Thursday, March 31, 2016

Across the Water

Over the past several years, I have found rowing to be a good form of exercise and also a great way to learn geography.

I recently learned a bit about the geography of New Zealand from a nice article about an epic rowing trip around the Hauraki Gulf north of Auckland.

The maps accompanying the article make effective use of the kind of tracking software we sometimes use to document our own, more modest rowing adventures.

Like all good cartography, the presentation here is elegant. Minimal information is shown -- a couple of place names, a bar scale, and the land in uniform grey without any surface features. (I made the grey a bit darker here, because the original does not show up well on my laptop screen.)

The actual rowing tracks are shown in red -- the entire journey in two long legs, with the segment associated with each day's blog entry shown with a bolder line.

The Guardian article describes the journey and also features gorgeous photography of the boats, the land, the sea, and the people who engaged in this epic adventure of human-powered travel.

All of this activity started a world away -- almost literally -- among rowers in Fife, Scotland!

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Coffee Horror Show

Vincent Price, from a Pinterest collection  of many famous people drinking coffee. As one friend commented on seeing the collection, "the internet has so enriched our lives."
Over his 82 years, Vincent Price amassed over 200 acting credits, mostly in the macabre realm of ghosts, ghouls, and monsters. But the real horror may have been in this cup, which he enjoyed on the set of The Bribe.

Because Price shares a birthday with Pam, I made an early gift of his book A Treasury of Great Recipes, 50th Anniversary Edition: Famous Specialties of the World's Foremost Restaurants Adapted for the American Kitchen. From the front matter of the book -- by chef James Beard and by daughter Victoria Price -- we have already learned that Vincent and Mary Price were much greater figures in the worlds of culinary and visual arts than we would have supposed. We look forward to learning more about their travels and to preparing some of the meals, which of course we discuss on Nueva Receta.

Given their devotion to excellence in the preparation and presentation of food, I peeked into the index to see if their gourmand instincts extended to coffee. Based on previous experience, my expectations were low, but I was not prepared for the horror that awaited on page 413, where the Prices describe how they prepare and serve iced coffee -- then a bit of a rarity -- in their home.

The Prices were all about visual style, and they were writing during a dark days of perfectly bad coffee, so they actually paid more attention to the cups than to the coffee. In fact, they start by assuring the reader that no care is taken with the coffee itself:
We serve Iced Coffee in heavy ceramic goblets, gold-lustered by Mary. It is my own most unorthodox concoction, and friends always ask about it expecting some exotic recipe involving fresh-ground Colombian beans and goodness knows what in the way of brewing and flavoring. Now the secret is out. This is all there is to it.
The recipe follows, calling for six heaping spoons of instant decaf and 9 saccharin tablets to be dissolved in a cup of boiling water. To say that the concoction was borderline toxic would not be an exaggeration, since all decaf in those days was made by rinsing coffee with antifreeze, and saccharine was not yet known to be carcinogenic.

Once this witches' brew has cooled, they recommend adding a quart of cold milk and 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves or cinnamon, and serving it straight or over ice. Sweeteners, dairy, and spice are key to serving inferior coffee, as Pam and I helped demonstrate during a key study conducted by Folgers back in 1989.


Of course I would not bother to write about this if my only concern were for the uneven dining experiences of visitors to the home of Vincent Price. The fact is that bad coffee is not only unpleasant in the cup -- it is damaging both to land and people. On my own campus, even the finest meals are often served with perfectly awful coffee. Just being seated near the coffee, I can tell that it comes from poor practices that yield injustice and environmental damage at every stage.

The good news is that we know how to do it better, and my coffee students have worked with me to propose world-class coffee worthy of the social-justice and sustainability commitments our university has made.

So far, that proposal has been rebuffed by university administration, but it has a substantial number of supporters, and the space for it has already been constructed.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Risk & Revolution

One way I have gotten to know my adopted home state better is through a daily email message called Mass Moments, from the Massachusetts Cultural Council. These efimerides* describe some well-known events and some more obscure ones, and often shed light on matters that remain important decades or centuries later.
Today's lesson is about the March 20, 1760 fire in Boston, one of many to be dubbed a "Great Fire" in this city by the sea. As the article makes clear, Boston long had the locational factors that made it the city most susceptible to fire in the United States: wooden construction (including rooftops), high population density, cold climate, coastal breezes, and a peninsular location combined to make it a city where fire was easy to start and difficult to stop. It is also, of course, a hub of innovation in many fields, and fire is no exception. From great peril have come great ideas, as detailed in today's Boston Burns account.
I cannot help but think of the history of fire and innovation without considering today's toxic political environment. Since the 1980s, it has been fashionable to praise the private sector while disparaging the public sector. It has, in fact, become a bit of a political fetish to assert that public works and regulations are always wrong, while private enterprise and free choice are always right. Ironically, some politicians, contractors, and pundits have profited handsomely by playing on these unfounded assertions.
The Boston 1760 story puts the lie to such binary thinking. Much private property was lost in the fire, but the people of Boston quickly realized that public action was needed for prevention, suppression, and recovery. The risks to private property were best addressed as public risks shared by the entire city.
A series of regulations were imposed on individual residents to supply their properties with ladders and buckets and taxes were imposed to employ the first firefighters in what was to become a new country.
I have long been under the impression that Philadelphian (and patriot) Benjamin Franklin invented the fire department, he was apparently inspired -- at least in part -- by what he observed during visits to Boston.
The government in place at the time, of course, was the United Kingdom, which refused to provide any assistance with recovery. There is some evidence that this refusal contributed to the move in the next decade to provide for more responsive government of, by, and for the people.

