Sunday, October 14, 2018

Mystic seaport: Exploring the coffee-drinking habits of whalers

1871 was a fortuitous year in the United States.  In 1871, John Arbuckle and his team invented a machine that led to the mass production of coffee---a machine that could fill, weigh, seal and label coffee in paper bags.  While this was happening in New York City, the Charles W. Morgan commercial whaler was being completed in New Bedford, MA. At 106-feet long, with 7,100 square feet of sail, this massive, fully rigged whaler was a workhorse on the seas.

Why we care about whalers

In the fall, there’s nothing like a weekend getaway to look at the leaves, hike a few trails, and drink a lot of coffee. A recent trip to Mystic, CT, got me thinking about what life on a whaling ship would be like. Mystic Seaport Museum, which has been the permanent home of the Morgan since the early 1940’s, does a great job of bringing a reconstructed mid-19th-century New England whaling village to life.  

The Morgan is massive and visually impressive. You can board the boat and see the cargo hold for the whale blubber, the bunks, the galley, and even the captain's relatively lavish quarters. You can grab the wheel and make at steering the boat, while observing the catboats out on the water. 

As I explain in this video, life on a whaleship was tough, really tough, and there was inequality---but because of the intensity of the experience, the multicultural crews sought refuge in camaraderie, and together, they stoked their morning energy with copious amounts of hot coffee (which was sometimes referred to as dirty water, because of its makeup---but it did the trick). 

Over time, the coffee got better, as mass-produced coffee made it to the ports of New England in the mid 1800's. The coffee-fueled productivity of these crews drove the US economy; lamp light depended on whale blubber oil, and at the time, whale meat was part of a mainstay diet. 
At Bartleby's with E. (2018)

Henry Ward Beecher on the virtue of coffee

At around the same time, the reformist congregational clergyman and renowned abolitionist, Henry Ward Beecher, became minister of the Plymouth Church, located in what is now known as Brooklyn Heights. During that time, Stowe enthralled his congregants with reformist activism, a spirit of temperance, hard work---and a lusty appetite for coffee.  About coffee and its essential powers, he said:

"A cup of coffee---real coffee---home-browned, home ground, home-made, that comes to you dark as a hazel-eye, but changes to a golden bronze as you temper it with cream that never cheated, but was real cream from its birth, thick, tenderly yellow, perfectly sweet, neither lumpy nor frothing on the lava: such a cup of coffee is a match for twenty blue devils and will exorcise them all.

Begone daily demons

Are we not exorcising demons when we will ourselves to productivity with the help of a cup of coffee? Yes, we are. There are many ways to be productive, including pursuing adventures during a weekend getaway---and then there's relaxing with a cup of coffee. During my weekend in Mystic, I carved out time to go to my favorite local coffee shop---Bartleby's Cafe. Bartleby's has been prominent in the Mystic coffeehouse scene since it opened almost 20 years ago. It's my local favorite for the last 10 years. It's all good---the people, the vibe, the setting and the art, and of course...the coffee. I also really like the peanut cookies and the BLTs.

So much of life is about finding balance, riding the waves and getting it done---but there's so much more to life than that. For me, drinking coffee while traveling is about making memories, feeling healthy and cherishing life. I can't wait for the next adventure! #drinkmorecoffee, #begrateful

Bartleby's (2010) with A. 

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

A coffee-drinking workers’ paradise

Happy Labor Day!  The joy of Labor Day is its focus on pursuing leisure, enjoying the outdoors, and hanging out with friends and family---but Labor Day, like most things of value, was hard-won. It started as a municipal ordinance in the mid-1880’s, and slowly took hold as individual states passed laws celebrating Labor Day. Finally, in June 1884, the United States Congress passed a federal law making the first Monday of September an official holiday celebrating working people.

So what does Labor Day have to do with coffee? A lot it turns out.  Starting in the early 20th century, drinking coffee in the middle of the day became a major cause celebre for working people and the unions that represented them.

