Years ago, a great power watched humans and decided that the race was sluggish and dissatisfied. So it presented a gift, a steaming flask of brown liquid, and a seed, and showed how to grow and harvest the first coffee plant.
All right, maybe not. Allow me my fantasies for a moment, ok? Coffee may not have been gifted by the gods, but it does have a long and complex history. In fact, the story of how our current cup of java came to be reaches back thousands of years, starting in ancient Africa and the Middle East. If you’ll allow me a moment of coffee history nerdery…
Image courtesy of Coffee Crossroads, adapted from All About Coffee by William H. Ukers.
From goats to Arab coffeehouses
Long before Starbucks, coffee was mixed with animal fat and eaten (think ancient PowerBar). Legend tells of an Ethiopian goatherd named Kaldi who discovered his goats bursting with energy after eating the berries from a coffee shrub. Kaldi took these berries to local monks, and the monks created the first coffee drink, making use of this miracle energy source for stamina during long prayers. Whether or not this tale is true, wild coffee plants were likely used by nomadic tribes in Africa for thousands of years. Around the thirteenth century, Arabs began to roast coffee beans, and the public coffeehouse, known as qahveh khaneh, boomed not only as a drinking spot but also, crucially, as a hub for social interaction, business, and exchange of ideas. Word of the popular beverage, sometimes known as “wine of Araby,” spread quickly.
Though Arab nations kept a closely guarded monopoly on the coffee trade for many years, the trend made its way to Europe in the fifteenth century. A Venetian merchant brought coffee to Europe in 1615, and the Dutch followed with the first coffee plant in Europe in 1616 and the first European-owned plantations in Sri Lanka in 1616 and Java (Indonesia) in 1696. The coffee trade soon boomed with the French in the Caribbean, the Spanish in Central America, and the Portuguese in Brazil.
This path has been far from straight, wrought instead with ambition and subterfuge. For instance, in 1723 a French naval officer named Gabriel de Clieu stole a seedling from a coffee plant gifted to King Louis XIV by the mayor of Amsterdam and smuggled it to Martinique, launching the French coffee trade in the Americas. Brazil joined the fray in 1727 through Colonel Francisco de Mello Palheta, with seeds said to have been smuggled through a bouquet given to Palheta by the wife of the governor of French Guiana. And in the soon-to-be United States, coffee rose as the drink of choice after the Boston Tea Party, when tea came to be considered “unpatriotic.”
Coffee as we know it today came onto the scene in the nineteenth century. John and Charles Arbuckle began selling bags of pre-roasted beans in the 1860s, and it became particularly popular with cowboys in the American West. Other well-known coffee producers also broke ground in the 1800s, including James Folger, Maxwell House, and Hill Brothers. The 1960s saw the spark of the specialty coffee movement, and the first Starbucks was established in Seattle in 1971. And now, of course, there’s a hipster coffee shop on nearly every city block. If Kaldi and his goats could have seen that coming…
Over the years, coffee has run into many a controversy — both as a health risk and as a supposedly “satanic” beverage — from a 1511 ban in Mecca due to health concerns to 17th-century claims in London that it caused impotence. Allegedly, the case was even brought to Pope Clement VIII in the 1600s; upon tasting the beverage, however, the pope enjoyed coffee so much that he gave it official papal approval! It has also long been linked to slavery and colonization, as most of the European coffee trade had its base in colonial plantations worked by slaves (this issue continues today with exploited coffee farmers in many countries, a concern evident in the rising fair trade and equal exchange coffee movement). Yet with an estimated 2.5 billion cups of coffee consumed worldwide each day, it’s clear that there’s something about this brew that we just can’t stay away from.
