My left thumb has been itchy lately. I’ve been yanking up scratchy thistle, and I got a bee sting there a couple days ago. Clearly (or dirtily) the left is the green thumb for gardening, following the rhyming logic that my right is for writing. After translating resources with clear instructions for sustainable agriculture with tropical crops like coffee and cacao, I walk into the wild unknown of my own subtropical kitchen garden.
Exploring gardening in Texas, during my first growing season here, is mostly a joyous experience of marveling at nature’s mysteries.
Just like in Manizales, seasons are thrown with gusto to the wind. It can feel like spring at dawn, summer all day long, and fall right before dusk…during a November winter.
Faithful to the start of the adage on March storms, tornado winds this week shredded my milk-jug-encased tomatoes straight down the middle of the stem, yet didn’t even tussle four-foot-tall arugula. The garlic in the middle of still-straight cilantro simply folded over because it’s time to ripen, tornado or not.
Flowering arugula smells sweet like jasmine, as the leaves get ever more peanut-buttery potent. It’s an exhilaratingly sensorial confusion to nibble and sniff at the same time. Coffee flowers similarly remind me of jasmine, but peanut butter was the one American treat I always missed in coffee-growing countries. Arugula strangely straddles that rift in cultural cuisines.
This particular plant came out of a mystery pack of jumbled seeds from a garage sale, was the only one to bolt from two beds, and chose to do so right on the edge of the patio.
Clover seeded last summer luckily flowered for St. Patrick’s Day and started to attract pollinating bees, but I got a bee sting all the way downtown at a Keep Denton Beautiful (beauty-full of flowering Redbuds) event. I hung up a birdhouse only for a wasp to make its nest.
There’s no rhyme or reason to when roses appear, whether tended or ignored. Mint comes back with a vengeance if mowed over, but dies when gingerly transplanted. Tropical ginger couldn’t hack the dry Texas heat, but the coffee hasn’t given up.
We were charged with babysitting someone’s special organic jalapeño seedlings potted in black gold soil compared to our backyard’s clay bricks, and each one died. Just regular seeds out of fruits from the Mexican market gave us 99% germination on bell peppers and habaneros that overwintered wonderfully. In Colombia we danced salsa; in Texas we grow salsa!
The greatest mystery lately has been what’s sprouting from the unfinished compost I spread over the beds when spring planting time arrived months earlier than expected. The compost from last fall’s garden held the remains of a couple of successfully sweet cantaloupes, several smashed pumpkins from the neighbors that go overboard for Halloween, a boatload of unripe watermelon from an early winter snap, and umpteen vine-borer-infested butternut squash.
Today I moved a mound of leaf bags and squashed underneath I found seedlings with seeds attached: they’re watermelon. But I firmly believe that some others are undefeated squash.
As Masanobu Fukuoka expressed in The One-Straw Revolution, seemingly random growth is not wrong; it’s entirely natural.
There is a lot of greenery in holiday decorations, but not a lot of green.
Our neighbors have left their Christmas lights on all night long since before December.
UPS has been bringing a package to the neighbors nearly every day since Black Friday. Inefficient deliveries means online shopping isn’t more environmentally friendly than driving once to the mall. (How about a discount if you opt to lump all your household’s purchases spread out over several weeks into a single monthly delivery?)
Single-serve aluminum baking pans and disposable champagne glasses are designed for holiday office parties or hosts who can’t bother to cook and then wash dishes afterwards too.
After the flurry of unwrapping, the mounds of paper, ribbons, bows, and probably a little kid’s already lost new toy, are whisked up in a pile for the garbage.
Unwanted gifts, notably the ugly-on-purpose white elephants, are given for a chuckle, then tossed.
The everyone-must-have-it-and-so-shall-I item is purchased at all cost, only to be relegated to the back of a closet stuffed with last season’s trends. A lady paid $300 for a Hatchimal in an online auction! That much money can buy a whole chicken coop set-up with a flock that will lay edible eggs every day all through next Christmas.
This year, our first living in the United States, we wanted to make at least a two-person dent in America’s Christmas-time consumption. We went for a hike in the forest while everyone was stuffing themselves silly at Thanksgiving, and the next day picked up free pecans straight from the trees while everyone was shopping on Black Friday, purportedly to help bring businesses out of the red. For the greenery, I didn’t need to spend green; I just had to look outside.
I hadn’t had a proper backyard garden since we lived in Jardín, Colombia, where every vividly painted balcony had a little old lady stooped over with a watering can. It didn’t matter if the pot was an empty pop bottle, as long as you grew pretty flowers in it. And everyone did. Gardening in Jardín was effortless: year-round mild temperatures, fertile soil, abundant water.
