Thursday, February 28, 2008

the most publicized coffee break in the world

So, I'm sure you've all heard--or felt--that Starbucks closed early on Tuesday for "retraining." Okay, just looking back at that first sentence makes me want to get all comic bookish on you: Egads! Zoiks! Blam! Starbucks closed early? Whatever are we going to do? Maybe it's the cynic, or the slightly jaded ex-"partner" in me, that wonders what the angle was for such a move. Has quality declined that much or so sharply that such a move was needed? Will the drinks really be that much better on Wednesday morning? Hmm. So I got to poking around into this little mystery and here are some ramblings that came out of my search.

To start, I heard about "the story" on today's morning news, the day after the fact. That alone should give pause to several people I know who think I go ape over Starbucks (and who thus give me Starbucks stuff in my stocking). No, it's not that I hate them or their coffee --I've been known to grab a cup while cruising around Target or to meet friends at one of the three stores in my town--but I seem to have a reputation for a being a devotee when I'm really not. I think the Mac Donald's factor comes in to play here: you don't like it that much but it's familiar and the farther you are from home the more comforting the brand--and the clean bathrooms--are. I've spent a considerable amount of time away from home--in places with truly crappy coffee--so I've frequented Starbucks in several countries and states. But I digress: my point is that I never would have noticed that Starbucks closed early unless someone writing the morning "news" shows thought it was newsworthy.

So although I'm not a daily Starbucks pilgrim (if I can help it), I did find it interesting that the company closed its 7,100 U.S. stores for 3.5 hours in order to "retrain." Maybe it's because a long time ago I gave up the lattes, the extra shots, the soy--everything that piles on top of your drink to make it $4--and settled for the short drip coffee with room for cream, or on a splurge day, a tall with room americano. Both drinks are under $2, which would still seem highway robbery to my grandma, but which by today's standards is a bargain. And both drinks are super hard to mess up, the first being coffee perked into a pot and the second being an automated shot poured into a cup with hot tap water added. So, I must have been out of touch with Starbucks' sudden need to retrain 135,00 baristas in basic drink-making, which Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz cites as the reason for the company's Tuesday evening coffee break. Schultz, who just regained control of the company in January in order to win back some of the 40% profit loss the company incurred in 2007, put it a little more dramatically: "Your drink should be perfect...We have to get back what made this company great, and that is to have the courage and curiosity and commitment to do things that have not been done before."

Like what, put, a petting zoo by the condiment bar? Or a merry-go-round by the drink case? They've automated nearly every machine in every store, have drink making down to a science if not really an art, and bring in mass-produced baked goods to every outlet. Plus, they're hawking cds on their own label and promoting kitschy major motion pictures like Akeelah and the Bee. Pardon the cynicism, but what's next, spa treatments and wheat grass drinks? (Oh wait, they do sell those from the dairy case). Well, worry not. We won't have to speculate long. Schultz plans to roll out a new save-their-retirement plan at the March shareholders meeting, complete with "five bold innovations." Saddle up the ponies.

In the meantime, we can only wonder (hope?): could it be possible that "bold innovations" or not, the sun might be setting on the coffee giant's empire? Gone are the days when everyone looked to Starbucks alone to set the cool tone--and high prices--for coffee. New (and not-so-new) kids are in town: Peets, Carabou, Tullys (not to mention the thousands of coffee shops that have been around for years in cities like San Francisco and Berkeley). Peets and others who bother to do branding seem to work their brand very similarly but possibly better (be the "third place" for your customers by providing cool atmosphere, comfy chairs, beaming baristas, at least not crappy music, etc). I know, I know, naive me thinking that maybe Starbucks will just fade away, or at least become even more mediocre, playing even more Paul McCartney albums. In a free market economy there is always a way to rebrand, to recast your image and make your customers forget you sucked last year. But it was not so long ago--the 90s really--that the bohemian coffee shop down by the Pike Place Market went from a local hole in the wall to a national conglomerate--starting with airports, moving on to major metropolitan areas and vacations spots. Not long after that it became an international brand, hitting Canada, Great Britain, then Japan and, you get the picture. Back in those good old days the expandability of the brand seemed endless (think selling expensive coffee to tea drinkers in Tokyo). But honestly, where to from here? Ceylon? The company stands to shut down 100 U.S. stores this year and lay off 200 corporate workers. Do I see clouds forming near Starbucks' blue skies?

