Morning Coffee Thoughts

Mornings around here are quiet. It’s getting light later in the morning, so my drive to work is silent and drowsy.

When I unlock the market doors and let in the prep cooks waiting outside, I feel the tiniest sense of satisfaction. I always wanted to be a girl that worked in a marketplace, and here I am, propping open the doors with responsibility. The cooks greet me and offer a trade — breakfast for coffee. I always accept.

 
I have a purposeful routine to open. I turn on lights and select music, I heat equipment and run the grinder. The smell of the coffee grounds destined for drip is what kickstarts my brain activity. Like a true addict, my mind knows it’s about to get its fix of washed Ethiopian espresso, which motivates me to keep going.

 
This job is strange. Despite being in the heart and center of America’s coffee Mecca, people still are puzzled by specialty coffee.

“I’m sure it’s fine,” an exasperated prep cook says as I stare into space and inhale excessively into my espresso cup.

In nine million years would he smell this demitasse and think spicy melon? Peppercorn? Cantaloupe? Juicy? 

Probably not. Nor do I expect him to.

There are other factors involved in this job. My coworkers, for instance, who look at me slightly puzzled all the time. Sometimes they ask me questions about Jesus, and we spend our entire shift debating theology. Sometimes we talk about relationships, and I am met with statements like, “You wouldn’t live together before you get married? Sounds dangerous.”

If Portland had a thermometer for the post-Christian climate, it would sit in the center of my workplace and register the pulse of the city, the way it warms and cools to ideas that were once radical and now are the norm.

I love every single person I work with. I have struggled with and finally embraced the atmosphere in which I spend the majority of my time.

Before now, I never had to explain my faith, or explain what I got out of going to church. Portland has stared my lifestyle straight in the eye and asked boldly: why? More importantly: are you sure? 

The only thing in the city that has kept me grounded and guarded is Christ. And to proclaim that with boldness when someone asks me at 7:00 am before I’ve had my first espresso, “do I deserve to go to hell?” is a feat I didn’t know I could respond to.

Don’t mistake me. Portland is not a city of persecution for followers of Jesus. But it does lull them into conformity by soft discrimination and the pressure to just let go and live life based purely off of feelings and instant gratification. This is the city of everything. Amazon Now will deliver your orders to the door. Rare food markets carry obscure ingredients you can’t find anywhere else. Pockets of culture peer from every corner, subcultures unknown to the rest of the states thrive here.

It’s a beautiful city. I’m living in a charming house and working the finest buildout coffee has ever known. God has been good to me, he has shifted my perspective from one of overwhelmed panic (how do I survive here?) to confidence rooted solely in Him. Now I can thrive here, because he is fighting my battles and teaching me to love those that need Him. Even if they laugh at my old fashioned ideas or make my mornings a challenge.

As I sip (somewhat obnoxiously) my first pull of espresso for taste and quality, I get a caffeinated rush of gratitude. Garden City has not always felt like home, it has never carried the sense of being ‘my city.’ But, by the grace of God, it’s His. And He’s going to use me here.

A Coffee Love Story

Part One

I have tried endlessly to blog about my favorite place in the world. Usually I start rambling, deleting, drafting, trashing and starting over.

I’ve decided to save my story and bottle it up until there is need for my memoir. Then you can read in detail about my experiences and I will have the ample space to spin my stories.

In the meanwhile, here’s the teaser. The real deal, the Erin Memoir Spectacular, is probably another decade in the making, so enjoy these lovely photographs and savor them in small doses.


I will give you some brief headliners.

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For instance. When I was 19, I started working at a coffee shop in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. A recent culinary grad, I was hired to bake all in-house treats, from biscotti to scones.

(My goal was to avoid at all costs those massive chocolate chip cookies found in cheap cafes. Making everything from scratch with unusual ingredients was my jam. Strawberry rosemary shortbread? Basil cheddar scones? Yes, please.)

I may have also extended my grocery privileges to cover very expensive grass-fed organic Irish butter, which is why the scones tasted so good.

Side Note: I still use that scone recipe for everything, including my last post. Sub Kerrygold butter for regular butter and prepare to melt. (Pun intended.)

As much as I enjoyed baking, it turns out I fell in love with coffee instead. I bugged the baristas for a few months until they let me behind the bar. I was able to play with the buttons of our La Marzoco Linea and crank the steam wands to full throttle.

