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Coffee Culture

Excerpts from Rainier Valley Food Stories Cookbook

Coffee History

Coffee is believed to originate in Ethiopia. One story goes that Kaldi the goatherd noticed that his flock was especially frisky after eating berries from a certain plant. He tried them himself, and experienced the first human caffeine high. Soon Galla warriors learned to grind up the berries, mix them with animal fat, and roll the mixture into balls that could be carried into battle in lieu of food. What a strategic advantage!

Along with the physical effects of caffeine in the bloodstream, we must consider the social context of coffee drinking. From its early days, coffee has been associated with an age-old community-building activity: sitting around talking. In the Rainier Valley today you can find many examples of this tradition, from old Somali men sitting in the sun outside the Ayan coffee shop to Starbucks customers in comfy chairs discussing local politics. Coffee brings people together and strengthens our community.

Coffee Culture

Seattle is known as the coffee capital of the U.S., with latte stands at every gas station and hardware store. But even as Seattle exports its espresso shops to cities all over the world, the Rainier Valley’s immigrant populations import their own coffee traditions. The Ethiopian coffee ceremony, the Vietnamese coffee maker, the Italian espresso machine -- who knew there were so many ways to combine hot water and coffee beans? Yet each method creates a delicious beverage that simultaneously stimulates and relaxes.

By the 15th century the Sufis had developed the basic process of roasting and grinding the beans and passing hot water through them, and by the 16th century, coffeehouses had sprung up across the Arab world. In Cairo it was part of a marriage contract that the husband would provide an adequate supply of coffee to his wife; if he didn’t it could be “grounds” for divorce. Early on, coffeehouses were recognized by local rulers as dangerous places where people got together to discuss politics – and they were often shut down by officials who feared the results of these discussions.

From the Middle East, coffee spread to Europe, where coffeehouses were again places for political discussion. Today coffee has spread all over the world, and is now an integral part of many cultures. The Rainier Valley’s diverse community offers a fascinating array of coffee traditions.

Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony

At Ethiopian restaurants and homes, women in long white dresses roast coffee beans in a small pan over a hot plate, then grind them and put them in a carafe. They brew three rounds of coffee in the carafe, each with its own name. The first, strongest round is called “Abol,” the second “Tona,” and the third round is “Baraka.” Aklilu Welemichael, owner of Fasica Ethiopian Restaurant says, “The people in the neighborhood will be together, they will sit down over there and discuss the social aspect of their lives. What happened yesterday? What we can do for the future? That is the place [in] your neighborhood to discuss anything.”

Vietnamese Coffee

Vietnamese coffee preparation is equally languorous, though the result is quite different. A cup containing condensed milk is topped with a special coffee maker that slowly drips strong coffee directly into the sweet milk. This technique reflects Vietnamese history and geography: all over Asia tea is the dominant caffeinated beverage, but French colonists introduced coffee to the Vietnamese in the 19th century, along with sweet rich pastries to accompany it. Both coffee and pastries “stuck” and remain part of the Vietnamese diet today. Canned milk was used because fresh milk would quickly spoil in the tropical heat.

French Coffee, New Orleans Style

The French brought coffee to New Orleans too, where canned milk is also a common accompaniment. Edna Fortuné grew up drinking it, literally, at her grandfather’s knee. “My grandpa used to sit at that kitchen table and have his coffee in the morning, and when I’d see him go in there, see, I had to really sneak. I’d just crawl right around the other side where my dad couldn’t see. I’d go and sit right between [my grandfather’s] legs. I’d sit there and wait and be real quiet. Then I could hear when my mom was pouring him his coffee. And I just knew, man, I was gonna get some soon. When my mom would leave the room, he would [say], “Girl, girl.” He’d slip that saucer to me under the table, man. [Laughs] [I’d] drink it and try not to [slurp]. So that’s how I started drinking coffee. I think that’s how we all started drinking coffee. And I love it to this day, and I can go to bed after having drunk a cup right before. Whew. What a tolerance.”

Norweigan Coffee Break

Karleen Pederson-Wolfe inherited the coffee habit from both her Norweigan father and her Native American mother. “I started my day, every day, at six o’clock in the morning on [my father’s] lap with a little thing of coffee milk. Norwegians drink coffee. So do Natives. I was destined to be a coffee-holic.” Karleen’s sister Shirley remembers the role coffee played in the family’s social life: “Whenever people would come to our house -- the first thing, you’d be offered a cup of coffee.” Drinking coffee together provided a bond within the family as well. Shirley goes on, “Do people take coffee breaks anymore? Like we used to when I was growing up, at ten o'clock in the morning there’d be coffee break. It would be like a quick snack and a short conver-sation. My dad loved to talk. So coffee break time was always a time to [ask], ‘How’s your day going? What did you accomplish so far, what are you going to do next?’ He was very involved in our lives. He knew what we were doing.”


The Rainier Valley boasts at least three Starbucks shops, plus innumerable independent coffee shops and espresso stands. These establishments carry on the Italian tradition of forcing hot water through finely ground coffee beans. The espresso machine was invented by Luigi Bezzera in 1901, and by 1961 the modern electric machine was perfected. Espresso is served straight, or with frothy steamed milk – “latte”. While Bezzera’s goal was to make coffee faster (shortening his employees’ coffee breaks), espresso can be enjoyed as slowly as any other brew, and it provides plenty of opportunity for the kind of community-building public conversations that coffee has encouraged for over 600 years.


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