Who really knows. But what the heck, my prediction: Starbucks will circle the wagons by ditching the stores that suck the most and will focus on international expansion, which by some stroke of luck or genius is already working. Case in point, in 2000, when I briefly worked at the flagship store in Seattle, I attended a barista training session with new managers who were being trained to start up stores in their respective countries/cities: London, Barcelona, and Vienna. When I met those people I thought, this company must really be bullet proof, that, or these people have drunk the Starbucks' version of the red kool aid and really believe that they can sell American mass-produced coffee in cities that were brewing and selling coffee long before Boston hosted its famous tea party.

Apparently, Starbucks' kool aid is pretty good (maybe it looks and tastes like a vanilla latte?) because the company's international profits are up around 8%, with the company slated to open stores this year in India, Israel, Istanbul...the moon, the end of the yellow brick road, the worm hole that the characters from Lost went through when they crashed their jet. So while I don't go out of my way to frequent Starbucks here in my own town, the next time I'm in Ankara I'll make sure to dash in, use the bathroom and order my short drip coffee with room for cream. Or maybe I'll splurge and order my tall with room americano. I will be using their toilet paper, after all.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

a tale of two italies, part 2

I'm feeling inspired to return to Italy. A favorite local wineshop is planning an agritourism trip to Tuscany this fall and I've been wracking my brain trying to figure out what I could sell to scrape cash together to go along. Since that's not realistically going to happen, I'll have to settle for a vicarious trip to the land shaped like a boot, contemplating author Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love: A Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia.

Whereas the other book on Italy I reviewed earlier this month (Italian Days) began with no insights as to the the author's intent, with the opening chapter dropping the reader into Milan, it's worthy to note that Gilbert's book differs quite a bit. The introduction informs us that the book we are about to read is an account of the author's year of "self-inquiry" which took place in Italy, India and Indonesia (2). She further clarifies that the book we are holding is a "sincere spiritual investigation" and an effort to "find balance." Her inquiry, "as all quests for truth," is "methodological," not a "spazzy-free-for-all" (1-2).

This of course, begs several questions, such as: what method did the author use? What method could help her find "everything across Italy, indonesia, and India") (emphasis mine)? And, while we're at it, why these three countries specifically (save the fact that they make for good alliteration)? The answers, I believe, both help manage our expectations about what the book will actually accomplish and also give insights into the author's bias, her preconceived ideas about how she will accomplish her goal. The book is structured like a string of Hindu or Buddhist prayer beads, with each of the three sections (countries) containing 36 stories--36 being 1/3 of the total number of beads strung on a prayer necklace. The book as a whole is Gilbert's own 109th bead, representing the spiritual insights she gained from her year of spiritual exploration. So right off we learn that from the author's point of view what we are about to read is more than a memoir or travelogue; it's a spiritual search. We also realize that the stated method of this search is particularly Eastern, specifically Buddhist or Hindu.

Still we haven't learned why the author chose the three "I countries", especially Italy. It's been a while since I visited Italy, but the last time I hung out in Florence I didn't see too many prayer beads, ashrams or gurus! The simple answer (woven throughout chapter one, "Italy: Say It Like You Eat It or 36 Tales of Pleasure") is: Gilbert has an affinity to all three places, and during a year of crisis (horrible divorce, personal emotional breakdowns galore), found herself dreaming of these places (she took Italian classes to feel sexy again) and even visiting them for work (a writing assignment in Bali). So the concept was born: spend an entire year living off a publisher's advance, writing about her spiritual (and not-so-spiritual) experiences in those three countries.