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Of course, once I was bit with the coffee bug I started doing all kinds of off-the-clock research. I spent hours perched at the coffee bar, watching, asking questions, getting assignments.

“Read this,” our lead barista told me, pushing The World Coffee Atlas across the bar. He also sent me home with some good old fashioned Scott Rao books and proceeded to quiz me on their contents.

Coincidentally the more time I spent at the bar studying coffee, the more I noticed someone else sitting at the bar with increasing frequency. Only he wasn’t really there for the coffee. That was this guy, and he won  my heart around the same time I fell in love with coffee culture. The two go hand in hand, and within the span of our relationship we have consumed so much coffee that we could probably sail from Portland to Colorado and back in a coffee mug. But I digress.

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Suddenly I was actively listening and participating in heated conversations over pourover tasting notes. Was it grassy? Swampy? Earthy and vegetal?

Coffee had taken over my thoughts. I struggled to pour rosettas and hearts. I discovered a love of Ethiopian coffees, which continue to be my favorite. I drank a global assortment of wonderful brews, surrounded by people who wanted to represent it well.

Coffee culture. Precise, creative, beautiful, global, addictive.

When I moved away from Colorado to live in Portland, there was a mourning period. I was away from the mad coffee lab that birthed crazy coffee science. Despite the fact Portland is hands down one of the most coffee-saturated third-wave cities to live in, I had left my crazy coffee crew behind.

I found a job in the coffee industry, but longed for someone to lean over my shoulder, shake their head and tell me to do better.

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Recently, I took a trip back to Steamboat for a visit. I walked into the old shop and everything came rushing back as though I had never left, espresso starting to course through my veins.

I don’t know why Sprudge hasn’t done a piece on this lovely shop, cranking out the highest quality coffee in the Rockies. Heaven knows I’ve sent them enough emails.

(I’m telling you, Sprudge, if you need someone to write a piece on The Ristretto Coffee Lounge, I’m your girl.)

Are these my best friends? Yes. Is this like a second home? Yes.

Is it still insane coffee, all bias aside? Absolutely.

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I wouldn’t be here without the lessons I learned and the people I met in Steamboat.

I will now proceed to brag about them with photographs.

IMG_0426IMG_0394 IMG_0381IMG_0420 IMG_0455Of course, this story is far from over. And trust me, that’s the briefest run-through I can manage. But there are stories within stories, more tales than can be told over just one latte.

I intend to share them. But we’re going to need a few more coffees.

To be continued.

 

 

To A Tea

A cup the size of a thimble was nudged in front of me. Its contents yielded, much to my surprise, a pale yellow liquid that tasted uncannily like heavily steeped dried seaweed.

It was a Japanese green tea from Jasmine Pearl, a Portland-based tea company priding themselves on a plethora of incredible, intricate teas.

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“How did you learn about all of this?” I asked our showman/tea bartender. He was busy serving us whatever tea our hearts desired, steeping them in a tiny quartet of pots, pouring them into small ceramic tasting cups. His explanations were loaded with more facts than my brain could process all at once, sounding more like an intriguing lecturer than anything else.

“For the first two or three months, we get extensively trained,” he explained. “I used to be in coffee here in Portland, but… I don’t know, tea is pretty exciting.”

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I surveyed the quiet room, described by several polite little signs as a tea sanctuary, where use of electronic devices was heavily discouraged. Tea lined the walls, gadgets filled the shelves. Small tins, held magnetically to an angled frame, held sniffable samples of various teas.

One side held herbal teas, floral and pretty. The tins revealed tiny flowers among a dried forest of green leaves and stems. It looked like potpourri and smelled like perfume.

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The other side held black and green teas, their leaves curling in dark, exotic spirals.

Jasmine Pearl offers the unique experience of tea tasting, and you are free to sample to your heart’s content, guided through the experience by a bartender of sorts. Ours was a welcoming, plaid-clad gentleman named Bruce, who was more than enthusiastic when offering us various teas and facts.

“Here, smell this one.” He opened a black tin and held it under our noses. “Straight campfire. Right?”

He was right. It smelled like tobacco and hickory smoke.

“Can I sample the sticky rice one?” I asked. The culinarian in me was intrigued by the idea of a food-nuanced tea.

