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Back Buzz - January 2, 1998

pumping heart Habitat Espresso, 202 Broadway East, Capitol Hill

I suppose I could say a lot of things about Habitat Espresso -- that it was started supposedly by some Microsoft veteran, that it's "dedicated to investing in the Seattle community and empowering individuals to make a difference in their lives," and that half the profits are donated to nonprofit organizations in Seattle and the other half placed in a fund for investment in future nonprofit ventures. But you can read all about these matters in Habitat's handy brochure which is available at their counter. There's plenty of other literature available in the coffeehouse about the two initial recipients of net profits -- Childhaven's Crisis Nursery, which provides foster care for parents with at-risk children, and Chicken Soup Brigade, which provides services for King County residents living with HIV/AIDS -- as well as how you can make donations to the fund, how you can post community materials, and how beneficial organic coffee farming is to the environment and the global community.

All this is well and fine and gives one such a nice comfy, squishy, "correct" feeling inside. But all this good intention would be pretty damn useless if Habitat Espresso weren't the kind of place in which anybody would want to hang out. Since my purpose in this column is not to tell you how you should spend your time and money while easing your conscience but where you can find a good cappuccino in a pleasing coffeehouse setting, then let's leave the politics and community spirit aside and talk about coffee and atmosphere.

First, the atmosphere: I have to admit I really like the way Habitat Espresso looks and feels. It's a mighty cool cafe, with plenty of counter seating and fun spacious booths with round chalkboard-topped tables tucked away in cubbyholes behind green louver panels. Decent music (i.e. alternative rock) was emanating from the stereo on this New Year's Eve, and plenty of chalk was provided for anyone who felt the compulsion to draw a masterpiece or compose an opus.

My double cappuccino, made with Kalani organic coffee, came in an equally spacious white cup. The shots weren't the best-tasting shots, but at least they were covered by a perfect blanket of foam. From my previous review of Grateful Bread in Lower Queen Anne I know that Kalani makes very decent coffee. Perhaps the shots were just a little too weak; this, alas, seems to be a common problem. And, of course, the lack of a demitasse spoon always bothers me.

But it's such a fun place to sit and drink coffee. Besides the booths there's a long counter which winds around and about, and tiny one- and two-person tables fill in the rest of the space. Being a hog I took up an entire cubbyhole booth by myself. I had to: it was too inviting. There's an indoor/outdoor ambiance to the place, making you feel as though you're actually sitting outside. It's like I'd picture a coffeehouse in, say, Tahiti. Or perhaps Kenya. Or Papua New Guinea -- yes, that's more like it -- on Broadway in downtown Port Moresby, perhaps. As I looked around I kept spotting more things: books, newspapers, children's art on the walls, plants, more chalk, tiles, wood, loose screws -- and I could still smell the building materials. Oh, how I love the smell of construction sites, not to mention destruction sites. Give me some silicone sealant, drywall mud, and a good pile of sawdust, and I'll be in olfactory heaven...

From the front of the cafe there's a great view of the PayLess Drugstore's neon marquee directly across the street. This PayLess used to be the Broadway Theater, hence the marquee. I have to admit I've been in movie theaters that have been converted to private clubs, video rental stores, churches, dance halls, and even private homes; but the thought of purchasing toothpaste or nail polish remover inside an old-fashioned cinema definitely tops the list. It makes buying a tube of Colgate Winterfresh Gel seem like a cinematic experience.

Actually, cinematic toothpaste isn't too far from reality. I read a few months ago that Japanese geneticists have created fluorescent mice by injecting them with jellyfish DNA. When the mice are viewed under UV light, they turn a glowing green. Apparently the fluorescence disappears when hair grows over the mice's bodies, but their feet and mouths continue to glow well into adulthood. Perhaps they could use this technology for all those whitening toothpastes. I mean, why worry about getting your teeth sparkling white when they can be glowing green?

Ah, but I get so sidetracked this time of year; must be the thought of yet another year starting, another year closer to the next millennium. I've been having strange dreams lately, such as the one where humans were nothing more than four-inch cubes wrapped in colorful paper. And then there was the dream about the annual Shit-Eating Day, where everybody in America was supposed to lunch on their favorite form of excrement. Hmmm, so what does it all mean? Just what kind of year is 1998 going to be, anyway?

Speaking of dining on excrement, my Bay Area friend referred me to a recent column by Dave Barry about Luwak Coffee, a $300-per-pound specialty coffee which is named after a Javanese weasel-like animal that eats coffee berries and defecates them back out. According to Barry, as the berries pass through the creature "a 'natural fermentation' takes place, and the berry seeds -- the coffee beans -- come out of the luwak intact. The beans are then gathered, washed, roasted and sold to coffee connoisseurs. The invitation states: 'We wish to pass along this once in a lifetime opportunity to taste such a rarity.'"

