coffee, spread out

May 26, 2008 – 11:32 pm

the jebena boil: “at the still point, there the dance is.”pic by jake

it shook all the wobbly, week-long sickies right out of us. just clunked ‘em right out, and ended too the related seven-day spro fast with a sock to the jowls …

here we were, sitting in a rough semicircle at the fine coffee establishment that by now you all know sits by the perfume counter at belk’s department store, and we’re getting a live ethiopian coffee ceremony. with an OPEN FIRE on a sunday afternoon. in the middle. of. the mall.

hudgens, it seems, has a new-ish employee, a gliding, gracious ethiopian, named tigest, who did the honors — nearly two hours of swirling and smiling in regal native garb for one batch of coffee grounds. this blog (which has never been to ethiopia, but assumes, like all americans, that what little it knows about a single african country surely applies to all african countries regardless of their placement on the continent) believed the process to be Profoundly Indicative of the Cultural Pace and Attitudes. it was peaceful, firstly. also, a very obvious emblem of daily life.

the roasting process, being the phase most likely to attract security or set off electronic shopping mall detection systems, took place swiftly and with a symbolic measure of green coffee tigest had picked up somewhere in north carolina. using a traditional long-handled roasting pan, she tossed and swished over a propane burner for what seemed like mere seconds, when the chaffing and cracking and heavy smoking commenced in short order and the batch showed up hissing under our noses for a whiff, gaudy n’ shiny, a mixed roast ranging from still-brown to a hearty french. a blend.

sometime near this point, we agreed this indoor inundation of roasting aroma made fine, fine payback for the constant olfactory affliction shannon has long suffered at the hands of the belk perfume counter. they couldn’t compete with this waft, and NO ONE would be asking for any acqua di gio today. stetson, maybe.

raw incense curled away from a dish. the traditional companion snack — popcorn, in this case — was fire-popped and passed around. the coffee grounds went into the bulbous clay “jebena,” and began to bubble. of interest to this blog: tigest’s practice of pouring off a bit of the liquid in a cup, then waiting for the coffee to begin to boil, at which point she’d reintroduce the poured-off stuff as a coolant to keep the brew in the right range, and also from getting too bubbly. pour, replace, swish about. adjust flame. glance over shoulder to see if anyone in belk has called, “fire!”

each demitasse was warmed with a small slosh of initial coffee, then each fully filled and passed around. as you might imagine, it was one-note strong. nothing overly bitter, or rank. just a clean, constant streak of BLAM, right in the middle of your tongue. hot straw and other earthy materials, maybe. wake-up coffee. black, somewhat crisp and loooong in the finish. being fresh from the throes of a coffee-hating, weeklong illness, we drank all of ours.

they reuse the grounds. ah yes, only three times here in our modern era, although the older ethiopians still do a four-rounder with the same soggy mound. so, then. settle in for round two (“huletegna”), which was more like cloudy drip coffee. then round three (“bereka,” or good luck), which came in like a very earthy tea. as a sort of ceremonial dessert, she did a new set of grounds — the mall-roasted ones from minutes earlier — with a bit of powdered ginger.

potent, almost chewable, and probably the best drink of the day.

what you got, though, was the grace of the thing. the low-key, slice-of-life realness of sacramentalizing through every one of your senses the bread of a culture’s existence. with friends, in the evening, a ceremony can take three hours, tigest said. a day can hold four of them. shannon, doing the math, asked if there aren’t other activities that they might sometimes enjoy.

in truth, the approach seems just woven into life’s fabric, which made it particularly relevant to solis jake, he being about to adopt from the country. whole new meaning to the term, “trip to origin,” eh? even on the mall tile, the ritual was enough to stop plenty of mallers for a gander. a clothing store owner inquired about the mystical circle of sippers. tigest never stopped gazing around and grinning. and security, they never showed.

covert-mall-fire-pan roasting


one coffee, but a blend.

one theory for the brew’s smoothness: the ‘cense had saturated our nasal cavities.

tigest, at her craft and lifestyle
all pics by jake.