It should be said at this point that Gilbert is an immensely talented and lauded writer, which explains why a book like Eat, Pray, Love is a best-seller (New York Times #1) and has been received in Oprah-esque style (" and inspiring. You will laugh, cry, and love with a more open heart." ~Rocky Mountain News). The book's off-beat concept along with the author's witty, self-deprecating style come off as diary excerpts from your zany but likable friend's recent trip around the world.

That said, I wasn't into the first chapter but 10 pages before I started arguing with this book. Maybe it's because I am so Italy-crazy that I took umbrage with a book that positions Italy as a sort of non-stop pleasure dome ("36 Tales of Pleasure.") I mean, just because the author's divorce starved her of 20 pounds, along with her taste for food and a sense of pleasure in life, and just because in Italy she found those 20 pounds, ate gelato at all hours of the day and was tempted to kiss (etc) handsome Italian men during her stay, does this mean that Italy represents pleasure? Or I should say, is it ONLY about pleasure? This was never a question for Gilbert since she openly admits she went to Italy searching for pleasure (60), and thus the "36 beads" on Italy are all about pleasure (and learning more Italian and going on-then-off Zoloft, and eating a ton of pizza, and weaning herself off her toxic relationship with her New York lover, and trying to avoid having sex for four months and...).

By the end of her Italy excursion, Gilbert notes that she's ready to move on. Well, boy that makes two of us. She ends her stay with a quick trip to Sicily, since it is "the most third-world section of Italy" and thus good preparation for her next stop: India (60). She also adds, seemingly an afterthought, that Sicily was a good visit since, quoting Goethe, "without seeing Sicily one cannot get a clear idea of what Italy is" (?). By this point I have reconciled myself to the fact that Gilbert's Italy is very little like Frommer's Italy or my Italy for that matter. That is okay (it's Gilbert's book!), but I'll admit it is more than a little strange to read a chapter on Italy that mentions relatively few landmarks, vistas, historical references, museums, philosophers, artists, Catholic figures (Mary? Christ??). It's not that Gilbert mentions nothing or no one, it's that well, she mentions herself more. A lot more. In fact, the chapter, as the book, is really one personal discovery after another. Her search for pleasure resulted in her discovering how to love herself (and gelato).

While self-discovery should, I think, be a goal of every traveler, it feels very decadent and well, silly, to position it as one's first priority (didn't E.M. Forrester's A Room with a View teach us that?). Reading Gilbert's Italy made me want to find the author at one of her cafe haunts in Rome, give her a big hug and then take her to the Coliseum where hundreds (thousands?) of Christians were thrown to the lions. Then we'd hop on a vespa and go to St. Peter's Church to gaze at the frescoes of the stanza della segnatura, which depict a 16th C Italian take on the interplay between philosophy, faith and beauty and which provoke us today to think about how we regard the interplay of these three topics.

In the end, I would say read this book for its humor and honesty. But expect to look on at a lot of navel gazing and to avoid seeing much about Italy itself. Do expect to find precisely what the author went to Italy looking for: a sense of joie de vivre or as Gilbert says, pleasure, which as we already know is easily found in a country that outfits officers in Armani, celebrates wine like it is holy water and produces the best ice cream in the entire world. If you would like to find in it--as I did--rich cultural and spiritual connections, don't bother reading the chapter on Italy. Go right to the chapters on India and Indonesia, where gurus and ashrams abound.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

the raw (real) deal

So I did something yesterday that before about three months ago I never dreamed of: I bought raw milk. What is "raw milk," you say? It's milk that's well, milk. It goes directly from the cow to the container to your glass--just like Bessy the Cow (and God) intended. Real milk (let's just agree to call it what it is from here on out) is non-pasteurized and non-homogenized. That is, it is not heated to 145 degrees for 30 minutes ("gentle pasteurization"). It is not heated to 161 degrees for 15 seconds ("standard pasteurization"). It is not heated to 280 degrees for two seconds ("ultra pasteurization"), and it is certainly not heated to 280 degrees and then stored in aseptic boxes that have been sterilized with hydrogen peroxide ("ultra high pasteurization" or UHT). As a result, real milk lasts about a week in the fridge, while other types of milk last longer ( two or three weeks for "standard," eight weeks for "ultra," and (yikes!) up to ten months for UHT.) Heating the milk to these high temperatures is meant to safeguard the quality of the milk, to boil away bacteria that can cause food borne illness. Most of our milk travels a far distance from farm to grocery in large tanks. Along the way it undergoes some level of this process.

