thoughts on food, culture, and community

Archive for the month “September, 2012”

Friday coffee cupping at Tazza d’Oro, Pittsburgh

Director of coffee Kirke Campbell, September 2012

Director of coffee Kirke Campbell, September 2012

Tazza d’Oro’s website claims that it has been brewing cups of gold in Pittsburgh since 1999, and I would agree. While I’ve not been in Pittsburgh since 1999, I can at least attest that this coffeeshop serves some of the most nuanced espresso I’ve ever tasted, a fact that the website attributes to Tazza d’Oro’s rigorously-trained baristas (I overheard one potential barista set up a time to take his “written coffee test” during one of my visits) and their careful attention to the act of purchasing and preparing coffee.

On Fridays at 10 AM, patrons can now learn how to better appreciate coffee both as a bean and a beverage during a free cupping held at the Tazza d’Oro on Highland Avenue, Pittsburgh. According to the authors of a Beginner’s Guide to Coffee Cupping, “cupping” is the term used to describe the professional process of evaluating different coffees to better understand their specific characteristics. Coffee traits often vary depending on regions of growth, roasting, and processing, and evaluating these qualities — especially in the form of a formal cupping — is an act usually done to ensure a good brew, as one would formally taste and evaluate a wine or a good beer.

At Tazza d’Oro, the 45-minute, hands-on, and in-depth presentation is lead by Kirke Campbell, the coffeeshop’s director of coffee purchasing and quality control. He first begins with a discussion on the origin and processing of three different coffees; then he leads into a fragrance comparison of the coffees’ dry grounds and the same grounds when poured over with hot water. Next, participants are given time to taste the coffees and talk extensively about the coffee’s flavor, acidity, body, and finish.

The coffees I tasted were from Olympia Coffee Roasting Co. from Olympia, WA, and included “La Gloria,” a washed-processed coffee from El Salvador; CODECH Tesoro de Concepcion, a washed-processed coffee from the Huehuetenango region of Guatemala; and Gedeo Worka, a natural-processed coffee from the Geodeo zone of Ethiopia. Aromas and flavors — which varied per coffee during each stage of the cupping — ranged from deep chocolate and citrus to woodsy blueberry and tart pomegranate.

After you finish the cupping, hang around at Tazza d’Oro for your own cup of coffee to sip with that dog-eared novel you’ve been wanting to read. Whether you doctor up your coffee with milk, cream, and sugar is up to you, but the flavor you find just may astound you.

Tazza d’Oro
1125 North Highland Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15206
(412) 362-3676

Monday-Friday, 7 AM-10 PM
Saturday-Sunday, 8 AM-10 PM

Carnegie Mellon
Gates Center 3rd Floor
Computer Science Building
Forbes Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15213

Monday-Friday 7 AM-7PM
Closed Saturday-Sunday

The Pittsburgh Letters: A Montesquieu-styled social commentary

In the 1700s, the writer Montesquieu wrote an epistolary novel entitled “The Persian Letters,” in which two fictional characters travel from Persia to France and write letters home that display their observations. Their “innocent” perspective is a thinly-veiled social and political criticism of French society and the absolutist monarchy under Louis XIV. Through the eyes of a “foreigner,” our own practices — what we take for granted — can be rethought.


Sylvia to Norma R., Newburg, Pennsylvania

An early Sunday morning in Pittsburgh is the quietest of all mornings, but it’s the morning where everyone seems to be in the biggest hurry. No one walks on the sidewalk, like they do during the week; they run. Parallel with the avenues, in straight lines down the sidewalks to turn abruptly at street corners, up stairs and back down them, everyone’s in a rush, it seems, to get somewhere. The first time I saw the city so agitated I tried to stop a man and ask him if the city was in danger, but he did not hear me because his ears held tiny plugs connected by a thin wires in a way that made him oblivious to my presence beside him.

After four weeks living in Pittsburgh, I began to notice that this occurrence was somewhat regular and dependent on sunshine, but I still struggled to find the cause of this haste. Nothing is more important to an American than getting to work on time, but on Sundays, when it is said most do not work, what urgent matter do these individuals tend to? Back at home, we would wake up on Sunday mornings to milk the cows and go to church, but even then we would do so walking.

Even more troubling is the fact that the dress of the hurried is not at all the same as that worn daily. One tells me that everyone woman in Pittsburgh must have a little black dress or brown boots for these are the most expensive, but we used to wear these colors on the farm because they colors were least likely to show dirt. But in Pittsburgh, when hurried on Sunday morning, a man’s whole attire changes.  There is no collared shirt, no muted colors, no grey — suddenly he wears enough neon yellow and orange to rival a construction worker. But since he does not carry any tools except a narrow white rectangle of plastic on his arm, which, as far as I can see, has not purpose whatsoever, I doubt sincerely he is hurried for payment.