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He grinned and pulled out a little box of tiny pucks.

“There’s an aroma of sticky rice to this,” he said. “Totally different plant than actual rice, though. It smells and tastes like sushi rice, but is completely unrelated. We have a tea made with brown rice, and you’ll get the same flavor note from both teas– this one, though, is it’s own plant.”

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He was right. It smelled like sticky sushi rice. It was faintly sweet and starchy. The taste was nearly identical to the smell, and for the first time in my life I fell in love with a tea. It wasn’t overly floral or sweet, it was savory and deep and undeniably starchy. It would warm the soul and fill the belly.

I couldn’t bring myself to leave without a bag full. It was sold in pucks rather than loose leaves. Apparently these leaves can be re-steeped several times, meaning they’re practical and wonderful, lasting a long time provided you don’t let them mold. Plus they’re wrapped in exotic, oriental squares of parchment sealed with a square sticker.

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I left, nearly an hour later, full of various teas and newfound knowledge. To visit Jasmine Pearl is truly to experience Portland at its craft-culture best.

PDX: I’m Not Sorry

“This is the final boarding call for flight 789 to Portland,” a nasal voice projected across the gate. “Doors will be closing in two minutes. All passengers must have boarded the plane.”

In a mad dash–a flurry of plaid and black backpacks– I found myself sprinting across the airport. Heaving, gasping and practically dying as I leaned up against the podium and handed the attendant my boarding pass, I thought to myself, “This trip better be worth it.” Because it was off to a rough start.

Recently, I took a quick trip across the US to the gorgeous Pacific Northwest.  It was a recon trip to decide whether or not Portland, the city of roses, was worth the hype.

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I had heard from multiple sources that locals felt plenty disgruntled about the influx of young twenty-somethings moving into their city. Now, having visited, I see why–the small-town feel is just as present as the big-city energy, and mountains, oceans and everything in between are all just a jaunt away.

The location and culture seem, in a word, ideal.

Unfortunately, Portlanders, like those before me… it would seem I’ve taken a real shine to your city.

As an avid devourer of food magazines, blogs and other foodie hype, I knew Portland boasted a hoppin’ food scene. I just didn’t realize how extensive it all was! I found my mind (pleasantly) blown.IMG_1167

I discovered more Thai food here than anywhere else I’ve ever been, and all of it was delicious. The street food was cheap, unique, varied and incredible. Food truck parks were abundant. I ate my first olive oil ice cream at Salt and Straw. I enjoyed cold fried chicken on a sandwich at Lardo. My life was changed by coconut curry devoured in an unpronounceable Thai hole-in-the-wall.

Food, though, was only one of the many beloved aspects I stumbled upon here. The coffee scene struggling so hard to gain traction in the Rocky Mountains already thrives in Portland. In fact, enjoy these following pictures (because I’m a lattegram-er with no shame.)

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As a barista grommet in Steamboat Springs studying under my perfection-driven lead barista/sensai, coffee felt like a huge priority. I visited so many shops I barely kept track of them all. The results thrilled me. I hope the residents of Bridgetown realize just how lucky they are. To see a coffee community already established and thriving inspired and encouraged my espresso-filled heart. It is possible! Life beyond disgruntled locals does exist.

In fact, it was over a killer cappuccino in the industrial district that we met our first Portland connection. (And by we, I mean my travel partner/boyfriend. I am now bringing blogging into my personal life–hello!)

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“You are in the right city,” were the first words we heard. (I’m hoping to pursue a food writing career, my fella a ministry-driven leathercrafting business.) “This is a city for the creative.”

As if to prove it, this connection/new friend/former acquaintance of ours handed us a list. On it he had listed places to visit, apply for jobs or talk to friends-of-friends. He had scribbled it neatly on the backside of one of his notebook pages — the page featured here, to be exact.

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This kind of tangible, written gem is invaluable to me. (I’m the girl that saves napkins from memorable restaurants, so paper mementos make me unbelievably happy.)

For the few days we were in town, everything seemed to fall into place. We met the right people at the right time and left with more friends than when we began. Not only that, but those we met were willing to offer their advice and open their lives to us.

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I know I am soon to be one of those transplants so frowned upon by native Oregonians. But really, guys, did you expect to keep the secret for long?