Texas is a whole different beast. It’s like riding a bronco. I really, really, wanted to see at least one bright red tomato popping out of that tangle of green branches, like Rudolph’s nose if he ran into a pine tree, and so I hung on as big ol’ Texas weather bucked with all it’s got: a drought in June, 100-degree days in July, a rainstorm-a-day that brought fungus in August, aphids in September, daily tickling sessions to help pollinate in October, nightly tucking the plant to sleep under sheets for frost just at fruit-set in early November, and numbly stripping the branches of any tomato bigger than my pinky fingernail before the hard frost in the teens in December.
I missed my Rudolph moment, but green ripened into red in the dark cabinets and exploded with homegrown flavor. After that first juicy bite of lost summer, I made my peace with winter’s closure of the growing season and yanked off the tomato cage. I guess I wasn’t entirely at peace looking at unopened flowers and still had the bronco-buckin’ grip that can snap metal. That broken cage released my creativity, and with a little redneck ingenuity (duct tape) the upturned trellis became an upcycled tree.
Tinto in two forms helped with the rest of the decorations.
1.) Tinto as black coffee: Empty espresso capsules became dangly bells that let out a dainty ring against the sides of the tomato cage. This is our fifth year of hanging the same Nespresso capsules (and hanging the same hand-sewn stockings) on a miniature Christmas tree, which back in Colombia was made out of fresh bamboo branches each year. We rescued the capsules from the trash bin of an office that worked with and drank a lot of Nespresso.
2.) Tinto as red wine: Empty bottles will spell out J-O-Y to my visiting nephews and nieces learning to read (it’s my middle name too). The letters were cut out from the cardboard of a cracker box. The twine had held up pole beans in the backyard. The red marker and gold ribbon were discarded by previous tenants. Three evergreen clippings came from branches that overhung a nearby walking path and were due for a trim. The wine came at a cost, but we’re happy to be still celebrating monthly anniversaries.
Thank you to the coffee and wine growers for contributing to our year-round enjoyment of these beverages and our year-end holiday decoration.
Thank you to the tomato growers who will sustain us until next summer’s crop.
Thank you to those who also choose to find peace and beauty in the simplicity of a more sustainable seasonal celebration.
Thank you to my readers and fellow writers for nourishing my mind with your inspiring ideas and encouraging words.
Now bring on the holiday desserts! (Thank you to the cocoa growers, the vanilla growers, the almond growers…)
The good folks at the community bike shop Qerencia gave us tune-ups before hitting the rail trail. They need a new rental space, and I apparently need a new back tire.
Coffee sacks and baby grands
Trash-turned-into-treasure was on display, like this Rwandan coffee bag repurposed into a rustic dress.
Among other “how could they have thrown that out?!” objects, the environmental educator had seen a baby grand piano crushed into smithereens. It saddens me to see so many tossed belongings that didn’t get sufficient curb alert. I proposed having an alert sent out to thrift stores like the philanthropic Ruth’s Room before it goes into the trash compactor.
Another idea is a neighborhood collection site for unopened food and usable clothing, akin to the Little Library movement. Perhaps old kitchen cabinets or an entertainment center (go ahead and toss that TV at the e-waste site and grab a book) could be salvaged for this purpose. What have you seen in your communities to repurpose perfectly usable goods that people just trash on move-out day?
Our 20-odd group of adult cyclists gathered on the scale at the solid waste compound and clocked in at around 3,000 pounds, about half that of a single SUV Hummer, a monumental waste.
Greased bike chains and Rusty Tacos
Feeling good about our individual weight and invigorated by the exercise on the ride back to downtown, we scarfed shrimp and brisket tacos by Rusty Tacos, which were fortunately neither rusty nor recycled, as in regurgitated (100% post-consumer…ingredients?). For a truly Tex-Mex feel, we had our picnic lunch on Mexican blankets spread over the square’s lawn.
On the courthouse steps, a group of musicians provided folk and bluegrass tunes, as they do every Saturday. Denton vibrates music, down to the musical note bike stands that dot the downtown square.
Daily ways to reduce our trash impact
The latest innovation in my home was to get a recycling canister twice as large as the trash bin. It works! Have you tried a visual trick to promote reuse and reduce garbage?
Here’s a quick ABC of my small actions for food-related waste:
A: Avoid plastic bags. Wash out produce bags and bring cloth tote bags to the grocery store
B: Bring Tupperware to restaurants or group meals where there’ll be leftovers instead of a Styrofoam (not recyclable) take-out box
C: Compost kitchen scraps. Meet your neighbors or ask on a local gardening forum for nearby composters.
Specifically for coffee:
A: Avoid disposable cups. Bring your own ceramic mug or to-go thermos.
