Editor's Note

From the Editor: Coffee as Commodity and Connector

The bean brings us together in more ways than one.

By Zach Dundas February 20, 2017 Published in the March 2017 issue of Portland Monthly

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Image: Amy Martin


The protest sign was just one among many seen in late January, after the newly sworn president issued his executive order barring citizens of seven nations from traveling to the US for 90 days. (The same order, of course, stopped all refugees from entering our country for four months.) Protesters descended upon airports; reporters and cameras followed. And this one sign, in particular, attracted at least one national media outlet’s notice at Portland International Airport.

I admit that when I first saw it, I thought, really? Coffee is the thing on your political sign? But then I considered.

We drink a lot of coffee in this city and nation. Almost all of it, except for Hawaii’s tiny crop, is imported. In fact, coffee drinking in general—as a thing we do, in some cases as a matter of daily necessity—is imported. The beverage originates in Africa; the coffeehouse as an institution came to the West from the Islamic world.

Everywhere they appeared, cafés became places to exchange gossip, do business, talk politics, and hang out. Even today, in the era of the MacBook and the earbud, they serve this purpose and serve it well anchoring communal life in city neighborhoods and urban centers and small towns. Every visit to a Stumptown or a Starbucks (or a Denny’s, sort of) links us to the wider world and a deep tradition of public life. 

In our invigorating feature on Portland’s coffee culture, we see that as with so much else, you can now tune your coffee patronage to reflect your taste and cultural preferences. But—and this might be why a hot beverage, in some way, actually matters—it’s still just coffee. The bean is a commodity that links Portland to Yemen (though we called around, and it seems that that country’s civil strife has reduced our Yemeni bean count). It also links fluorescent-lit gas stations to Edison-bulb tweeness. Coffee is the beverage of philosophers and crumb-cake-making grandmas, and some who are both. The freelance designer and the long-haul trucker have coffee in common. What’s the best (nonalcoholic) way to settle a dispute or misunderstanding? The proverbial cup of coffee. That, I think, was the point of the sign. Something as simple as coffee is not simple. To ignore the complex connections that bring it into our lives is a mistake.

Zach Dundas
Editor in Chief

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