny, white and airy. The palate of sky blue and white creates a peaceful energy.














Friday, June 15, 2012


This bar, located upstairs from the Blue Bottle Cafe in Chelsea, is a romantic little space to have a full siphon-coffee experience. Designed for those with time on their hands, since the brewing method is not speedy, and an affinity for the technicalities of coffee making.














Monday, April 2, 2012


More known for its soaring architecture than the art it houses, the Jepson Center in Savannah is a physical manifestation of the contemporary climate of the city: simultaneously artistic, modern, southern and traditional.

White, airy, full of light and undulations, the Jepson is part of a trio of museums overlooking Telfair Square. The Jepson is, of course, the most modern; built in 2007 and designed by architect Moshe Safdie, it showcases contemporary art while the Telfair Academy and Owens-Thomas House are historical examples of early American art and architecture. The center’s open design does not intrude upon the historical block, its’ white facade and large windows make it nearly transparent.













Thursday, March 29, 2012


Traditional Italian spaces center around the bar — no tables, no chairs, just a bar. It’s more of a place to pause rather than linger. Zibetto is a perfect, modern bar with stylized lines in white tones. It reminds me of a very mid-century modern New York space, even the near-perfect, symmetrical designs in the cappuccinos — as well as the thick gradation of crema color in the espresso — seem to blend in with the surroundings.




Friday, January 6, 2012


A contemporary, industrial coffee space in Charleston, West Virginia. The fragmented, steel bar, crafted by a Pittsburgh designer, is the centerpiece to an otherwise sparse interior — aside from televisions looping mesmerizing footage of movies and Internet clips. A logo (of goat heads) doesn’t include the name.

Thursday, December 29, 2011


Rome, Italy is often my answer to the daunting question: What’s your favorite city? The raw nature of the city and the energy it emits provokes a certain freedom; Romans live connected to their city, fully present to each day. They live slow and with meaning. They share food in a similar way — connected to the food, ingredients, and tastes, but most importantly, to those with whom they share the meal.

When I visit Rome, dining is at the center of my travels as well as coffee, and here is a list of my favorite places I found and returned to this year.

FOR PANINI: Forno, Campo dei Fiori.

These panini are heavenly — the bread is thin and salted, and the meats are perfectly cured.  These sandwiches are simple, usually made of only two or three ingredients.  My favorite is the Bresaola — salted beef cured for months — with fresh arugula and parmigiano cheese. A Roman tradition, Forno has been at the corner of Campo dei Fiori for over thirty years, a true testament to the fact that one doesn’t need all the fixings to create something delicious — just a few ingredients, prepared perfectly.

FOR CAPPUCCINO: Il Caffe Sant’Eustachio, Piazza Sant’Eustachio.

There is nothing like sitting at a cafe table outside Caffe Sant’Eustachio, with a mix of tourists and locals, drinking espresso and cappuccinos, watching as Italians on vespas, bikes, and stilettos saunter by.  Sant’Eustachio has been roasting coffee for nearly 74 years.  Their gran caffe, a thick double espresso served with an insane crema, is famous — a secret way of pulling the shots, their baristas will not divulge this method to anyone.

FOR VINO: Vino Olio, Via dei Banchi Vecchi.

This charming wine bar is cozy and friendly, packed each night with lots of locals enticed by vintage wines and amazing cheese selections.  Sometimes, the fun can spill out onto the cobble stone street, patrons with wine glasses in hand, lounging on parked vespas.  If you catch the aperatif crowd around five, it is a bit quieter, providing an intimate, relaxed candlelit environment.  It’s a perfect place to allow the sommelier to introduce you to the wonderful wines of Italy.


FOR SWEETS: Il Fornaio, Via dei Baullari (off of Campo dei Fiori).

Il Fornaio is what I imagine the land of sweets from the Nutcracker to be like.  The small, take-away shop is full of homemade cookies, cakes, tarts, cornetti, bread, candy, and even some savory pizzas.  I love their Neapolitan cake, and the crostatine filled with fruits.

BEST HOMEMADE PASTA: Lucifero, Via dei Cappellari.

Walking into Lucifero is like visiting a friend’s home for dinner.  Lelo, the robust owner, will greet you at the door, learn your name, and converse with you for hours as you enjoy his food.  There are two pasta specials each day, made fresh that morning, and the house antipasti of marinated vegetables, meats and cheeses is one of my favorite dishes in this world.  It’s a relaxed, unpretentious environment with checkered tablecloths and old wooden beams, and  it’s always delicious.  Lelo and his family will make you feel like one of their own, and you will leave full, drunk, and happy.

FOR FINE DINING: Pierluigi, Piazza dé Ricci

One of the best pastas of my life: the rigatoni with lobster from Pierluigi.

Need I say more? It’s gorgeous, the staff is charming and sweet, and it somehow remains upscale without pretense. Some of the freshest seafood in town, one can peruse the chilled fish and choose the one that looks best — they’ll even show you the squirming lobster table side before preparing your dish. End the meal with pastiera, a traditional Neapolitan cake made with ricotta, orange flower water, and candied fruit; It’s truly one of the most beautiful dining experiences one can have in Rome.

FOR SFOGLIATELLE: Pasticceria Bernasconi, Piazza B. Cairoli.

One might fail to notice this ancient pasticceria, as I somehow did on my many walks past the bakery and cafe. They are best known for their sfogliatelle, pastries made of flaky, shell-shaped crust, filled with orange-flavored ricotta; a laborious feat, sfogliatelle require skilled hands shaping the dough to resemble a fan. Bernasconi (rhymes with the not-so-liked former president, Berlusconi) also makes homemade cakes and torrone, a fluffy candy of nougat and pistachios.  Good luck snagging the single table outside; otherwise, it’s standing room only.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011


The alimentari is an Italian specialty store, serving homemade goods, cured meats, wines, and coffee. In Bar Mariano, a Florence mainstay, the collection of vintage wines is especially impressive. The space has cavernous medieval bones, but the entrance is adorned with a mid-century Italian font with Fellini-like charm.