Tharp On: Coffee
BUSAN, South Korea -- Contrary to what you have all been told, the beverage known as “coffee” was actually invented in Seattle in 1872 by a civil war cavalry veteran named Obadiah Coffee. He was working as a cook in a logging camp at the time.
After a massive pancake fire (we know how lumberjacks love their flapjacks) reduced the log cabin kitchen to ashes and singed some beans black, Mr. Coffee—a thrifty man—boiled them in hot water in an attempt to clean them off. Unable to resist the smoky aroma, Obadiah took a sip of the oily black liquid, and history was made. In fact, just three weeks later he opened the first Starbucks.
Okay, I lied. Coffee actually is thousands of years old and comes out of Ethiopia, but the residents of my home city, Seattle, can be given credit for reinventing the drink. We worship coffee in the Emerald City. We have to: it’s the only thing that keeps half of the populace from killing themselves. In fact, before the arrival of the first Starbucks in 1971, you couldn’t walk a block on the town’s drizzle-drenched streets without stepping over at least three corpses done in by their own hand.
Despite consistently topping the list as one of America’s “most livable” cities, Seattle is often also referred to as the nation’s “suicide capital”. Case in point: Kurt Cobain. Here is a guy who had everything: riches, fame, chicks stacked like cordwood outside of Abe Lincoln’s cabin—and still he put a shotgun in his mouth. And if we were to ask him today, “Why? Why did you do it Kurt?” I know what he’d say.
“Yeah, man… Contrary to popular belief, I really dug the rock star life… but… it just rains way too much here.”
And who knows? If he would have done more double shots of espresso instead of slamming double shots of smack, he just might be with us today.
Like any self-respecting (or self-loathing) Seattleite, coffee courses through my veins. I can’t get enough of the stuff. I like it deep, dark and strong as hell and have no problem admitting that I’m a complete snob about it. So you can imagine my frustration when I landed on the rocky shores of Korea some eight years ago. At that time, there were just two Starbucks in the whole city. The only other coffee to be had were those ubiquitous packets of sugary instant mix, which taste to me like sweet dishwater strained through a sweat sock filled with goat shit and lye. In fact, I slapped the first 17 ajummas who attempted to serve me the swill, self-righteously screeching:
“THIS IS NOT COFFEE!!!” (Arm “X”! Arm “X”!)
Those days are far behind us now, because about five years ago, something happened. Word got out that people are actually dumb enough to pay upwards of 6,000 won for a cup of fancy joe, and, overnight, a plague of coffeehouses swept the land. A grandfather couldn’t hock a makeoli-flavored loogy without hitting a Coffee Bean, Tom and Toms or Angel-in-Us. (And, for the record, I don’t want any angels “in” me. Ew.)
As a lover of coffee and café culture, I naturally welcomed these new additions to the Korean landscape. But despite my initial enthusiasm, I found that Korean café culture differed from that of America’s. The music was loud and uniformly awful—an endless barrage of autotune horror. The “baristas” were nothing of the sort—usually university arbeit-uh students with little or no real training; most suggestions to customize a drink were met with utter, deer-in-the-headlights bewilderment. Customer service and flexibility also became an issue. Like many Westerners, I like a dash of milk in my Americano. With the exception of one chain, Korea never has self-serve milk, and, more than once, after asking for a splash, the coffee girl sternly shook her head and said, “It is impossible.”
Korean coffee shops are almost exclusively frequented by young women, derisively referred to as dwenjang nyeo by all the dudes they refuse to have sex with. Paying premium prices for coffee is scoffed at by many Korean men, who see it as a waste of time, money and testosterone. These women often arrive at the café in small groups, and, after ordering up their draughts of liquid speed, sip, talk and talk and talk and talk. The more they drink the more frenzied and voluminous their chattering becomes, drowning out even the murder-inducing K-pop being piped in by the establishment, making it nearly impossible to sit within a hundred meters and, say, enjoy a book.
And even worse, the Korean café phenomenon involves herds of young mothers bringing along their babies and toddlers for a caffeine-fueled play date. You can imagine my elation when six of them—spawn in tow—turned my coffeehouse into Kimbap Romper Room as I attempted to chip away at Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Bedlam ensued, with squealing rugrats and hissing, babbling mothers. My concentration shot, I could not pretend to mask my contempt. I stared, imagining all six of them being crushed under a moving train, which, in Anna Karenina, is exactly how the tragic heroine kills herself.
If only she’d had more coffee, it just may have ended differently. But Russians and their tea—what can you do?
You can get Chris Tharp's book Dispatches from the Peninsula: Six Years in South Korea on Amazon or Whatthebook.com.
Illustration by Michael Roy
Tharp's Blog: Homely Planet