One Sunday, there was one individual who seemed more in a hurry than all the others. He was carrying some books and was wearing a backpack, which increased his strain. He cut diagonally across Schenley Plaza instead of going around it, like the others, and I was sure the others would be impressed by his ingenuity. However, the other runners seemed particularly baffled by this man and continued running, not even stopping to help collect the papers which fluttered behind him.

August 2012

August 2012

Friday Photo: The cozy and chill Té Café, Pittsburgh

Té Café, Pittsburgh, September 2012

Typically, my posts on this blog unfold around coffee, whether it be a review of the shakerato-style “cold jar” at Little Amps, Harrisburg, or my description of visiting a café con piernas in Santiago, Chile. For once, however, I found myself stunned by tea at the Té Café on Murray Avenue, Pittsburgh, which — amid plush cushions and a large, sunny storefront — serves more than 100 loose leaf teas along with a smattering of biscotti, muffins, and banana bread. Ranging from genmaicha, a Japanese brown rice tea, and kokeicha, a green tea made of matcha powder, to more-accessible options like chai and Moroccan mint, most teas are available in single-servings or full pots and are served with an hourglass timer to alert tea novices, like myself, when the delicate leaves have steeped long enough.

Té Café also serves unique lattes in flavors like Earl Grey or mate; gourmet coffees; smoothies; and specialty ginger, hibiscus, or lavender lemonades. It’s not the place to eat for lunch — the most hearty item on the menu is a grilled cheese — but if you’re here studying, a grilled Nutella panini or almond butter and jelly will get you through the toughest chapters.

Té Café was named the best place in Pittsburgh for “a cuppa” in Pittsburgh Magazine’s”The Best of the ‘Burgh 2011.”

Té Café
2000 Murray Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15217
(412) 422-8888

Friday Photo: ‘Curiosity of their eyes’ – thoughts on seeing

Palais des Papes, Avignon, Spring 2005 (Katrina Charysyn, All Rights Reserved)

Whenever I’d beat my friends at the Tourist Game that we played on the Rue de la République, it had only been because I knew the Regulars of Kathy’s Deli in Shippensburg. Having worked there for four years, I had the advantage of knowing the face of a Regular, and because of this, I could spot any tourist within a French crowd before my friends did by the way they held open their eyes—shameless, like French windows without shutters, trying to drink in the sight of the pastry shops and the roasting chestnuts on the square. Trying to notice people’s lack of familiarity with their surroundings—so that I could help them order a sandwich, taste the pasta salad, make life easier—had once been my job.

And so every afternoon, my American friends and I sat at the café on the Place de l’Horloge and watched the tourists, guessing the nationalities of the people who passed our table.  Tourists from the United States were the large, fleshy ones with white Nikes, crashing their laughter against the city walls.  Italians were always draped with neon-colored scarves, wearing their dark hair in a shaggy cut as they merged for photos by the Palais des Papes.  The Germans and Swiss always made me think of Rubbermaid containers, their bodies sturdy beneath plastic windbreakers and deep blue backpacks.  But then, there were the French—thin whips of people clothed in black who sliced through the crowds on the gusts of Avignon wind.  The French were always careful to freeze away their gazes from public intimacy, knowing that they already belonged to their country like a Regular belonged to my deli counter.  Whenever I played the Tourist Game, I remembered the Regulars of Kathy’s and distinguished the tourists by the curiosity of their eyes, for only a tourist would let their eyes give away the fact that they were not at home.

— “Making Change,” RiverCraft, Susquehanna University, 2005-06


I moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in late August. It’s the largest city I’ve ever lived in with a population of over 300,000 within the city limits, at least according to the 2011 U.S. Census. (Harrisburg, where I moved from, has 50,000.) The University of Pittsburgh, where I am now a graduate student, has 24,000 students, which is three times more individuals than has my hometown. I grew up on a road that sliced between my family’s house and our farmland, but now, when I look out my bedroom window, I see a low city skyline. When walking down Forbes Avenue to go to class or get a coffee, I pass a seemingly endless stream of people that I may never see again while in Shippensburg, I used to be stopped on the street to be told: “You must be a Grove. I knew your grandfather.” Living in a world different than that in which you grew up often shifts your perception of the normal actions that you take for granted, such as the way that people show their awareness of those around them.

The first city I in which I lived was Avignon, France (population 90,000) in 2005, where I was a study abroad student through the Institute for American Universities. Before I left the United States, we students had given a glossy brochure explaining what differences to expect between French culture and ours, including eating habits, TV watching, and electricity usage, but none of this could prepare me, a small-town girl, for the simple difference of being in a larger place than the one I’d left. I was shocked, for example, with the different way that people appeared to see.

