Is This The Tree That Gave Birth To The Multi-Million Dollar Coffee Industry?

The man standing on the mule road between the four-wheel drive I was in and, supposedly, the tree that gave birth to the global multi-billion dollar coffee industry, bore a striking resemblance to actor Jimmy “J.J.” Walker of the 1970s sitcom “Good Times.” So much so that I almost didn’t notice the 2-foot-long machete in his hand. “Dyno-mite,” I sarcastically muttered to myself, as our idling car and the Ethiopian version of Jimmy Walker continued their staring contest. I’d just endured an hour’s drive over bumpy oft-unpaved roads from Jimma, a town of 130,000 in western Ethiopia, whose main renown might be that the countryside surrounding it produces some of the best coffee in the world. I knew we were close when we passed a small billboard showing an illustration of a woman plucking coffee cherry from a tree with the words underneath it: “The birthplace of coffee Arabica, 10km.”

But now I was just short of reaching the caffeine-scented Garden of Eden, stuck in an apparent showdown between us and a machete-wielding man.I had come to Ethiopia for one reason: coffee. Specifically, I wanted to find out what made Ethiopian coffee among the best in the world. AFAR magazine had sent me to write a feature article about it. Needless to say, while I was here I drank enough java to make my head spin around a few times.

But for a quick minute I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it out of Ethiopia alive. The man with the machete began walking toward our vehicle, a sideward glance in tact, and began talking to the driver in Oromiffa, the language of western Ethiopia. And then suddenly he was in the car with us. His machete still resting on his shoulder, he barked out directions to the driver. A few minutes later, there we were, standing around a 10-foot-high tree, rotting coffee cherry dangling from its limbs, like cotton pills on an old sweater. Jimmy “J.J.” Walker, whose real name I would learn was Awol Abagojam, a local coffee farmer, gave a swan-like sweep of his arm and said: “This is it, the first coffee tree.”

“But really right here?” I asked. “This very tree?”

Unless this man is to believed, no one really knows where the first coffee tree is, only that coffee supposedly originated from Ethiopia. Which is now shrouded in myth: one day a ninth-century goatherd named Kaldi noticed his goats were “dancing.” He remembered that the animals had been munching on the fruit of a tree and so he plucked a few himself and delivered it to the monks of a nearby monastery. It didn’t take long for the monks to realize the uplifting power of the fruit. And soon, as the story goes, coffee was born.

I have to admit, it was an underwhelming sight, even if this was the tree that changed what we drink in the morning (and in the afternoon and, when it calls for it, in the evening). I waved goodbye to the friendly farmer with the machete, got back in the car, and headed back to Jimma where I would, naturally, drink more coffee.

The Gastrointestinal Gamble: Kimchee Carbonara With Doritos

The contents of the bowl in front of me looked familiar. In it, eggy noodles swirling with some variety on the theme of bacon. It was recognizable but at the same time it wasn’t. That’s because it also included kimchee and – wait for it – Doritos.

[Record scratch across the heavens.]

Welcome to King Noodle in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood, the stoniest stoner restaurant you’ll come across this side of San Francisco. Mirrored walls and a disco ball (relics from the space’s previous incarnation as a Dominican bar) and a ceiling lined with strips of red, blue and purple Christmas lights illuminate the spray painted walls of corral reefs on a Martian-like landscape (done by local artists at Secret HandShake). If the space seems like an electric Kool-Aid acid test, the menu reads like it was concocted after several hits from an evil wizard bong and a trip to the kitchen to see what’s in the fridge: Spam fried rice, mapo tofu with chili cheese fries, and rice cakes with krab and mozzarella in a spicy sauce.

And then there’s that dish I described above: kimchee carbonara. When I first heard about it – the restaurant just opened last month – I knew I had to try it.

I have a love affair with the Roman pasta dish carbonara. I wrote about it for Gadling after a recent trip to Rome in which I mostly only ate the egg-y pasta dish of contested origins every place I sat down to eat. And I happen to have just fused Korean and Italian tastes in a cooking competition my friends had just organized.

