Monday, August 30, 2010

Acquired Tastes

Occasionally I will hear someone use the phrase, “It’s an acquired taste.”
My usual question in response to this is, “Why acquire it?”
If it’s bad enough that you don’t initially like it then why would you go to the trouble of forcing yourself through the dislike into tolerance? There has to be some reward there.
This came to mind one day a while back when I read a story about a rare and expensive variety of coffee.
I must first digress and say that I am, in truth, a certifiable coffee snob. There is no better way to say it. The only coffee I have found worth drinking comes from Boulevard Coffee in Carmichael, California. Everything else is substandard. Cliff Miller owns the place and when he retires I think I’m just going to start roasting my own coffee. I will be at a total loss as to what to do at that time, and I have been thinking about it for quite a while believe me.
Anyway, I started drinking coffee seriously in college because I needed a stimulant other than illegal drugs to keep me awake so I could finish my homework and stay awake in all my classes. The thing about it was that I hated the taste of coffee at that time. Granted the stuff I was drinking came out of a can, which is the worst stuff you can get, but that was all I knew back then. I had drunk coffee occasionally as a child when my Danish grandmother told me that I wasn’t a real Dane unless I drank coffee. Not wanting to disappoint my grandmother, whom I loved very much, and in an effort to retain my Danehood, I learned to drink coffee her way. She gave me a sugar cube and told me to hold it between my teeth, and when I sipped the coffee to swill the coffee past the sugar cube. I went through a minimum of four sugar cubes per small cup. I already had a reputation as a hyper kid, but when you added caffeine and sugar to the mix I must have turned into a tornado. My recollections of those afternoons are rather blurred. All my baby teeth had fillings too so I doubt it was the healthiest practice. On the other hand, my grandmother’s diet consisted mainly of coffee, sugar, butter and red meat and she lived to be 102 so it can’t be all bad.
So, I acquired the taste for coffee out of necessity, and later learned to like it. Now I love it and consume it with what I would call an “intense regularity” and have no desire to live without it.
And Cliff, well he is my very good friend, but I often refer to him simply as my “Supplier”.
Then I heard about this rare coffee. My ears perked up when I heard about it because it costs an enormous amount of money. Hundreds of dollars a pound. I began to wonder what it was and what made it so special. I started to think about how I might score a few ounces.
So I did some research.
It is called “Civet” coffee.
I originally thought the name derived from the region in which the coffee bean was grown. Then I discovered that a Civet is really an animal that thrives in Indonesia. It is sometimes described as a “cat like” creature.
It’s basically a weasel.
I was confused as to why any variety of coffee would have an animal associated with it, particularly an animal as undignified a weasel, so I read further.
The Civet eats the berries of the coffee tree. The actual coffee bean is kind of like the pit of the berry itself. The Civet eats the whole berry. The Civet digests the berry. The Civet “expels” the coffee bean.
This seems a normal and natural process.
Then it gets bizarre.
Some enterprising, and I’m sure upstanding, member of Indonesian society must have been cleaning up Civet poop one day and saw the “processed” coffee beans. Being a coffee drinker himself, and not wanting to waste anything, he wonders what it would taste like. So carefully gathering up the beans (hopefully wearing gloves) he takes them home and (hopefully after washing them thoroughly), roasts them lightly. He then grinds them up and puts them in a sock (hopefully a clean one), ties it closed and throws it in a pot of boiling water.
He drinks his new brew and, because it took so much work to get the beans, he convinces himself that the flavor is indeed improved over the other coffee beans he uses. He calls a friend over to try some of the new brew.
“Before you taste this I want you to know that I put a lot of work into processing this coffee.”
“Well it must be good then! Let’s have a taste!” his friend replies eagerly.
His friend tries it.
“Hmmm. It has an odd aftertaste. I can’t quite place it. Where did you get these beans?”
“Over in the south field. But it is the processing that is unique my friend.”
“Really? What did you do? You could probably get a lot for these. The more unique it is the more people will pay for it.”
“Exactly what I was thinking!”
“So what did you do?” he asks as he takes another sip.
“Well, really all I did was pick the beans. The rest was already done! That’s the beauty of the whole thing!”
“What do you mean?” his bewildered friend replies.
“Well you know all the trouble we go through to get the seed out of the berry?”
“Of course.”
“And you know the Civets we keep chasing off?”