It’s looking like PDX is my next landing spot… and I should be sorry. But I’m not. I’m really not.

A (Late) Manifesto Of Sorts

It sometimes occurs to me that I am pursuing the weirdest career ever.

Essentially, I love writing and food and culture and community and coffee. I want a job that lets me love all of these things, preferably at the same time.

I want to write about food. I want to use food to bring communities together. I want to study the way we interact on common ground: the love of coffee, the love of mama’s cookin’. I want to share that with everyone.

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Even more importantly, I want to combine a career and a lifestyle all in one fell swoop. I want a life full of intention in every aspect, from the food I eat to the people I talk to at the coffee bar.

I know. I want a lot of things.

So why would I bother to type these things on the internet? Aren’t these the kind of dreams and things that someone should keep to themselves?

Maybe.

But writing here, on this blog, and in a few other locations (like the killer pravasana.com) has prompted me to realize that the love of food, coffee and culture begin right here.

Sure, maybe this is a bunch of ‘dream big’ fluff marketed by Disney. (Which would makes sense, actually, considering I worked there for the past two years.)

Still, this will hold me accountable as some kind of manifesto to stay true to all the intentions I have not just for a career but for a lifestyle.

People are really important to me. Community means the world to me. When I think about how I can contribute to the community, I know that food is what I bring to the table. (See what I did there? Haha.)

I suppose I just want to love the whole world and I want to do it with a pen in one hand and a fork in the other.

Idealistic? Probably. Uncomfortable? Maybe.

Impossible?

Certainly not.

That Food Culture Mystery

I have recently been trying to define why is it food culture is so important to me.

Why is it I tear through the New York Times each Wednesday to read the Food section cover-to-cover? What could the reasoning behind my stacks of books –books on chefs, on the history of noodles, on the cultural importance of salt — possibly be?

I have notebooks filled with recipes, quotes, torn pages, glued and taped in a fashion that may seem haphazard at first but, upon second glance, reveal a very careful map of my thoughts.

My first notebook, positively stuffed to the brim, strains at the elastic band that holds the covers together.

I have sections of nothing but quotes from Anthony Bourdain. I have pictures of lavish feasts I wish I could have attended torn from the pages of Bon Appetit. I have a good ten-page spread on ingredients I’ve been dying to put together. Saffron semifreddo with cherry cardamom syrup and salted honey. Beetroot ravioli with poppyseed butter. Squid ink gnocchi.

Heck, I even have a page from a library book in there.

I thought maybe this mad notebook was a result of the endless inspiration I found while attending culinary school. My favorite recipes, quotes from my instructors, a copy of my NEHA certification… it’s all in there, brainchildren of a time of childlike wonder and inspiration.

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Still, after leaving school, the notebook continued to grow until it had been filled. And I started another, and it began to expand almost twice as rapidly.

For some reason, food culture seems like a vast, bottomless, intriguing black hole. I can never learn about it all, no matter how hard I try.

In my attempt to define why such an impossible task is so vitally important to me, I mapped out a chart that looked like this:

Food Culture = Survival + Society + Association

Food is a necessary part of life. If you don’t eat, you’ll die. Simple.

So how can something so basic become so incredibly nuanced and complex? Essentially, eating is a simple mechanism for getting nutrients into our bodies. And yet we are not only offered a plethora of methods, ingredients, techniques and abilities to do so, but we are given the desire to combine all of those things to create not only fuel but a delicious and desirable experience.

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Beyond that, because we all share the need to eat, we build a culture and society around food. These traditions become incredibly ingrained in our very natures. People turn to food for comfort, reassurance.

These positive associations –or, in some cases, negative associations– with food are often just as valuable as the food itself. A simple meal can be elevated by good company, a bad experience can remove a food item or even an entire culture from a person’s favor completely.

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So why bother to study something that is entirely personal, based off of an individual’s preferences?

There’s something about the amazing, intricate network created around food and the way it brings people together that intrigues me.

Food can be beautiful, it can be art. It can be comforting. It can bring back long-lost memories or unite unlikely friends. Food can warm your very soul. Or, at its very baseline, it can keep you alive another day.

I don’t know why food culture is so intriguing. Maybe that mystery is part of the reason I want to explore and discover so much. Perhaps someday I’ll find the answer.