B: Buy beans in bulk and a reusable coffee filter for Keurig-type machines, instead of disposable capsules.
C: Compost coffee grounds. Meet your neighbors or ask on a local gardening forum for nearby composters.
The objectives were to support local coffee shops, build community, and promote biking in Denton. Fellow entrepreneurs in the Denton Area Small Businesses group, neighbors on Nextdoor, local hosts on Couchsurfing, and cyclists in the Denton Bicycle Coalition were invited.
I rode to each coffee shop on my bike.
Drunk driving = bad. Caffeinated bike riding = good (to a certain extent).
First stop on the Caffeine Crawl Agenda, bright and early at 6:30 am, was Upper Park Cafe at 222 W. Hickory.
Daniel and I ordered an Americano. Tori, the waitress who swaps shifts at Upper Park with another night job in between wrapping up her senior year at UNT, clearly runs on caffeine (how else?) and gave us a sample of their popular pecan coffee, which supposedly has extra caffeine. Grinding coffee beans with pecan nuts would smell divine, but the flavor was a little too strong and seemed syrupy.
The second stop had a double purpose. Cultivar Coffee Bar shares shop at 235 W. Hickory with Hypnotic Donuts, making for a no-brainer breakfast. At 7:00 am there were already a couple of bikes chained to the patio fence adorned with UNT pendants, and a handful of students inside the cozy space.
Bacon strips top two of the favorite donut flavors, Canadian Healthcare (with maple icing) and Evil Elvis (with peanut butter and banana), but I guess I’m not southern enough yet. Instead, I ordered the third most popular, Express Yo’ Self: a chocolate donut spread with coffee icing and sprinkled with coffee grounds. What else?
Sunk into ‘70s sofas set up family-style in a living room, eerily watched over by a chicken-headed Hindu deity with a donut in multiple hands, we could barely see petite Krysten efficiently running Cultivar behind a mammoth La Marzocco coffee machine. The sleek Italian machinery paired well with the retro bar seats, just as their house coffee paired well with Hypnotic’s donuts.
At 7:30 am on the opposite side of the square, (114) West Oak Coffee Bar was serving up heartier protein-packed breakfasts alongside fall-flavored beverages. Their seasonal barista specialties of campfire cortado (a s’more in a mug: handmade walnut syrup, chocolate milk, and marshmallows) and yam and taro lattes (one-upping pumpkin in nutrition and uniqueness) sounded cozy, and the warm visual palette of brick-exposed walls and worn wooden tables was fitting. Jim, the assistant roaster, said that when they’re roasting coffee downstairs it smells like bread baking. Oh my, sensory overload of yumminess. I’ll have to check back when it finally feels like fall. When does that happen in Texas?
Caroline, the media manager, described her field visit to their direct trade program in Colombia and the goal of offering growers equal wages. Jeremy, the head roaster, and Matt, the owner, came upstairs and the whole West Oak Coffee Bar staff melded behind the bar like one big, creative, friendly, coffee-loving family.
So far there had been only a handful of hipsters, students, and business folks headed to work at each coffee shop. At 106 N. Locust, Jupiter House was nearly a full house by 8:00 am. The line was long, the signs were small (and lacked prices), and the place felt like your typical coffee shop. I found the most atypical group underneath the sign Murderers Row.
It was a small sampling of the large eclectic group that forms every Saturday morning, comprised of professors, lawyers, artists, a county commissioner, and the former mayor. One lady greeted a judge up for election heading out with coffee-to-go, then said she’s friends with the other candidate. The group’s mix of political persuasions makes for interesting conversation. How better to create community?
They came to Jupiter out of convenience and in search of camaraderie, but none came for the coffee. It was a meeting place; the thermos was brought from home as an accessory. This was the only place where I stayed dry on coffee, but I got my fill of conversation.
The last stop on my tour was Shift Coffee, straight down the street at 519 S. Locust. Oscar and I sat outside, soaking up the morning sun and discussing healthy sports habits among children. At this point I was hardly feeling healthy: I had only had a donut to eat, and much too much coffee to drink already. And the coffee shops were clustered together around Denton’s downtown square, limiting my pedaling. I’d have a long bike ride home and would be fueled to the brim by then. My other car runs on caffeine.
Shift has simplistic, contemporary-stylized menus on mini clipboards and a repurposed window, but their coffee is complex. Barista Kat gave me an adorable full sensory description of my Ethiopian pour over with apricot and black currant notes, a light acidity, and the sense that fall is right around the corner (I chose it over the Panama honey because I remember my sweltering days in Panama as an eternal summer, and I’m about ready for that to end here in Texas).