When I walked down the street in Avignon, I wanted to look around. Reading Laura Ingalls Wilder as a kid had trained me to key in my senses, to “be eyes” for those who were not there, and I wanted to drink in all the details on France so I could write them all into emails for my family. Look at these cobblestones! How old’s this church? How many flower shops am I passing? Is that really an H&M? The trees were different: scaly sycamore, scraggly olive shrubs. The sky was different, unclouded blue.

But when I turned my eyes to the people, I noticed an acute difference: nobody else was looking at all of this except for me. On my morning bus ride into the city, the punk rocker next to me stared out the window or looked at the floor. The elegantly-dressed businesswoman leafed through a copy of La Provence. All riders chimed a pleasant “bonjour” to the bus driver when getting on our bus and finding their seat, but then, I watched their gazes shutter back, fall inward. Observing this made me feel miserable. If I was to “become French,” in a sense, while I was there, how was I supposed to “see”? I had been told that white sneakers and low-cut spaghetti strap shirts could target me as a “tourist” — that dreaded word that equated to self-centered ignorance — but how was I to know that I could also express my foreignness by my eyes?


Eye contact in a variety of cultures means different things. In Shippensburg, eye contact means recognition and acknowledgement. In New York City, extended eye contact — a staring contest — on the subway is rude at best. Occasionally, eye contact can be a flirtatious invitation. And in Russia — as I recently learned when talking to a perfect stranger on a Megabus — eye contact on the subway is a power struggle. When on a Russian metro, you look other riders up and down and analyze them, discovering them, questioning them wordlessly, as shamelessly as did the tourists of Avignon.

What, then, is our relationship with seeing? It’s easy to acknowledge that sometimes our eyes don’t take in everything around us; all of us have been so deep in thought that one time or another, for example, that we don’t notice a friend who passes us on the sidewalk. Being so open to seeing all the details, as I try to do in moderation when I’m a tourist anywhere, is tiring. I never take more naps than I do when I’m in a new culture or a new place. A sign of cultural acceptance, or simply in feeling safe, is the fact that we have the luxury of stopping to see the details, or that these details cease to demand our attention because they have become normal.

But in terms of people, this phenomenon has a specific name. The avoidance of eye contact in certain cultures — whether Pittsburgh, New York City, and even France — is known as “civil inattention,” which is described by Wikipedia as “a process whereby strangers who are in close proximity demonstrate that they are aware of one another, without imposing on each other.” In The Art of Self-Invention (2007), author Joanne Finkelstein explains that civil inattention is “a sign of recognition that others have claims to a shared space or environment” and a signal of “boundar[ies] and self-enclosure.” This notion explains that the lack of eye contact is not the same as ignoring someone; it’s a gesture of being polite or self-preservation. In a 2011 article in the New York Times entitled “Look at Me, I’m Crying,” Melissa Febos echoed the same sentiments — that, in more populated areas, we have “train-faces,” or exterior faces that we sometimes don to preserve our interior sense of privacy. If eyes are the window to the soul, we sometimes avert our gaze not just because we don’t want to see someone else; we’d prefer that they don’t see us.

The rules are much more complicated, however, than choosing to see or not to see. In Harrisburg, there were still few enough people on the street that I could look at each of them individually and, with a brief glance, nod to acknowledge their presence. Sometimes we’d say hi. Sometimes we would not. In Pittsburgh, I have yet to make eye contact with strangers on the street or on the bus, although within structured contexts — asking for recommendations on teas at the Té Café on Murray Avenue, for example — people are deliciously willing to talk. When Lynn Palermo and I were hiking in northern France and were clearly not locals, we were carefully watched and spoken to with hesitant humor. Choosing to truly see with open eyes as well as an open heart perhaps is something that not only differs between areas of more or less population; it seems to depend on how accustomed an area is to strangers, and whether or not those strangers have hurt them in the past.

In the moment of looking at someone else, we unconsciously size them up — well-dressed or not, aged or not, capable of stealing our wallet or not — whether the judgements we make are fair. Walking amid strangers in public can be vulnerable business, and looking at those around us helps us find our relationship within the current social hierarchy. But it’s more than this. In walking on a street with those of a city or town that we share, we must acknowledge within our lack of seeing that we are not disconnected entirely — that we are still willing to reach out a hand to someone who trips on the sidewalk, to spare some change for the homeless, to point out directions to a father with an unfolded map and a furrowed brow. It’s maybe an act of self-preservation to do this selectively, but the day that our eyes see only inward is the day we miss the point of the community in which we live.

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