Homogenization, which here in the US of A followed on the heals of pasteurization, is a process that blends the fats in the milk (the cream that rises to the top) with the rest of it. By quickly straining the milk through a fine mesh, homogenization marries the two parts. This is apparently a plus for us milk consumers; we just don't want to see that thick yellow stuff gathered at the top of the jug or (sigh!) and it's an inconvenience to shake the jug and mix it all together before we pour a glass. The downside of homogenization, besides the fact that it's not really necessary anymore (it used to be that milk was portioned out from big containers, giving some customers an unfair amount of fat from the milk, while skimping others) is that the yellowness of the cream in milk is a barometer of its quality; the yellower the milk the better the quality. I wonder if we saw our industrial milk (and butter before it's dyed) for what it is--white with very little yellow hue--if we'd think it was pure due to its whiteness, or if we'd recognize its low quality ?

One thing is becoming increasingly clear to many people: real milk tastes wonderful and offers many health benefits. Any form of pasteurization depletes many of the vitamins, available calcium (the kind that your body can use), proteins and omega-3s in milk. This is why most milk (even the pasteurized/homogenized "organic" gallon in my fridge I bought last week) is fortified with vitamins D and A. It's not that Bessy didn't pump out some good milk with good vitamins, fats and proteins (especially if she dined on grass and not corn mash!) it's that they were destroyed in the fire. You see, real milk contains heat-sensitive folic acid, vitamins and essential fatty acids (those little entities that unlock the calcium, aid vitamin absorption, etc). Real milk also contains good bacteria that pasteurization, by design, destroys. If you've ever known anyone to take acidophilus pills, their system needed those good bacteria from foods like real milk. Real milk, it turns out, benefits human health in several, formerly unknown ways; it combats cataracts, arthritis, even some forms of cancer (thanks to Nina Planck, Real Food for these stats).

If real milk is so great, why aren't more of us drinking it? The reasons are complex and manifold. One reason is concern for public health. Along the industrialized food producing-buying-consuming chain, which, let's be honest, is where most milk these days comes from, milk tends to spoil before it reaches our glasses. Milk is rather delicate, not liking long roadtrips in big stainless steal vats. As well, apparently sanitation on large dairy farms can be, ahem, a soft science, with Bessy standing in muck past her hooves, eating corn products that make her sick (so she needs antibiotics,) and with milkers not being as sanitary as necessary with their work (it would be easier to use good hygiene when milk is going to your neighbor rather than to a faceless, nameless consumer far, far down the highway). As a result industrial milk is an easily tainted product--one often in desperate need of a hot anti-bacterial bath. Another reason is accessibility: many of us live far, far, from Bessy's home and so can't just run out to our barn, or anyone's barn for that matter, and pick up a jug of the good stuff. Historically speaking, at the lowest point of Big Dairy's past, dairies near big cities ran amuck (literally), with cows called upon to munch on whiskey mash that was left over from the distillery down the road, and where, as a result, the milk produced was far from anything we might recognize as coming from a cow (and that which we wouldn't dare pour on our wheaties).

Reforms have happened in the 100+ years since Dairygate, yet pasteurization--a direct result of the tainted milk and poisoned milk drinkers from that period--remains. Industrialized production churns on, I believe, not primarily for health concerns, but instead because of convenience and easier profit.

So that's some of the info I have gleaned on the topic of late. Now I challenge you to educate yourself on this issue. The culmination of my study found me standing in front of the cold case at my local food co-op (it turns out I am just a little too far from Bessy's barn for a quick milk run to the farm). There I stood gazing through the glass at a half gallon that looked like all the others, save this: "our family has been producing fine dairy products for three generations and this non-pasteurized, non-homogenized milk is a product of a small herd of dairy cattle managed in a traditional, sustainable manner under I watchful care." I was frozen there for a second; it may have appeared from my stare down with the dairy case that I had happened upon a road-side bomb or trip wire. But years of indoctrination about the social and nutritional responsibilities of pasteurized milk gave me pause.

