Coffee in Hand

Coffee in hand at the Farallones dry mill in Ciudad Bolívar, Antioquia, Colombia
Coffee in hand at the Farallones dry mill in Ciudad Bolívar, Antioquia, Colombia

I traveled to Chennai in south India a few years ago, and I was not prepared for the fact that everyone there eats everything with their hands. It seemed to go against every manner I had been taught. “You mean you just touch all your food?” My hosts were gracious and offered me friendly Western utensils, but I’m a stubborn traveler (and always follow all the Spanish Rules) and ate everything with my hands too (making more of a mess than the two year old next to me). It felt uncomfortable, a little weird, and definitely wrong, like I was breaking so many rules. I did it three meals a day for two weeks and wanted to think that I would be getting used to it, but picking up my vegetables and scooping rice mixed with yogurt into my mouth just felt bizarre.

Before I could even figure out a polite way to ask someone, “Why do you eat with your hands?” They were asking me “Why don’t you? Why are people in America afraid to touch their food?” They explained to me that food is what keeps you alive, it’s the stuff of life, so why shouldn’t you be as close and connected to it as possible? An installation in a cultural museum I visited with my hosts stated that touching your food, making that tactile connection, was actually the first step in digestion. All this seemed to make sense, and as I thought about it, I realized how little we in the United States touch our food at all, even long before it gets speared on our polite forks.

Machines plant seeds, prods prod cattle, dispensers feed chickens, other machines harvest vegetables, conveyer belts carry them, plastic packages it all, and stoic shelves support it. Much of this is done in the name of efficiency and much more of it in the names of sanitation and public health. What have we done to our food to make it so untouchable? Even vegetables come on Styrofoam trays wrapped in plastic. We can buy squash diced and swaddled in Saran wrap, dump it straight from the package into the steaming pot and then use a utensil to put it right on to our plates without ever laying a finger on it at all, impaling it with a fork–the first moment of contact it has with our bodies being the moment it hits our tongue.

For better or for worse, for the sanitary or the soulless, we don’t touch our food. Human hands have removed from direct involvement in the process of growing, preparing, and eating food. Of course they can still be present in all those steps if we’re eating homemade bread and peppers from our neighbor’s garden, but a lot of our food is untouched.

When I first got to the coffeelands I had a similar reaction to the one I’d had at the dinner table in India and thought, “everyone seems to be touching stuff a lot.” Coffee can’t happen without human hands. Every single cherry in the coffee mountains of Latin America is picked by hand. Every one. Hands pull the cherries off trees and sort them in baskets. Every single seedling that becomes the trees that produces those cherries is planted and transplanted by hand. Every one.

Esteban with seedlings in hand at La Candelilla in San Marcos, Costa Rica
Esteban with seedlings in hand at La Candelilla in San Marcos, Costa Rica
Jair picking by hand in Santa Barbara, Antioquia
Jair picking by hand in Santa Barbara, Antioquia
Hand sorting cherries in Cedral, Costa Rica
Hand sorting cherries in Cedral, Costa Rica
Hand sorting out defects in Colombia
Hand sorting out defects for pricing in Colombia
And for export at Exclusive Coffee in Costa Rica
And for export at Exclusive Coffee in Costa Rica
Bourboun Rey in Gonzalo's hand at Coffea Diversa
Bourboun Rey in my hand at Coffea Diversa

It remains pretty untouched as it is depulped, washed, and dried by machine, but there are still lots of hands pulling rakes to dry coffee in on patios the sun, turning it over and over, hour after hour, day after day.

Raking at La Candelilla in San Marcos, Costa Rica
Raking at La Candelilla in San Marcos, Costa Rica
Patio coffee in Esteban's hands at La Candelilla
Patio coffee in Esteban’s hands at La Candelilla

Coffee is roasted by heat and metal machines, but with some human touches.

Checking the roast in Frailes, Costa Rica
Checking the roast in Frailes, Costa Rica

In coffee preparation, we’re also putting coffee back in human hands.

Traditional Colombian coffee hulling by hand at Finca La Pradera in Antioquia
Traditional Colombian coffee hulling by hand at Finca La Pradera in Antioquia

Espresso is made by pushing buttons, pulling paddles, and turning dials, and to make a really good espresso those touches are the work of the human as much as of the machine. “Hand brewed” coffee is becoming the new term to toss around, referring to pour over preparations like Chemex, Aeropress, and V60. This is as close as we can get to making coffee by literally touching it, because if there was a way to brew coffee by sheer force of will, cradling it delicately in one’s hands, there would be people doing it left and right.

Ricardo preparing a Chemex by hand at the new Costa Rican Academy in San Jose
Ricardo preparing a Chemex by hand at the new Costa Rican Coffee Academy in San Jose
And performing the delicate hand pour required for latte art
And performing the delicate hand pour required for latte art
Can't no machine to do coffee what Ricardo can do it by hand
Voila! Can’t no machine to do coffee what Ricardo can do it by hand!

In Affinity I discuss how I discovered that I really like being in the cafetales, in and around coffee. Maybe I like it in part because it’s refreshing to see and be a part of the tactile interactions between human and plant, between hands and drink-to-be. There’s plenty of coffee in Brazil that’s as untouchable as any grain in the US, and that is where most of the world’s coffee is sourced. But most isn’t all, and there is still quite a bit of coffee here in Latin America that is the product of the work of human hands directly engaging with the plant, transforming it from seed to tree to welcome beverage.

My first time picking coffee. Turrialba, Costa Rica with Sonia on her family's farm.
My first time picking coffee. Turrialba, Costa Rica with Sonia on her family’s farm.
Getting my hands on a good cup of coffee in NYC
Getting my hands on a good cup of coffee in NYC
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1 Comment

  1. Hello Rachel
    I read the new post last night sitting on sofa in gym great I was laughing at the beginning I know very well the eating by hand thing so totally related to that. It also really got me thinking I used to run an arts market in London where everything had to be made by hand if not by the vendor than original from the maker so I loved the piece . Then I looked at the photos the one if you and the other lady picking cherries is great there all really good very human I loved them all one has a view in the background that’s stunning. I really enjoyed the whole piece I’ve for a funny video to show you but can not find it at the moment so I send next week keep writing and SNAPPING speak soon Tracey

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

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