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Coffee: The last remaining tie to my birth country

By Jane HaglMarch 10, 2017

Coffee beans in a cup
Coffee beans in a cup

I used to have these handless cups that could fit in the palms of a little girl. The four petite ceinnes had a sweet pink rose pattern on pale cyan china and a gold rim. They are for drinking coffee in the traditional way. Green coffee beans immediately roasted and ground before being brewed three times in a black earthenware jebena. They were beautiful. Like most first-time mothers who gift their daughters with pretty things, my mother expected I would keep that small piece of my cultural heritage for a long time. But like any clumsy child, I broke four of them playing tea party and another simply rolling a cup between my two curious hands.

My mother took the sixth one for safe keeping.

 

But like any clumsy child, I broke four of them playing tea party and another simply rolling a cup between my two curious hands. 

Most days before dawn, she grinds beans to make four cups. Without fail, when 2 p.m. rolls around, she again grinds enough for two cups. On a rare occasion, she pulls out her a pan reserved for roasting beans, a jebena she brought in her luggage 20 years ago, and a delicate ceinne. She slowly roasts the beans over the stove. Once they've brown into deep chocolate color, she walks around the house with pan, wafting the aroma.

As I got older, I would tease her for it. She reminds me of my aunt who hated the strong, full body taste of Harar beans. Nevertheless, each day, she would roast and brew enough coffee for the aroma to perfume her three-story home near the Addis Abba's famed Mercado. Some days there would be guests to drink the coffee, other days it would go to waste.

I was 15 the first time I had all three rounds of jebena buna. As a child, I had occasionally sipped the strong brew mixed with a heavy dose of sugar. My mother's friend, a soccer mom with a preference for designer clothes, dons a habasha kemis before sitting on a wooden footstool. She roasts beans over a charcoal fire on a small stove before grinding the beans with a mortar and pestle. The grounds and water go in the jebena. She crouches over the pot, carefully watching for signs the coffee had brewed. Her automated coffeemaker is a few feet away in a modern kitchen. After pouring the steaming liquid into a cup, adding a teaspoon of sugar and stirring, she hands a cup to each person, from oldest to youngest.

It's sweet yet bitter. Oily yet light. It's more potent than an espresso shot. A second, weaker cup follows the first cup. The third one is the weakest, brewed from the remaining grounds. I shake my head no. I felt a little jittery.

"You have to," she informed me. "It's tradition."

I drink the third cup.

A few years later, I go to a very westernized Ethiopian wedding with my friend. Albeit forgoing many of traditional elements, the couple chooses to serve strong Ethiopian coffee for a guest list of three hundred. We had three cups of stronger-than-any-triple-shot-Venti at 10 p.m. We didn't sleep until we crashed from our caffeine high the next day.

 

In all honesty, so much of my life I've had it made for me, that I've never learned how to make a proper cup of coffee

Recently, I met my father for lunch. He requested— if I had time—if we could buy unroasted beans for my mother. After an hour searching for a store that sold beans, we found them at an independent fair-trade coffee shop. They had beans, but none from his motherland— the mother of coffee. He tells me about a coffee farm he visited once. His host asked him to select which bush he wanted his next coffee to come from and he receives a small parcel of handpicked beans as a token of hospitality. He has yet to find coffee as good as that batch produced.

I rarely make a cup of coffee. In all honesty, so much of my life I've had it made for me, that I've never learned how to make a proper cup of coffee. What I make doesn't ever quite tastes the same as what my mother makes. Once the language disappears from your tongue and the clothes from your wardrobe, even the smallest connection to a birth place can effortlessly vanish. Most days, the whiff of a well-brewed black cup of coffee is the only reminder that I have ties to another world steeped in rich rituals.