Following is the e-mail which ensued:

I remember reading that particular column of Dave Barry's not too long ago. It reminds me of a discussion at a party I attended last Saturday night. A small group was standing around the fondue pot debating the safety and ethics of eating one's own feces. To the question "Would a vegetarian still be a vegetarian if she ate her own feces?" I argued "Yes, if everything she's eaten is vegetarian; however, if she's eaten her own arm, then neither she nor her feces would remain vegetarian." Someone else considered one's feces to be a part of one's body; therefore one's feces should be considered as much meat as one's liver. But do we excrete our livers regularly? Of course not; we excrete byproducts produced by our livers, as well as byproducts produced by other organs (i.e. feces, urine, mucus, sweat, and all those other treats). But what about blood? Is blood considered vegetarian cuisine, or would it be classified as a meat? Seems more like a meat to me -- besides, your body doesn't excrete it regularly as a natural product. Okay, perhaps the liquid part of blood isn't a meat, but plasma would be. Interesting question...

What about the coffee beans excreted by a luwak, then? Would they be vegetarian or not? Since the luwak probably eats small rodents and fish and is therefore a carnivore, would coffee beans excreted by the luwak be vegetarian? Yes, I would think so -- as long as the feces are thoroughly washed off the coffee beans -- as I sincerely hope would be the case. Now, whether Luwak cappuccinos and lattes can be served in a kosher cafe is another question...

Clearly shit does not qualify as meat simply by virtue of being in your body. Would that person also object to swallowing semen or nibbling ear wax (which tastes like fine cheese, as I recall from Kobo Abe's The Box Man)? Whether or not to eat feces would probably vary from one vegetarian to another.

Aren't there at least three different factors motivating vegetarians -- a few don't object to eating animals but have health concerns, most don't like the idea of killing animals for food, some object even to the non-lethal exploitation of animals to produce food (eggs, cheese). The health conscious vegetarians-by-necessity probably avoid alcohol and caffeine and intense spices and everything interesting, so they would probably not eat shit or drink Ewok coffee, or whatever. Lacto-vegetarians would probably object to consuming blood or feces from another animal if we exploited the animal to obtain it. (We would have to call these people "Hemo-copro-lacto-vegetarians", I suppose.) But what's the problem with eating your own feces -- or your own arm, for that matter? You're not exploiting any other conscious being. Don't even the strictest vegetarians reserve the right to mutilate (and extract food products from) their own bodies?

Luwak coffee seems a bit too expensive. (And I don't recall being impressed by Jamaica Blue Mountain, which was relatively cheap by comparison.) But on many a hike I have observed in coyote scat left right on the trail that some sort of indigestible coffee-like berry forms a part of the coyote's diet. It never occurred to me to try collecting them and brewing a cup. I guess they'd have to be roasted first and, yes, of course, cleaned. If I led a hike on Mount Diablo to gather coyote berries, would many people be interested?

As far as shit not being meat simply because it's in your body, you have a point. Some people walk around for years with safety pins, coins, and other small articles lodged in their intestines. (When doctors performed an appendectomy on an old friend of mine, among other items they found a small zipper in there somewhere -- swallowed, obviously. Not sewn in.) Would these items be considered meat because they're in the body? Of course not! Neither would shrapnel or unremovable bullets.

And there's yet a fourth factor which motivates my own vegetarianism: a simple distaste for the flavor and/or texture of meat. Therefore, if for some reason I had been forced to eat some meat (and didn't immediately vomit it back up), I'm quite sure I would refuse to eat my own feces because it would be tainted with the flavor, and possibly the texture, of meat. As far as eating my everyday vegetarian feces, I suppose I would if humans were normally autocoprivorous. If I were a Basset hound like Pokey, the dog I spent my early childhood with, I would happily eat my own or someone else's feces. But dogs enjoy rolling around in dried feces, whereas humans generally prefer to bathe in floral and herbal scents.

So in my case, as in the average person's case, it would simply be a matter of taste.

As far as eating my own arm I wouldn't, of course, because I'm quite certain I wouldn't like the taste and texture -- not to mention the fact that I'd probably miss the appendage eventually. I would willingly eat a fish's arm, I suppose, if fish had arms, and if eggs came with arms I'm sure I'd enjoy them scrambled or poached.

If coyoteberry coffee were to become popular in this country, would upscale Australians start drinking dingoberry coffee? This brings us back to the concept of coffee beans soaked in feces, which reminds me of the interesting dung exhibit Max and I saw at the Field Museum in Chicago a few years back. There was a large three-dimension diagram of the digestive track of a hippopotamus, a rhinoceros, and a giraffe, with pachinko-like chutes which carried food down through the animals' anuses into three drawers. If you opened each drawer you could see a sampling of each animal's dung: the rhino's was large and smooth, the hippo's was soft and smashed up from walking through it, whereas the giraffe's was a pile of little pellets. Even thinking about my own cats' feces -- which is hard to avoid when cleaning their litterbox -- I've noticed I can easily distinguish which are Alex's and which are Malcolm's. Therefore, if the process of convincing an animal to eat coffee beans so that they can be extracted from the feces becomes widespread, we could be faced with literally thousands of new varieties of gourmet coffee.

(I think I'll stick to Caffé Vita Del Sol beans for now.)