Here I was in Bushwick, a name that translates as “refuge” in Dutch. The neighborhood was once a civic wasteland, particularly after the 1977 riots that decimated the area. In the 1990s, artists began moving into the desolate warehouse and loft buildings, which had no heat and very few comforts. It wasn’t until a decade ago when galleries, bars and restaurants slowly and quietly began opening up here. Then in early 2008 came Italian restaurant Roberta’s. It has drawn people to the neighborhood ever since, especially now with the addition of Roberta’s upscale spin-off Blanca garnering rave reviews. Bushwick is now so self-sustainable that residents don’t necessarily need to drift into neighboring Williamsburg for decent eating and drinking.

King Noodle is a prime example, which sits next to The Narrows, a great cocktail bar. When chef Nick Subic, late Roberta’s, delivered my kimchee carbonara, I took the opportunity to ask him a few questions.

“It all started when my restaurant partner and I were at Snacky” – an Asian restaurant in Williamsburg – “when we got this idea to do a restaurant that evokes those weird second-floor, pub-like restaurants in Korea Town. But we wanted some stoner-dorm-room-vibe thrown into the mix. And that’s where the kimchee carbonara came into it all.”

He added: “We wanted to do something that was as inauthentic to Korean food as Taco Bell was to Mexican food.”

Goal achieved. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the dish is bad. In fact, I liked it very much. The Doritos gave it a nice textural crunch. And the lo mein noodles were the perfect size to wrap around the kimchee and bacon.

I can’t say that when I come back to King Noodle – and I will return – that I’d get the kimchee carbonara again. There’s something about stoner food in restaurants that almost feels like cheating. Part of the appeal, after all, is being stoned (which I wasn’t) and also inventing it yourself. And then, of course, thinking that you just created what might be the greatest thing ever eaten (and then, the next morning, realizing just how wrong you were).

[Photo by David Farley]

A Visit To A New York Farm

The campers next to us were singing cheerily about crucifixion. About The Crucifixion, I gathered. Something about a large cross they’d erected on their campsite with a live dwarf-like man affixed to it gave me this impression. When a few friends invited me to go camping recently, I jumped at the opportunity to do something I’d never really do. “You? Camping?” my sister said when I announced my weekend plans. Her reaction was as if I’d said I was changing my name to Cletus and moving to Appalachia.

When the campers next to our site broke out the drum kit and plugged in the electric guitars for a Christian rock concert, I knew that my sister (and most people) were right. Camping isn’t for me. But I did have access to a car. And what does one do with a car in Westchester County? According to a set of food-loving friends, the answer is to visit the Blue Hill at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture.Whenever I leave New York City I usually end up flying over an ocean or two. I rarely explore what’s just outside the city. But here I was driving up to Blue Hill, a restaurant that recently won the James Beard Award for restaurant of the year. Sadly, I wouldn’t be eating there but just exploring the complex, a vast farm.

The parking lot was full and families and paramours were gawking at chickens and pigs and strolling through the herb garden. I have to admit: I wasn’t exactly sure why people would come here. Besides eating at one of the most lauded restaurants in the country, what’s the appeal?

I watched lazy pigs sleep, curious but shy turkeys gobble. I snatched small tomatoes from the vine and popped them in my mouth. They were some of the best tasting tomatoes I’d ever had. I went to the café and ate a tuna fish sandwich and it was superlative in its freshness and deliciousness. I was starting to see the appeal of this place.

But it wasn’t until I randomly encountered Farmer Jack (that’s how he introduced himself) that my answer was revealed. We began talking about what he does there at the farm and how they farm in a way that makes it all totally self sustainable and that they’re goal is to have zero “inputs,” as he called it; nothing from the outside that they bring in. “We don’t even want to use any fossil fuels,” he said.

And then without me having to ask, he said: “The reason why people should visit this complex is not just to eat at one of the best restaurant’s in the country but to see how real produce is grown and taken care of. We’re so detached from it. And we end up buying the 99-cent head of broccoli and have no idea why that’s bad and what it does (and doesn’t do) to our environment and food systems. Coming here,” he added, “you can reconnect with how your food is grown.”

It all made sense. He was preaching to the converted. If people didn’t leave here feeling different about produce or feeling like they got something out if it, I know of a good campsite they could spend the weekend at.