The good news is I got over my mental block. Today I woke up and decided to make myself a latte from my good ground beans which I ran through my stovetop espresso pot and, you guessed it, warmed (not boiled!) real milk in a pan. I'm sure my family was amused (or irritated) at hearing how delicious that latte was, but I just couldn't stop oohing and aahing. Had I never drunk milk before, or what?

Above I said that I live just far enough away from Bessy and Pleasant Valley Dairy (Bessy's milkers) to prohibit a trip to the farm, to the source of all this bovine goodness I'm describing. As Joel Salatin, Michael Pollan, Nina Planck, et al suggest, however, I'm going to make at trip to the farm as soon as I can. That way, I'll see how things are run and, more importantly, shake the hands of the people behind this nectar of the gods. And maybe that's one of the larger points behind all of this: go to the source, do a little poking around and see how real the food (in this case, the milk) is that I consume and serve to my family and friends (this may take effort, but isn't it much more straight forward than trusting a USDA inspector or a factory somewhere in Dairyland with my health?) Oh, and before I leave for the farm, I won't forget to pack a cooler to stock up on all those good dairy products.

For any of you interested in finding a real (raw) milk farm or source near you: go to:

Just because I know Kate and I experience mind meld on this (and many!) topics, here's the connection for Miami:

Miami Beach: South Beach Wild Oats Market, 11th and Alton Road, Miami Beach 33139 (305) 532 8286 Ask for Dan. Regularly stocking and displaying Golden Fleece Raw milk in the dairy case. Delivery day has been Fridays. They are also taking special orders for other Raw milk products from Golden Fleece Farms.

Ciao Fellow Cow Lovers,


Saturday, February 2, 2008

5 & 5

I'm such a blogger newbie that I didn't know I was supposed to put the following comments on my site when I got tagged by a friend to do it ( So here goes: five odd things about me and five places I'd like to visit/revisit:

5 things:

1. I grew up on an island.

2. I went to college in another country (Canada, but hey!, or eh…)

3. I was born with a strange little wrinkle in my left earlobe and I keep forgetting to get it fixed (but how do I forget, when my niece keeps asking if my ear is still broken?)

4. I, too, worked in a coffee shop, am a coffee freak and am known for being into coffee (I get coffee crap in my christmas stocking). But I, too, forget how many beans to grind for the french press. This irritated my dad to no end.

5. I grew up in a community church, was involved in YWAM, went to a Free Church university, joined Campus Crusade (sorta Baptisty) became a Presbyterian, went to a Reformed Seminary where I became an Anglican, and then returned home to work at 3 Lutheran churches. Can you say CONFUSED?

5 places:

1. I absolutely must go back to Slovenia. I’ve been twice, one time under “normal” circumstances (traveling through to Italy) and the other in a time of war (Kosovo). It is called “little Europe” because it features every climate in Europe–from the Julian alps in the north (by Austria) to the Mediterranean in the south (by Italy/Croatia). With the variety of climes, come tons of diverse activities, sites, scenes, etc. The capital city, Ljubljana, is situated on a winding river and boasts incredible Renaissance and Neo-Classicist architecture. Coincidence that Ljubljana means “beloved?” I think not.

2. Boston. Okay, maybe all that needs to be said here is that I visited Boston on business in FEBRUARY and loved it. But what’s more, the little place I stayed, the Newbury Guest House (, was so cozy, I wanted to move in.

3. Italy (I can cruise through Sovenia on the way…). I am whacky for Italy. I know, join the club. So this is no surprise in many respects. My specific reason for mentioning it is that I’d like my next visit to be with my mom and sister. We’ve always wanted to go together. Maybe if our business starts making money, we can comp it!

4. Ireland. My peeps on my mom’s side are from there (name: Lewis; island of Lewis, that connection). We’ve always been more in touch with the other (German) side of the fam, so it’s time to honor the Irish!