“Well yesterday I was out cleaning up the Civet poop- “
“I’m getting a bad feeling about this.” He puts down his cup.
“ – and I found the beans in the poop and they were already out of the berry, and so I-“
“You gave me ROASTED CIVET POOP?! Are you NUTS?!”
He grabs his cane and starts beating his friend with it.
“What on earth made you do that? And why did you give it to ME?! I’m supposed to be your friend! Are you trying to poison me?! Is this because you married my cousin?! It’s not my fault she can’t cook! Heck, you’re drinking roasted weasel turds; you don’t have any taste anyway! Why are you taking it out on me?!”
As he rolls around on the floor with his arms up to protect his head from the cane that is being swung with increasing fervor the grower yells,
“NO, NO, I want you to be my partner! You said yourself it had a unique flavor! OW! If we sell it without telling people where it came – OW! - from they’ll pay extra for it! It doesn’t even have to be good!”
The cane stops in mid swing.
“Hmmm. You may have a point there. By the time they figure out what it really is they may be hooked.”
“Yes! Exactly!”
“Then we could start a Civet farm and feed them the bad beans so we could save the better ones for the regular crop.”
“Good idea!”
“Okay, I’m in. But what will we call it?”
“How about Civet Coffee?”
“We’ll tell everyone it’s an ‘acquired taste’. That always gets ‘em.”
I doubt they ever drank any again themselves.
Eventually the idea took hold and now the stuff sells for, in some cases, $600 a pound. Recent studies have found that virtually no one can taste any significant difference between this coffee and any other, although I don’t know if the participants were told they were drinking roasted weasel turds. I suspect that if they knew this up front they would have refused to participate in the study.
Up to this point the consumption of poop was always limited to the animal kingdom. I know this because we have a dog and a cat. I like them both. I have observed that they have what I have come to think of as a “symbiotic” relationship. When we first got the cat we kept her indoors for several months and during this time we, of course, had a litter box.
Being the one who was automatically assumed to be the Litter Box Cleaner I had reason to observe some, what I considered to be, odd things.
The cat learned how to use the litter box fairly quickly, and she was pretty consistent about how many times in a day that she used it. It was a little irritating when she would get a little overenthusiastic in burying her “product” because she would kick the litter out of the box and then I would step on it. It felt like a bunch of little sharp pebbles. When I went to scoop her stuff out of the box I came to expect a certain number of “items” to be there, because she was, as I mentioned, consistent.
After a few weeks I began to notice there were fewer things in the box than there used to be. Now normally I wouldn’t consider this a problem, but since she was an indoor cat I started to wonder if I was going to start finding some of these little “markers” in unexpected places. I was on the lookout, but I never found any strays. I did, however, discover something else.
One day as I was walking through the room with the litter box I came upon our dog sniffing in the litter box and she came out with a piece of dried up cat poop in her mouth.
The litter box was her cookie jar.
“Oh man! What are doing that for? Do you have an iron deficiency or something?” It seems like any weird dietary practice is always explained by an iron deficiency. I’m sure she understood every word I said. Being part yellow Lab she looked up at me with those pathetic eyes and wagged her tail as if to say, “What? Did I do something wrong? Try one they’re tasty!” I chose to forego this offer.
The cat became an outside cat shortly after that. I have observed that there is a particular spot in the flower bed of our backyard that she prefers to use as her litter box. I have also observed that the dog has discovered this spot. I won’t give you anymore detail on that except to say the dog has never licked my face since the litter box incident. I have heard that in some countries (not the US) it is considered healthy to drink a glass of one’s own urine each day. No one who does this will be allowed to lick my face either. I’m pretty sure if I just started feeding the cat more food I wouldn’t have to feed the dog anymore. She’d have her own “natural” food supply.
So this is my proof that Civet coffee consumption is unnatural for humans and should at the very least come with a warning label of some kind. I’m not really sure what it should say. Maybe something as simple as,
“WARNING this is made from weasel turds! Drink at your own risk!”
Or maybe,
“WARNING! The consumption of Weasel Turd Coffee is an ACQUIRED TASTE! If you have not acquired the taste you risk death and/or chronic halitosis in the process of acquiring said taste. And it may destroy all your other tastes, and leave you friendless!”
Yeah, I think that one would do it.
You’ll save a lot of money for gas too.
©Dan Bode 2008