Coffee’s Comfort

Thanks for being patient with me, dear readers. New recipes and photos will be on the way soon. In the meantime, here’s a little food for thought.

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Several weeks ago, a friend brought an inspiring film to my attention. The film tells the story of Yoshi Masuda, whose singular devotion to coffee propelled him to pursue an unusual mission on Japan’s devastated northeastern coast. Following last year’s disaster, Masuda launched a mobile coffee operation, Hope Cafe, to provide victims with a hot cup of coffee, vintage gramophone tunes, and hopefully some semblance of normalcy and cheer. In the film, we see Masuda’s sunny yellow VW van making its way across the gray, rubble-strewn coast, puncturing the motionless, ruined landscape with an unexpected jolt of color and movement. He sets up shop along roadsides, in parking lots, and inside makeshift tarpaulin tents. Throughout the film, the scope of the devastation is only hinted at, but these scenes tell us everything: places of public gathering have all but disappeared, and only scraps of space remain. Given the circumstances, it is easy to imagine that the total functionality of the Masuda’s cafe – the impeccably conditioned van, the mechanical beauty of the coffee grinders and record players, and even Masuda’s own ritualized, precise movements – bring some sense of order to a place where the frailty of human structures has been painfully and violently revealed.

Although Masuda clearly takes pleasure in sharing his passion with others, he also recognizes the limits of coffee’s powers. Unlike food, coffee is not necessary to human survival; it is first and foremost a luxury, albeit one that is affordable, easily shared, and enjoyed by many. To this end, Masuda’s view of his operation is humble; besides coffee, he offers survivors a chance to return to everyday pleasures: good company, laughter, and the warmth of a newly forged friendship. Entering the cafe, customers transition from the sensory deprivation wrought by grief into a positively enlivened space: lilting notes from Masuda’s gramophone intermingle with the pleasingly rough sound of coffee beans in a manual grinder, a brightly painted red kettle offers a flash of color; watching the film, one can almost smell the heady, intoxicating aroma of freshly brewed coffee. With his perfect English, impeccably trimmed beard, eccentric glasses, and dandyish wardrobe, Masuda himself seems to bring a spark of frivolity to those whose lives have been reduced to the bare necessities of survival. Perhaps most importantly, Masuda’s “customers” receive the assurance that they have not been forsaken, and that small fragments of pleasure can still be eked out of their fractured lives. Armed with this knowledge, one hopes, perhaps the painful process of putting together the pieces can become slightly more bearable.

Finally, the film offers a personal tale of disaster’s regenerative possibilities. Through Masuda, we recognize how disaster forces us to question the purpose and significance of our daily actions. Faced with disaster, our first instinct is often to recoil in horror, thankful for our own safety. Next we give money, assuming this is the most useful way we can be of help. Unsurprisingly, these monetary gestures prove to be unsatisfying; as anyone who had ever given to charity soon realizes, the act is fraught with feelings of guilt, complacency, and denial. It is hard to argue with money’s efficiency and speed, but Masuda shows us that any passion, no matter how seemingly insignificant or idiosyncratic, can offer far more transformative potential. Although we may not all be able to follow his example, we could certainly stand to learn from it.

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