1900 was a very auspicious year for American workers. That was the year that the Hills Brothers Company introduced vacuum-packed coffee, making it possible for people to brew coffee at home, and even at work. However, even before coffee was mass-produced, it was consumed regularly, in coffee shops and homes, and used to stoke productivity and improve overall morale---so the coffee break has actually been around for as long as coffee has been around---but for a long time it wasn’t a legal right.   

The movement towards formalizing coffee breaks accelerated in 1952, when the Pan-American Coffee Bureau, a trade group, launched a campaign designed to popularize the coffee break, and create a new norm. The campaign pivoted on to-the-point advertising: “Give yourself a Coffee-Break---and Get What Coffee Gives You.” Apparently the campaign worked, or at least tapped into the national zeitgeist in which all types of workers---blue collar, white collar, domestic, and agricultural---looked forward to those moments in the day when they could have a nice, hot, healthy cup of coffee. Employers were into it too, because they noticed that productivity actually increased when they provided coffee onsite for their workers.

A big moment for coffee-break champions occurred in the mid-1960’s, when the large Detroit-based automakers negotiated 12-minute breaks with trade unions, whose workers were determined to not only have a coffee break, but to have time to sit down for a few minutes, drink their coffee, have a bite to eat---and maybe chat with a co-worker.

So it’s been a lovely Labor Day here in New Jersey. There’s been a lot of coffee, a lot of food, and no shortage of laughter.  The day was hot, the pool was cool, and the kids were happy---what more could you want.  Well, one thing I know I will want tomorrow morning when it’s time to go back to work is a huge cup of coffee---at home when I wake up, at work when I arrive, and throughout the day.  Coffee-drinkers of the world unite! Happy Labor Day.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Drinking coffee in the land of fika and geothermal geysers

When it comes to drinking coffee, Icelanders are over-achievers.  They rank #3 in the world in terms of per capita consumption, with Finland and Norway taking the top 2 spots.  And although this small Nordic island country only has 350,000 people, there are cafes everywhere.  In fact, Iceland’s home-grown café scene is so robust that there is no need for Starbucks in Iceland.

Coffee permeates Iceland’s culture, affecting every aspect of life, from work, to play, to love. Although coffee didn’t come to Iceland until 1703 (very recently given the long, long history of Europe), by the mid-1700’s, virtually every household in Iceland had a coffee grinder and roaster. 

Coffee plays an important part in love rituals in Iceland. In a famous Icelandic novel, published in 1935 by Halldor Laxness, coffee-drinking took center stage.  This novel depicted the hard-scrabble life of Icelandic peasants, oppressed by debt-bondage and an inhospitable landscape. There were moments of sweetness, however, including a wedding scene in which everyone in attendance drank 5 cups of coffee each---what a celebration!

On the rugged shore near the Intercontinential Divide in Iceland.

Traditionally, women were judged by their ability to brew good coffee for their families---and even now, it is expected that if a visitor drops by, a cup of coffee will be forthcoming.  As a visitor to Iceland earlier this month, I experienced that wonderful ‘coffee hospitality.’ Icelandair serves amazing coffee. In our hotel in Keflavik, breakfast (which started at 4 am) was accompanied by unlimited coffee, and beautiful white ceramic cups---which were also highly functional and sufficiently large to limit the number of trips back and forth to the coffee counter.

Perhaps you’ve heard of the term ‘hygge,’ a Danish word that means ‘cozy, charming, and special.’ Well there is another Scandinavian term widely used in Iceland---Fika (fee-ka). Fika means ‘stop whatever you are doing and enjoy your coffee.’  It’s basically the northern European ‘coffee and cake’ tradition on steroids.

As summer wanes and fall approaches, I am prepping for a long season of hygge and fika with friends and family, and although I am not Icelandic, I am a coffee over-achiever and I know how to fika like a pro!

Learn more about the hygge and fika traditions here.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Drinking coffee at a British pub

According to the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA), there are 10,500 pubs in the U.K.  Pubs are an important part of British culture. They are known for their warmth, coziness, and camaraderie, as well as their drink and menu of savory foods, including ‘pies,’ chips, burgers, salads, and rich, deeply satisfying desserts.

