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AROUND TOWN

An Exhibit Guaranteed to Keep You Awake

August 18, 1995|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

So, it seems, the electric percolator is to blame for that insipid, tea-colored brew that generations of Americans have mistaken for coffee.

"Coffee boiled is coffee spoiled," explains Ian Bersten, a coffee-loving Aussie who's consultant to "From Dancing Goats to Voltaire's Notes: The History, Geography and Technology of Coffee," on view now at the Fullerton Museum Center.

One exhibit, a percolator manufactured from the 1920s through the '40s, is labeled, "The worst coffee maker ever invented."

In all fairness, though, Bersten points out that coffee purveyors were partly to blame. In an effort to counteract the bitterness of percolated coffee that was kept on hold too long, they came up with coarser grinds. The result: "weak bitter coffee instead of strong bitter coffee."

The exhibit is a stroll down memory lane. There's Mrs. Olson on video--in black and white--plugging Folger's. There are souvenirs of long-defunct coffee companies--Miracle Cup of Dayton, Ohio, Two-Bit of Little Rock, Ark.

Once, families roasted their own beans over an open hearth in a cast-iron roasting kettle, a device akin to a corn popper. Those are on display too.

There are coffee mills, big and small. It's only fitting that there's a Turkish pot, as the Turks introduced the Western world to coffee. Five centuries before there was Starbucks, there was the Kiva Han coffeehouse in Constantinople.

How did coffee gets its name? It seems that the Arabs, the first coffee drinkers, called it qahwa , which translates roughly as "that which prevents sleep."

As for those "dancing goats and Voltaire's notes," legend has it that coffee was discovered growing wild more than 1,000 years ago by an Abyssinian goatherd. After nibbling some strange berries, his goats began to dance. The puzzled herder took some of the magic berries to a nearby monastery where the abbot, thinking them the work of the devil, tossed them into a fire. As they roasted, the aroma seduced him and he rescued them and made coffee. (The monks, it's told, considered coffee a gift from God, as it kept them awake during prayers.)

And Voltaire, the French philosopher, was a voracious coffee drinker, reputedly consuming 40 to 50 cups a day. (For the record, he lived to be 84.)

Other famed imbibers: Frederick the Great, who allegedly preferred his coffee made with champagne, and Johann Sebastian Bach, who wrote a humorous one-act operetta, the Coffee Cantata.

Did you know that Lloyd's of London was founded in a coffeehouse? It was--Edward Lloyd's 17th-Century establishment near the Thames, where merchants, shipbuilders and insurance writers used to gather.

As for American coffee, Bersten, author of a coffee bible, "Coffee Floats, Tea Sinks" (published in Australia by Helian Books, 1993) and owner of 900 coffee collectibles, doesn't blame the poor percolator totally. Inflation played a role: As the uniquely American bottomless cup pinched profits, cafes began putting less coffee in the coffee.

Until the recent coffee-espresso-latte-cappuccino boom, and a drip machine in every kitchen, a good grade of dishwater passed itself off as coffee. (Bersten simply dismisses instant: "Instant coffee is like powdered milk.")

It's coffee's place in history that intrigues Lynn La Bate, exhibit curator. Through the years, she says, "The little coffee bean seems to have taken on a life of its own."

It's even been political. In 15th-Century Turkey, a woman could divorce a husband who failed to provide her with coffee. In 18th-Century Germany, there was a movement to deny women coffee, for fear it made them sterile. In London in the 17th Century, coffee houses were called "penny universities," because great ideas were debated and exchanged there.

In today's economy, many people can't buy big-ticket items, La Bate adds, but "you can afford a good cup of coffee and feel like you've done something nice for yourself."

The Fullerton Museum Center, 301 N. Pomona Ave., is open noon-4 p.m. Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and noon-8 p.m. Thursday. The exhibit continues through Aug. 27.

Shopping With a Clear Conscience

As a flock of "lovebirds" was released from carriers and headed home to Sylmar, Jeri Benson asked everyone to remember "the loved ones who have passed from cancer."

She then bade celebrants to step inside, out of the searing midday heat, and "Shop till you drop!"

Shoppers could do so with a clear conscience. This was the 30th anniversary of the American Cancer Society's Discovery Shops, where bargain hunters do good by doing well.

This year, the nationwide shops--there are seven in L.A. County, with Brentwood and Woodland Hills opening soon--will gross almost $12 million from resale of everything from dresses to dining tables. That means about $6 million net for cancer research, education and patient services.

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