*This post was previously published on my earlier blog, Beanopia, in 2014.*
“So do you live on a farm?” That used to be a frequent response when I said I was from Kansas City. (Answer: Uh, no.) Or a crack about Dorothy. So it’s not exactly Paris. That said, Kansas City actually has a lot going for it, and it’s rising on the radar — or at least, it is if I have anything to say about it. Like a slightly annoying sibling, I’ll complain about it any chance I get, but criticize KC, and I’ll defend it with a vengeance. What makes KC special? I’ll give you 10 reasons. Whether you’re a native in need of a reminder of why you love this city or a visitor to our turf, check out these can’t-miss Kansas City experiences for a true taste of the city.
Yes, I know many cities have train stations. But this Art Deco gem is truly stunning. Walk into the Grand Hall and gaze up to the 95-foot painted ceilings dotted with chandeliers, or check the time on the historic central clock, and you’ll see exactly what I mean. Built in 1914, Union Station was a major train hub in its heyday. After a massive renovation in 1996, the elegant stone building now houses several restaurants and shops, an event space, a movie theatre, a kids science museum, and more. You can even still catch an Amtrak there. The historic charm alone is reason enough to visit, but just in case, the exhibits and attractions make it well worth your while.
Right across from Union Station, the imposing tower of Liberty Memorial rises 217 feet from a hilltop. Dedicated to those who fought in World War I, the memorial was completed in 1926 and was dedicated by the supreme Allied commanders. Creamy stone in Egyptian Revival style and flanked by two giant stone sphinxes, the monument is decorated with four guardian spirits: Honor, Courage, Patriotism, and Sacrifice. At night, steam and lighting create a flame on top of the tower. Not only is the memorial itself a sight to see, the view of the skyline from it is to die for — who says Paris is the City of Lights? If you’re feeling especially adventurous, you can climb to the top of the tower for an even more breathtaking view. For history buffs, the World War I museum at the base of the memorial is also worth checking out.
If you’ve seen an image or two of Kansas City, chances are you’ve seen a shuttlecock somewhere. The iconic shuttlecock statues resting on the Nelson’s lawn have become an unofficial symbol of the city — which is reason enough to visit them, really, especially juxtaposed against the elegant stone façade of the museum. But it would be a crime to miss out on the incredible museum itself. Built in 1933 and funded by Kansas City Star founder William Rockhill Nelson and schoolteacher Mary Atkins, the museum houses over 35,000 works of art. Whatever floats your art boat, you’ll likely find it here — historic artifacts, modern art, local artists, fun events. From quirky (think ancient cricket cages) to captivating (ie, Monet’s Water Lilies) to mind-bending (à la the heady futuristic Chimacloud exhibit), the collection never disappoints. There’s even a lovely courtyard restaurant if you need sustenance during your art explorations. And to top it off: it’s free. Time to get your art on!
If you want a taste of local flavor, look no further than First Fridays. Every first Friday of the month, the Crossroads Arts district of downtown KC comes alive with local art, crafts, performances, food, and more. The many art studios and galleries in the area open their doors with special exhibits and events and extended hours, but that’s only the half of it. The real charm of First Fridays is in the streets. Local artists and vendors line up on the sidewalks, food trucks gather in droves for scrumptious eclectic fare, and streets even close down for live music performances and impromptu dance parties. Wander around, soak in the colorful vibes, and enjoy some killer people-watching. From bizarre art to retro cars cruising to the now well-known man strolling with his boa constrictor, you never know what (or who) you’ll run into — which is exactly the fun of it.
Just after dark every Thanksgiving, the Country Club Plaza comes to life with thousands of twinkling holiday lights. Lining the Spanish-style domes and towers, the lights create an iconic skyline silhouette and irrepressible atmosphere in the quaint shopping district. A KC tradition since 1930, the Plaza lighting begins preparation in August to be ready for the big unveiling, and the lights stay up until mid-January. Each year, crowds gather for a live concert at the Plaza Lighting Ceremony, and a child is chosen at random from the audience to help turn on the lights. If you’re in a holiday shopping mood (or just hungry), the Plaza offers a plethora of shops and restaurants to keep you busy. Or you can just wander and bask in the multicolored magic of the lights. Insider tip: Cross Ward Parkway south of the Plaza, head to the InterContinental Hotel, and ride the glass elevator for a killer view of the lights.