 I don’t really go to pubs very often (though I remember going to some nice ones several times when I was a student at Middlebury). However, during a recent trip, I decided that when in London, one must experience British pub life. I simply concluded that while I could happily spend all my time at cafés, I didn’t want to miss out on such an iconic experience. 

I chose Warwick Arms, located at 160 Warwick St. in Kensington, because it was close to my hotel and had an interesting twist (which I will get to later).  It did not disappoint. The interior was welcoming and warm, outfitted with leather tufted chairs, wooden tables, and a fireplace.

Warwick Arms has a menu full of options---traditional British pub food, drink, North Indian curry (who knew?), and COFFEE. That’s right---coffee! I was so excited, and boy was I hungry after a hard day’s work of being a tourist---walking, visiting the British museum, watching the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, and contemplating the fact that Stephen Hawking was recently buried at Westminster Abbey between Sir Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin.

Pubs are not for dieters, and when you go, you must be prepared to be tempted by all of the appetizing options. I had a chicken saag dish, a few sips of my friend’s rosé, a heaping portion of naan, and  A LOT of coffee. The entire meal was super-delish and surprisingly affordable. 

I ended up paying roughly $40 for 2 large entrees, a starter dish, and a lot of coffee---an amazing deal found right in the heart of London(!) Pubs are not only a great value, but they are a perfect setting for a nice night out. Wouldn’t have missed this for anything!

Check out my vlog review here:

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Summer Nights at MOMA

In the summer, Thursday nights at MOMA are dedicated to listening to music in the Sculpture Garden. Last Thursday the featured group was OSHUN, two young women, who create Afro-futuristic music that combines hip hop, R&B, acoustic harmonizing, heavy drum and bass, and EDM. (If you listen carefully, you might just hear woven-in samples from 90’s conscious hip hop groups, like Tribe Called Quest).

The garden was abuzz with Afropunk aficionados, the after-work crowd, beautiful people with big afros, MOMA members---and random people like us, who love MOMA and enjoy drinking coffee when we’re there. 

Thandiwe and Niambi Sala are recent NYU graduates, who chose the name OSHUN for its multifaceted meaning. Oshun is a West African deity---a goddess, also known as an orisha, who is the deity of fresh water, luxury, love, destiny, divination, pleasure, and sexuality. She is revered as the goddess of the Osun River in Nigeria. Their goal is to channel “the spirit of their ancestors in order to manifest a sweeter tomorrow for us all.”

Check out “Parts” released earlier this year. 

I don't often come just for music. In fact, when I come to MOMA, I come mainly for art. For me, the Sculpture Garden, with its sculptures and landscaping, is magical. One of my favorites is Picasso’s “She-Goat.” Picasso created She-goat (she may be pregnant) from discarded materials---scraps of metal, palm fronds, ceramic shards, and more. The goat's belly and rib cage were created from a wicker basket, while her udders were fashioned from two ceramic jugs.

There are several compelling exhibits at MOMA now, including one focused on Yugoslavian architecture from 1948 to 1980---a period in which brutalism in architecture was all the rage. Brutalism is derived from the word “raw” which in French translates as “brute.” 

If you’ve ever seen large concrete, multi-storied buildings that at first glance seem artless and oversized, you’ve seen brutalist architecture. Contrary to this reaction, brutalism was used by architects to create transformative housing, with gardens in the back, and functional space for lots of people---a democratizing force.

If you’re interested, you can learn more here.

In the meantime, I’ll be traveling and trying to get in a few more beach days. Keep drinking coffee...and make sure to check out that exhibit you've been wanting to see--summer is almost over. 

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Friendship, Fireworks and Fair Trade Coffee

What do you think of when you think of July 4th? Parades, fireworks, fun in the sun, lots of barbecue and grilled veggies---and fair trade coffee.  Why not?

