apolitical and relatively non-violent thoughts on coffee (or, How I Spent My Christmas Break That One Year)

In Guatemala – I’m not even kidding – people grow coffee in their backyards. I’m sure not all people do this, but I haven’t crept into too many Guatemalan backyards in my lifetime, so I can’t be definitive about it. The point is that if you live in Guatemala, you may have the potential to grow coffee in your backyard should you want to pursue it as an option. 

Coffee.  Yet another topic that has filled books and books.  In fact, I’m presently skimming along the chapter on coffee in just such a book.  This is a disturbingly heavy tome called A History of Food by Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat that you could use to kill a tarantula if this was the type of spider you typically found lurking around the bathtub at your place.  (Please note that I don’t actually condone killing any spiders, most especially tarantulas.  Trapping in Tupperware and releasing into the wild, yes.  Killing, no.)  It’s also apparently a 24-year-old classic that I only just discovered this past weekend while hanging around at an archaeology conference where, frankly, the bigger the book, the cooler you are.  Or something similar. 

The words sticking to my brain during the course of all this non-committal skimming so far include “violence”, “dangerous poison”, and “mud which is good for nothing but the very dregs of people”.  So we’ll certainly be revisiting the topic of coffee in future posts as it clearly has the potential to be a frightening and politically challenging subject. Today, however, I’ll try to be brief; tomorrow I’ll start reading and looking up the big words.

Back in January, we cracked the subject open with a thing about Cuban coffee.  Not long after discovering Cafe Cubano, I read Maggie’s description of an Ethiopian coffee ceremony in her travel blog GirlVentures.  And not too long after that, I remembered that I’d personally witnessed coffee berries growing in Raphael’s aunt’s yard in lovely Antigua, Guatemala, and taken a walk through a shady finca – or coffee plantation – not far from her house.  And finally, all this thinking and reading and remembering led me to the realization that we in fact have a jar of raw coffee beans in our kitchen cabinet given to us by one of Raphael’s brothers who recently bought a small finca in Guatemala.  Because you can do that in Guatemala.  Buy a finca.  Just like that.

We’ve Had This Jar for some time now.  Possibly for as long as a year.  Probably.  I don’t know how long raw coffee beans retain their integrity.  Do they lose their oils after a year?  I haven’t yet looked this up on Wikipedia and furthermore decided a couple of weeks ago that it didn’t matter.  Regardless of the viability of our coffee beans, I would attempt to roast them in the spirit of adventure and see where it took me.   Raphael’s brother had shown him how to roast coffee beans in the oven, but I didn’t go that route.  Having just read Maggie’s account of her experience, I decided to go the Ethiopian coffee ceremony route.  This method includes a metal plate, aromatic grasses, and some coals, as well as, I’m sure, other things such as, for example, not a charcoal grill purchased for  $7.00 from a thrift store back in 2001.  I, however, went with the charcoal grill which was readily available and skipped the grass, as grass is generally not as available in my desert backyard. 

Suffice to say, my first three attempts produced a metal griddle full of blackened and cracked coffee beans.  And I haven’t yet made the fourth attempt which will involve either cooler coals or a stove and I’m not sure which yet, but you will, of course, be involved.

In the meantime, let’s return to the part where we talk about how coffee grows in Raphael’s aunt’s backyard.  I’m not entirely sure why I’m so enamored of this idea that a person could grow coffee in their backyard in places other than Tucson.  After all, coffee plants have pretty red berries and glossy leaves, and it’s not uncommon to find them used as an ornamental shrubs in Central America. But I have an idea that it’s because I’m relatively easily stirred (emotionally speaking – no creamer jokes, please) by things I find unfamiliar, unexpected, and beautiful.

Antigua, Guatemala. Aurora’s house is not shown in this picture, but it’s not too far from here.

Plot Be Damned, here’s my story on the subject:  Raphael’s Tia Aurora – his aunt – lives in the Spanish Colonial city of Antigua, in a beautiful old house with a front façade of crumpled and age-darkened gold paint.  Her gold house is one bright block in a long row of connected rainbow-colored houses whose front doors all open right onto the cobblestone street. 

The last time we visited, it was Christmastime, and so a blue enamel bucket of tamales wrapped neatly in glossy, dark green packets of banana leaves sat on the kitchen floor and more cooked in a big black, leaf-lined pot in the yard over a pile of ashy coals.  Aurora is known for her tamales; Raphael’s mother makes special trips to her sister’s house from Guatemala City to pick up tamales for the holiday meals her family shares in those dark first hours of Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. 

While Raphael and his aunt sat at the dining room table – in a three-walled dining room open on the fourth side to the elements – I wandered around the walled-in yard that stretches away from the house and overflowed at that time, even in the dry season, with verdant growth.  I examined the tamale-cooking system and passed through the long, narrow yard along a shadowed dirt path littered with pale dropped petals.  Sun-dappled ferns and tough fringed leaves as long as my legs, browned and fraying at the tips, extended from a tangle of growth into the space carved through the vegetation by the path. 

That yard burst with ruffled, exotic-looking plants, and I touched and smelled and photographed it all – the illuminated complexity of pink and coral roses tucked into bushes taller than me; slender-petaled orange bird-of-paradise flowers with spiky purple hearts nearly translucent in the light.  There were rubbery, yellow-tipped combs of brilliant red heliconia; thin, papery fuchsia bougainvillea; long scarlet clusters of wild poinsettias with imperfectly spaced, fluttering, knife-like petals.  When I returned to the porch, Raphael and his aunt told me the names of the things I didn’t recognize. 

At the back of the yard, Aurora had put in plants with clusters of firm, dusky red and green berries clinging to willowy branches.   Once I found out what they were – coffee plants, of course – it struck me like a quick, quiet little miracle how fortunate I was to be in place where color hangs off the trees all year long; where poinsettias – those holiday things that come packaged in foil-wrapped pots in the stores – grow wild and lanky; where houses are lavender and teal and orange and rose and old; where the dining room is open to the luxurious, drenching rain when it comes; and where someone can plant coffee trees in the yard just because they’re beautiful.

How to keep your own pot of coffee...plant.

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