For a true taste of Kansas City history — and modern diversity — look no further than River Market. Just off the south shore of the Missouri River, this is as historical as KC gets: the area was the original Town of Kansas in the 1850s, later to become Kansas City. The City Market was the site of the original public square in the mid-1800s. These days, River Market is home to an eclectic array of shops and eateries and the largest farmers’ market in the region. Check out the City Market Farmers’ Market on weekends year-round for everything from vegetables and gorgeous fresh flowers to homemade incense, antiques, quirky garden statues, and organic doggie treats. After your shopping bags are stuffed, stop by the Steamboat Arabia museum for a slice of frontier history in the sunken treasure from an 1856 steamboat accident nearby. And River Market Antiques off Delaware Street promises three floors of every nostalgic and amusing knickknack you could imagine. Once you’ve worked up an appetite, the area offers a mouthwatering mix of local restaurants, global fare, and ethnic markets. And of course, don’t forget coffee and dessert — Quay Coffee, City Market Coffee, Our Daily Nada, and Bloom Bakery are all musts.
In terms of public transportation, Kansas City is admittedly a bit lacking. That said, if you’re looking for a fun, effortless way to take a (heated/AC’d) mini-tour of downtown KC, the streetcar is the way to go. Stretching from Union Station to River Market, the new streetcar runs through downtown, the entertainment Power and Light District, and almost to the Missouri River north of River Market. It’s smooth, it’s free, and it’s an easy simple pleasure if you’re touring the city. Plus, we have to celebrate any form of public transportation around here. The cars run in a loop up and down Main Street and come every 10-15 minutes. Hop on!
Craving a little green? Loose Park is calling your name. A major site for the Battle of Westport during the Civil War (check out the cannons at the south edge), the park was opened in 1927 in honor of local businessman Jacob Loose. Today it’s a beautiful escape to nature with 75 acres of rolling lawns and shady tree alcoves. Stroll by the koi and duck pond, through clusters of massive oaks and maples, and over to the charming rose garden. Dating back to 1931, the rose garden is home to about 4000 roses of 168 varieties. With beautiful blossoms in spring and vibrant colors in fall, the park is perfect for a walk, a dog frolic, a picnic, or simply a breath of nature in the city.
There’s no doubt about it: Kansas City is a jazzy town — literally. The city has a rich jazz and blues legacy dating back to the 1920s and ’30s. Once a hub for vibrant jazz, blues, and ragtime music, KC was home to a thriving scene of dance halls, cabarets, and speakeasies, largely thanks to the workings of political boss Tom Pendergast in the 1930s (let’s just say he wasn’t a big fan of Prohibition). Such was the nightlife scene, in fact, that it earned KC the nickname “Paris of the Plains.” The roaring ’20s and ’30s may be long over, but luckily the jazz scene is still alive and well today. The Phoenix jazz club has a storied (and slightly sordid) history starting in the flourishing Garment District in 1888. Originally a hotel (rumored to be a bordello), the historic brick building housed a speakeasy-style saloon on the first floor and the “hotel” on the second. Today the club hosts local live music and serves down-home tasty eats. Behind a mural of jazz greats, grab a drink and slip into the vibes of KC’s melodic, colorful past and present.
A newer addition to the Kansas City skyline, the Kauffman is quickly becoming one of the city’s most iconic landmarks. The fanning modernistic domes rise on the horizon, lighting brilliantly at night to welcome visitors to world-class performances from the Kansas City Symphony, the Kansas City Ballet, the Lyric Opera, and more. If you’re looking for a little sophisticated arts and culture, the Kauffman has you covered. Or if slightly lighter fare is more up your alley — live symphony-accompanied Harry Potter screening, anyone? — they have that, too. And while the building itself is stunning, the real gem (aside from the performances, of course) is the incredible panoramic view of the city from the glass front of the theater.