This year, the friends who hosted me and my family served up an amazing spread (as usual) replete with grilled lamb and chicken, hot dogs, grilled veggies, and roasted potatoes. I brought a vegan cake (from Asia B) and grapefruit San Pelligrino. We ate, we drank, we laughed, we swam in the saltwater pool, and then we ate more. Finally, it was time for coffee---but I was shocked to learn that everything, even Starbucks, was closed. (Gasp…what could we do?)

As it turned out the only option was to “brew” a coffee pod in an old-model Keurig---and I was happy to have it. The coffee was brewed in a large cup…and it was delicious.

At first, to me, it was just another box of k-cups---until I tasted it.  The coffee was an organic French Roast from the Rogers Family Company, a San Francisco-based company that has been around for 3 generations.  Not only was the coffee organic and delicious, but it was also a proprietary Fair Trade coffee.

What is Fair Trade and why does it matter?
The term Fair Trade has been buzzy for a while now, but behind Fair Trade-certified labeling, there is a history that has altered the course of hundreds of thousands of lives of coffee farmers in Latin America and the Caribbean---and the communities they live in.

In 1962, the Coffee Study Group, convened by the United Nations, drafted the International Coffee Agreement, which made it possible for the International Coffee Association to regulate the price of coffee---basically to keep coffee prices at a certain level by not allowing the market to be glutted.

Like all commodities, the cost of coffee is subject to wild fluctuations, due to weather events---such as frost, or supply increases due to coffee farmers implementing innovative technologies. So maintaining a base level price over the years has been difficult.

Buying fair trade coffee helps whole communities

In 1988, things hit an impasse when the global supply of coffee grew exponentially, while demand remained steady---threatening the ICA’s goals to maintain a livable wage for coffee farmers. That’s when a Dutch organization, Max Havelaar, create the “Fair Trade” label, a form of certification for coffee grown in certain conditions, under specific provisions. Since the initial introduction of Fair Trade, standards and provisions have been updated. The latest update, in 2007, integrated provisions for improving the standard of living for coffee farmers.

Elements of fair trade include purchasing directly through a democratically organized farmer-owned co-op—with no middleman; establishing a “floor” price for the coffee purchased through a fair trade agreement; credit for coffee farmers extended by importers; and certification from a certifying organization—with importers and wholesalers covering the cost of certification. And finally, there is the consumer-facing fair-certified product labeling. This labeling communicates to consumers that this coffee was fairly traded.

Lazy summer days
The truth is that the Roger’s Company’s Organic French Roast (k-cup) is good, although I wasn't expecting very much from a k-cup brewed in a retro machine---but, I was a person in need of a cup of coffee. What a nice surprise: It tasted like a well-vetted French roast; so good that I had three more cups. A perfect drink for a somewhat lazy, very fun, summer holiday with friends.

My friend, Elina, had some as well. We had a great time extolling the virtues of this coffee (and Elina is quite frankly hilarious).  Take a look at our video. Hope you're having a great summer!

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Birthday musings: My lifelong love affair with caffeine

Because my birthday is at the end of May, I usually end up celebrating on Memorial Day weekend, as I did this year.  I have been drinking coffee since I was 15, and have always loved coffee with cake. This year, my birthday cake, a vegan cake made by Asia Bullock, owner of Asia B’s Sweet Treats, was a 3-layer yellow cake with chocolate icing---à la vintage Betty Crocker.  It was my dream cake.

When I tasted the cake it reminded me of when the kids in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe (written by C.S. Lewis & published in 1950 as part of the Chronicles of Narnia series) first tried Turkish delight, a traditional starchy confection, made with powdered sugar and rosewater, which was rendered magical in the story. The cake was so good, so sublime, and so otherworldly that the only way to make it better (at least for me) was with coffee.

My friends and I celebrated at Trend Coffee and Tea House, which has become Montclair, NJ’s go-to coffee hot-spot, with a schedule of musicians performing live, a burgeoning sip-and- paint scene upstairs, and amazing coffee, espresso, sandwiches and soup----against the backdrop of the charming locale, a house that was built in 1860, replete with large square-pane bay windows, seating nooks,  high ceilings, vintage book shelves, original art, and an airy, lofty sense of openness. It was a gray, wet, early summer day, and it was perfect. The coffee flowed, the kids played, the adults laughed a lot, and there was singing and gift-giving.