5. Big Island, Hawaii. I know, really original. But my mom and dad spent much of their retirement together there and we have a ton of great memories. My dad, who passed away a year ago, wanted some of his ashes to be scattered there. Sorry to end on a macabre note, but just keepin’ it real!

Friday, February 1, 2008

a tale of two italies, part 1

During the last months I found myself reading two very different books about personal pilgrimages to Italy. I found the first book, Italian Days by Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, a Brooklyn-born second generation Italian immigrant and acclaimed writer (New York Times, The Republic and several books), in a very unlikely place. I was leading a mission trip to an inner city church in El Paso, TX and pulled it off the shelf in the room where I was sleeping. I wasn't able to finish the book during my stay and had to leave it behind. But I was so engaged by the book that I procured a used copy on as soon as I returned home.

Harrison's book grabbed hold of me for several reasons. First, it is a travel memoir without being a travel guide. Some memoirs read like a Lonely Planet book. That's good if you are looking for that one particular panetteria in Rome or you would like to know the best places to park outside of Venice. Italian Days, thankfully, is nothing like this. Right from the start the author lets us in on what she is doing and where she is going. It's clear--from the first paragraph--that this book is far from a straight forward tour through Italy:

"1985. The Alps make you feel all starched and clean and clean as you fly into Milan--they punctuate the long transatlantic sleep of a nighttime flight; groaning bodies stir and strengthen and come to morning life as the mountains exert a rosy magnetic pull that won't allow you not to pay them the compliment of being crisply awake."

Second, the book is personal without being self-indulgent. We've all read those books where you think you might want to explore the inner workings of the author's soul with him--until you get 45 pages into it and want to slap him or harm yourself. Where she could allow herself to navel gaze, Harrison stops short, giving her reader access to whatever experience she's describing by broadening it. Here's an example, her description of Rome:

"I am happy here, when I or others have bruised my life, I close my eyes against the hurt and think of Rome: as possibility, and hope. And I feel more related to my environment and to my circumstances in Rome than I do anywhere else on earth...for the rest of my life I will love Rome and and think better of my life for having known Rome. Rome, rooted and ethereal, stretching from earth to heaven, casts aside so little and embraces so much--there's room for me. It is everything; it is elegant, robust, common, spectacular, vulgar, exquisite, and above all rare."

Third, this book is a travel memoir of the best order: It is a quest not a tourist trap. It is a book about a woman's return to an unknown ancestral homeland, her quest to understand the land, the people (her people) and, ultimately, herself. As such, the book makes clear how and why Italy impacted the author, not merely how she found (translation: ate through, saw the sites in) Italy. Harrison acquaints the reader with Italy (and secondarily, with Harrison herself) through its substance, its character. The book is full of questions and insights about Italy's Catholic history and beliefs, its myths, philosophies, architecture, art, and even recipes. She quotes everyone from Augustine to the Godfather films to the graffiti at the Uffizi and the effect is powerful. We discover that Italy may be Harrison's personal quest, her homeland, her destiny, but it also has room for us, too.

Somehow the author manages to reveal--teach us-- various aspects of Italian culture and history without our minding it and, it seems, without her even intending to. This is not easy to do in a non-textbook publication (the reader either feels dumb for not knowing it or irritated that he's being taught instead of entertained). Harrison manages the trick, I think, by using a poetic style. She's light-handed, breezy, even rapturous, at times. That said, I imagine it is precisely her style that will frustrate and put off some readers. An example of to what I'm referring can be found in her description of Bergamo:

"The piazza contains shops, a taverna, and several houses; it is not a stage set...young boys play soccer; it is a stage set...a fat priest with a bald pate, his brown tunic belter with rope, waddles by."

My overall impression of Italian Days is that it is honest. It really is about Italy and also the author's many splendid (and a few not splendid) days there. Harrison's knack for making this book located and locatable in Italy (she experienced particular places and we can too), while also setting Italy for us against the illuminating backdrop of art, philosophy, theology and archaeology makes this work stand out from the myriad of books on the subject.

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