[Photo by David Farley]

The Subjective, Incomplete Guide To The Best Carbonara In Rome

The carbonara arrived on my table with a dollop of bacon-dotted, jaundice-colored cream atop overly cooked spaghetti noodles. When I moved the plate, the mound of cream didn’t even jiggle, as if it had been heat-lamp baked for hours, hoping some fool like me was going to come in and order it. I had ordered the carbonara, not just because I love this pasta dish, but because I was reviewing a restaurant for a magazine (the restaurant didn’t fare too well in my review). I wasn’t in Rome, from whence the dish hails. I wasn’t even in Italy. I was in New York.

That’s not to say that Italian cuisine outside of Italy can’t be good. It certainly can. Carbonara is a simple dish. Just pasta, eggs, guanciale (or pancetta), garlic, parmigiano, and black pepper. But, as I found out, it’s not necessarily easy to make buonissimo, as the Italians would say.

Case in point: I was in Rome last week. And given that I’m so carbonara crazed and hadn’t been in Rome for five years, I decided I’d put myself on a mini quest: I’d try to seek out the best carbonara I could find. There were, though, parameters that were out of my control: I was filming a documentary about my book. The days were long and we would finish shooting around 10 p.m. every night. Not a lot of time to figure out a good place to eat. The film crew left it up to me to find a good restaurant in whatever neighborhood we finished shooting for the day. A challenge, for sure.The first meal was so unforgettable, I don’t even remember the name of the restaurant. I can only say it was by the Vatican and could have used some culinary divine intervention in the kitchen. The waiter, though, made up for any lack of enthusiasm from the kitchen: he borrowed the cameraman’s boom mic and went around to his colleagues pretending to interview them.

Evening two was promising, as we ended up at La Carbonara. Any restaurant named after the dish I’m hoping to eat has got to be good. Right? Not really. The pasta they served it with, spaghetti, is not my favorite (at least not with carbonara). Nor was the carbonara rousing much enthusiasm among the film crew. It was dry and devoid of egg flavor. The guanciale, pig jowl, was used too conservatively, often cowering at the edges of the bottom of the bowl. Conclusion: slightly better than the ungodly carbonara near the Vatican but not by much.

Knowing the following evening we’d be shooting near Testaccio, the erstwhile working-class neighborhood that was once home to the city’s famous slaughterhouse, I did a bit of research. I ended up on a well-known food blogger friend’s website who proclaimed the carbonara at Parelli to be the best in town. A very bold claim, considering this dish, served the world over, was invented in the Italian capital.

No one is sure about the exact origins of carbonara. One explanation is that it was a dish made by the carbonai, the coal minors in the hills around Rome. Because one only needed cured pork, a couple eggs, some dried pasta, a pot and some heat, it was a simple, cheap dish to make. Another, less plausible but enduring origin comes from World War II when American soldiers were occupying Italy. An enterprising chef invented a pasta dish that would appeal to American eating habits: eggs and bacon. According to one report, though, there are references to carbonara that pre-date World War II, making this story a fun one to re-tell but ultimately apocryphal.

When the rigatoni alla carbonara arrived at my table at Perilli it looked like we’d had a winner. It was drenched in eggy goodness, spiked with porklicious nuggets of guanciale. But the meat turned out to be overly salty, which isn’t a surprise considering it was salt cured and Italians, especially Romans, like a good dose of salt on their food. There was way too much pepper, its flakes eclipsing the taste on my palate. I trust my food blogger friend’s opinions on Roman cuisine but this wasn’t the best I’d ever had (perhaps the kitchen was having an off-night). That said, it was the best take on carbonara in three nights. We were making progress.

Finally, on the last night, we wrapped in Trastevere, which happens to be the home of one of my favorite restaurants in the city. Since the last time I lived in Rome, Da Enzo had shut down and reopened about 100 feet away as Da Teo. It’s now re-re-opened in the old spot under the old name. Not everything was as good as before. The amatriciana was blandly forgettable. The arabiata lacked kick and was no longer spiked with huge chunks of garlic. But the carbonara? A massive mound of rigatoni cooked perfectly al dente and refreshingly bathed in egg. So much so, the yoke was glowing off the rigatoni, as if it had been paint-brushed on. The plus-sized pieces of guanciale were crispy on the outside and soft on the inside.