Gifted with coffee superpowers
Speaking of gift-giving, my favorite surprise this year was gifted to me by my very talented writer-colleague, Jess, who shares my love of coffee --- “Coffee Gives me Superpowers,” written by Ryoko Iwata, who lives in Seattle and blogs at “I heart coffee”, arrived via mail courtesy of Amazon on the day before my birthday.

There have been a lot of books and articles written about every aspect of coffee, but this book approached the topic of coffee from a different angle. “Coffee Gives me Superpowers” is a compendium of coffee-related facts presented in infographic format---served up with a heaping dose of humor.

Iwata covers it all---from brewing, to health benefits, to coffee culture, coffee personality types, and an overview of the language for espresso-based drinks. Did you know, for example, that people who take their coffee black are “straightforward, quiet, moody minimalists,” according to Iwata. Also, black coffee is calorie-free, ‘makes you poop,’ and is not good to drink in early pregnancy. Norway is the #1 coffee-drinking country in the world in per capita terms, Washington state is the #1 coffee-drinking state in the U.S., and Arkansas has the lowest per capita coffee consumption in the U.S.
It was a tough decision, but overall, if I had to choose a favorite chapter it would be “10 Things You Probably Didn’t Know about Caffeine.”
Nicole & Jess (at work function)

The unthinkable—life without caffeine
Globally, 90% of all people use caffeine in some form, making it the most widely used, depended-upon drug in the world. In fact, coffee fueled the Industrial Revolution and helped create the basis for ‘the   productive workday.’

If access to caffeine suddenly disappeared, the world as we know it would cease to exist. Planes would crash, businesses would shutter, children would not be sent off to school on time, if at all, economies would falter and crumble, and people everywhere would descend into deep depression and hysterical madness.

The ultimate muse
Caffeine really is a drug---and it can be deadly, but honestly in terms of coffee, it would be very difficult to overdose.  On average, a cup of brewed coffee has between 95 mg and 200 mg of caffeine (compared to Red Bull, which has between 76 mg and 80 mg).

A lethal dose of caffeine is between 10 and 20 grams, which translates into 5 gallons of coffee. However, not surprisingly, you can now buy pure, unadulterated, concentrated caffeine online. Earlier this month, the FDA sent warning letters to two companies that sell highly concentrated caffeine products. 

The decaf myth

According to a news release from FDA, a 16-ounce package of a product from, which sells pure powdered caffeine and liquid caffeine, contains enough caffeine to be lethal. This leads me to ask, “Why not just drink coffee? Why risk death? What’s the point?”
And what about decaf? Many coffee-lovers say ‘why bother?’ when confronted with the notion of decaf coffee, but decaf coffee has its place. However, even in its commercially decaffeinated state, coffee contains numerous antioxidants and health-giving properties. But here’s one thing, I absolutely didn’t know. Decaffeinated coffee does have some caffeine it, roughly 8.6 mg to 13.9 mg—less than 10% of the standard dose in a normal 8-ounce cup of coffee.

While it doesn’t have the thermogenic, fat-burning effects associated with caffeinated coffee, decaf also decreases the risk of type 2 diabetes, liver disease, many different types of cancer, stroke, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, depression, and suicide.

Image result for health benefits of caffeine

Time marches on

 Another ‘did-you-know’ caffeine fact: When you consume coffee, it takes 20 minutes for the effects of the caffeine to kick in, and those effects can last anywhere from 8 to 14 hours. Having celebrated another birthday, there’s one thing I’m sure of. Time marches on, new players come on stage, the drumbeat of life is constant, and the need for caffeine is daily. 

Caffeine truly is the gift that keeps giving. Make sure you have your daily dose of coffee—and enjoy the beginning of summer 2018!