Barista Ramen shifted his attention between me and another customer, giving both of us a full education on our coffee. He pays meticulous attention to quality control, tasting everything from their rotating supply of roasters. But of course their favorite is Spyhouse Coffee Roasting from Minneapolis, as I was wearing my Green Party Minnesota shirt, and I met a fellow Midwesterner at the bar who works across the street at Bullseye Bike Shop. Biking and coffee, on target.
I settled into a parlor chair by a bookshelf stocked with classic literature and chatted with a white-bearded, gnome-nosed man (it’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas!) about population growth in Denton, the final frontier of the metroplex. Fort Worth used to be where the West began, and Denton is now where the wild expansion butts heads with long-horned ranches.
With thoughts of farms and families ruminating in my head, and too much coffee churning through my bloodstream, I left the knowledgeable staff and hipster haven of Shift and headed home.
Barhopping starts out running and slows to a pub crawl. This caffeine crawl started out barely awake and revved up to 90 RPMs. I shifted to low gear on my bike ride back and wondered how long it would take for over 500 mg of caffeine to filter through my system.
After the splurge comes the purge. Tomorrow is International Translation Day. I think I’ll celebrate starting now with several glasses of water/agua.
It’s fun to watch people make a fool of themselves, live on camera. Fails are as popular as Vines on YouTube. I have empathy for the clumsy, and we all need a good belly laugh.
When it’s a business blunder, though, the entire company cringes. After watching “Mad Men”, we no longer have to wonder about what high-paid ad executives did: drinking on the job makes for mad ads. Flash forward to ultra-sensitive, hyper-connected 2016, and the public will easily get mad at a bad ad.
Marketing is all about images, but thank goodness some of us still read. Even in other languages. Too bad Pepsi didn’t take that into account before launching the campaign slogan “Come Alive With Pepsi!” in China, which was mistranslated in Chinese into “Pepsi will bring your ancestors back from the dead”.
Spanish speakers tend to add an E before an English word beginning with a S, and to omit a final consonant in the word, especially a K (e.g. Facebook becomes “face-boo”, which is disconcerting because it sounds as if they think an acquaintance’s countenance is frightening).
Interestingly, then, Starbucks is pronounced “estarbos”, sounding similar to “estorbo”, which means “nuisance” or “hindrance”.
As an English teacher, I encourage students to divide compound words into ones they already know. Starbucks breaks down into “star”= estrella and “bucks”= billetes. Starbucks: donde estrellan (also means “to crash”, like a car accident) tus billetes.
This parody reflects the backlash against the hipster clientele willing to pay their prices.
These are all just unfortunate pronunciations and double-meanings of a name the company can’t change, tied as it is to Melvillean literature. On to the images.
This lovely mural decorates the new Starbucks in Medellín. The floral flourishes, the verdant foliage, the exotic animals all scream TROPICAL.
Starbucks reported, “the artist Catalina Estrada, known for her bold interpretations of nature and Latin American folklore, created a playful custom mural inspired by Medellin’s nickname.” (emphasis added)
In Colombia, coffee is usually grown at altitude, not like the low-lying fields of Brazil. Certainly not on the seashore, for a coy mermaid to be kissing the coffee cherries wearing a coffee-flower lei (that would be Hawaii). Just a nautical reference to Moby Dick, subtly sneaking in the logo? Or maybe this is part of magical realism?
The muralist gets points for including heliconias, adorning many farms, and a jaguar, still prowling the Antioquia countryside. But the rainforest macaws would better be replaced by a hummingbird, the symbol of Colombia’s magical realism celebrated in last year’s popular nature film “Colombia Magia Salvaje”.
Any of these would have been welcome, realistic symbols to include in an otherwise enticing, albeit a bit too exotic, mural.
Misleading marketing piece #2
If anyone should know about Colombian coffee, it would be the National Federation of Coffee Growers, or FNC. They unwittingly put their stamp of approval on this package without seeing the rest of the decorations.
100% Colombian coffee is characterized by about 30% Peruvian (llama, Nazca lines) and 30% Central American symbols (chocolate, Mayan pyramid). The rest is generic tropical clip art (toucan, palm tree, lizard).
Only one is supposedly Colombian, that of the palenqueras, the AfroColombian women bearing tropical fruits on their heads, iconic in Cartagena. Again, coffee doesn’t grow on the beach. Unless they’re trying to represent coffee grown in the nearby mountains of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta? Why not put an indigenous Arhuaco then, with their characteristic woven mochilas?
Marketers and muralists are entitled to their artistic freedom, but let’s not stray too far into the salty oceans and desert plains when it comes to Colombian coffee.
Looking for aesthetic, authentic inspiration? I leave you with this shot of locals drinking coffee in the plaza in our previous home, Jardín, Antioquia, only a few hours from Medellín.