It might not be the best carbonara in Rome but after four days in the city with limited access it was the best I could find. I was satisfied.

In Uganda, The Lion Sleeps Tonight

Oman was disappointed we didn’t see a lion – almost as if it was a reflection of his masculinity. “Maybe tomorrow,” he said, a tone of defeat pervading his voice, as he swung our jeep back toward the lodge. I was spending a couple days at Kyambura Lodge near Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda. The park is filled with ample amounts of water buffalos, hippos, wart hogs, elephants and variations on the theme of horned bovines. There’s a large troop of chimps, as well as a sprinkling of cougars. But, so it seems, it’s not a real safari unless it’s a lion safari.

I’d always felt that the wildlife of Africa got far more attention in travel publications than the people of Africa. For this reason, I eschewed going to Africa. But I’d never been on a safari and felt like it was time I see what it’s all about, to do some wild animal gawking that wasn’t in a zoo. For the most part, I was enjoying myself. I saw mountain gorillas and chimps and everything else such a safari has to offer – everything except a lion.

All that changed the next day.”Look,” said Oman, as we were driving through the park. He slowed the jeep to a gentle stop and pointed to a tree where a flock of large birds had planted themselves. “Vultures. That means there’s a kill nearby,” he said. “Which might also mean there’s a lion near.”

​And then 10 seconds later: “There it is! I see its tail!” Sure enough, lying in the tall grass next to a dead buffalo was one male lion. The panels on the roof of our jeep came off and I was snapping pictures of the partially viewable beast. It was just the lion and us for a few minutes. And to celebrate Oman busted out a bottle of vodka and poured me a cocktail. But what seemed like seconds later, a van full of Germans pulled up. “Oh ja, ein Löwe!” they said. And then a French van: “Un Lion!” The Italians followed: “Leone! Leone!” And, as an added bonus to the spectacle, some American hippies: “Whoa, trip out, man, it’s a lion.”

Telescopic lenses were unpacked, safari goers climbed on the roofs of cars, the sound of digital cameras snapped in the distance. With my prime position in front of the beast, some safari goers asked if they could join me. I obliged. “Zis ees very abnormal,” said a German man with a camera lens the size of a bazooka, who had made a home on the hood of my jeep. “Ze female al-vays makes zee kill.” Just then two school busses full of Ugandan school children stopped. Even though they live in a land where lions are indigenous, they weren’t cavalier about seeing the big cat. They screamed and hollered at the lion, which was lying down, its head sometimes visible through the tall grass.

There were now at least a dozen and a half safari vehicles and two school buses parked on the dirt road, about 60 feet from the cat, who was still only about 20 percent visible. An elephant strode by on the other side of the road, which got the crowd’s attention for about 39 seconds before aiming their gaze back at the lion.

I wasn’t exactly sure what we all wanted the lion to do. To stand up? To stand up and dance? To stand up and dance to The Tokens’ classic “The Lion Sleeps Tonight“? Whatever it was, the growing crowd was becoming impatient. “Hey lion!” someone yelled out. The Italians clapped their hands, hoping to startle it into action. The hippies began honking their horn. The lion was unfazed.

An hour had gone by and it had hardly moved a paw. I began paying more attention to the crowd that had gathered. The German photographer, who was on his umpteenth safari, was similarly unfazed by the lazy lion. “Zis ees normal,” he said when we accidentally made eye contact. “He eats and zen he must make a rest.”

I had enjoyed myself thus far but I began wondering what the point of all this was. With several dozen people standing around, how different was this from a zoo? Sure, I’d found the experience hitherto fairly rewarding but my encounter with the jungle’s piece de resistance was the most anticipated and least satisfying on my trip.

About 90 minutes after first spotting the lion, I looked at Oman and nodded. He knew it was time to go. We roared our engine and slowly pulled onto the road, leaving the miasma of photo lenses and binoculars behind. I’d seen my lion. My safari was apparently complete. Oman had done his job. He was happy.