*Lagniappe: efemerides
I have been a fan of efemerides for a long time, though I only recently learned the word, when my favorite librarian (and Spanish professor) learned it. These are the "this day in history" items that I enjoy finding in newspapers and often include on the blog we provide with EarthView, our weekly K-12 geography outreach program.
Pam learned just recently that although we can awkwardly describe the concept in English, there is actually a word for it in Spanish. We were delighted to find the word in use on a school calendar during a visit to La Corona, our home-away-from-home in Nicaragua. The word seems related to the English word ephemera.

Magic Bus

Oddly enough, I have never been on this sort of bus in Nicaragua, though we rode the equivalent frequently when we lived in Mexico in the summer of 1989.

Sometimes called "chicken buses" because people can carry chickens or whatever else they need to carry on them, these are the workhorses of rural Central America.
We see a lot of these, but I was particularly attracted to this one because it is parked between two other buses at earlier stages in the process.
When a bus arrives from the United States, only the name of its school district is painted over; otherwise lt looks like the bus to the left, which could be rolling down my own street in Bridgewater. The only enhancement so far is the all-important roof rack.
Gradually, the new owner gives it some new paint, as in the bus on the right. As money is earned from fares, personal flourishes are added, until the bus becomes a reflection of the owner's personal style (including, in this case, a bit of machismo on the front bumper).
These are privately-owned public buses. They are an excellent example of reusing something that might otherwise be discarded. The buses are ideally suited to rough rural roads and to carrying cargo from chickens to coffee -- I have seen them traversing muddy roads that had stranded many other vehicles.
The one downside to these is that they tend to be rather poor in terms of air emissions, though a single old bus emits less pollution than the dozens of pickup trucks it replaces.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Coffee Reunion

During spring break, I returned to Nicaragua to celebrate ten years of travel courses that have connected Bridgewater State University with the coffeelands of Matagalpa and Jinotega. Our group of eleven included current students, community members, and one alumnus for whom the 2010 travel course has proven especially meaningful.
Freddy Membreño of Matagalpa Tours joins Byron Corrales, myself, and Sara Corrales in commemorating ten years of BSU programs in Nicaragua. We prepared a special coffee press to mark the occasion!
Since graduating from BSU, Sullivan Cohen has become a bit of a coffee rock star, and was eager to join our reunion tour. For him, the highlight was a return to Finca Los Pinos (The Pines Farm), where he remembers having his first cup of "real" coffee. It was a moment that changed his life.
This video begins and ends with some joking around, but in between, world-class coffee producer Byron Corrales summarizes the lessons he shared during an entire morning spent exploring the farm. The audio quality from my little camera is not great, but it is worth listening to Byron's description of all the connections in a cup of coffee, and the translation by our excellent guide Marlon Rivera.
Byron is famous for producing some of the best coffee on the planet: he has placed 1st and 2nd in worldwide cupping events and continues to improve his practices. (See my post about his Salt Spring Coffee video for more of his story.) He is also famous for the care he gives his coffee compost, which extends to the management of the diet of cattle who live at Los Pinos primarily to provide manure for the coffee. His continual improvement means that goats -- which have an important role in the origin myths of coffee -- are now part of the production cycle.


Since Nicaragua is a nation of poets, it is perhaps not surprising that these goats are routinely serenaded as they eat. Everything is connected.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Lucky Bird?

In 2006, during our first visit to the community of La Corona in the famous coffee-producing district of San Ramon, Matagalpa, two of my students had a brief encounter with the parakeet of one of our host families:

I asked whether such a practice really was part of local folklore, or if perhaps our students had been pranked. We are still not sure which is the case, but returning for our tenth-anniversary celebration, we found the same bird in the same kitchen. So maybe this ritual did bring it good luck!

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Why Shade-Grown?

Shade-grown coffee at the famous Los Pinos of Byron Corrales is shown here, just after the harvest. A well-managed coffee farm is actually difficult to see from a distance. The coffee trees (low and dark green) are obscured by the banana (light green near the center) and taller shade trees.
All of these must be in balance for the coffee fruit to develop its fullest flavor. This balanced approach also protects the quality of water and provides habitat for birds and other animals, while providing an extra source of food or income in the form of fruits.
Unfortunately, the bald area in the distance is one of several flower-growing operations in the area that employs exactly the opposite philosophy. Growing flowers and ferns under tarps, short-term income is maximized at the expense of water quality, worker safety, and wildlife.
The choice could not be clearer: Know Your Farmer!

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