Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Yerba Maté in Weaubleau

One of my biggest challenges in the Ozarks is actually finding a decent cup of coffee. Unlike the montane West, the Ozarks are still, beautifully, undeveloped. Ozark small towns are small towns without WIFI access, without organic food restaurants, without bike racks and with one (maybe two) restaurants in every town that advertise their cuisine with pictures on the sign rather than words. This is the land of Folger's and Maxwell House, both brands I earnestly tried drinking when I first started my latest job. After the first week of freeze dried coffee in Jefferson City, I swore off coffee at work altogether. My hands wouldn't stop shaking, even after I had seriously limited my intake of drip coffee. So I like to have an activity while I write in the mornings, but my work coffee brand, Folger's, was mandated by an aged secretary who truly detested the big, bold Sumatra beans I brought in. I just couldn't drink it, and not only because it tastes terrible. The old secretary finally retired (not my fault) and the Natural History Program is no longer subject to Folger's. We now serve organic Sumatra 12 steps from the edge of my gray, grim little cubicle.

Being on the road provides another challenge. I really dig little Ozark towns, nestled as they are between stretches of historic savannas, open woodlands, rare, dense forests on the north-facing slopes. But I'm scared of their coffee. I always check the cabinets in gas stations to see what brand they serve. I calmly ask waitresses in the Current River Hills about their coffee. Same story in the Niangua Basin, White River Hills, Springfield Plateau. They all answer the same thing: "I dunno, Folger's?" Dang it. Good coffee is not, apparently, a priority in the Ozark Highlands. Well, so I thought until I traveled west on Hwy. 54 to Stockton, Missouri earlier today.

I raced over steep hills past big, gnarly post oaks, past old fields that were once small prairies, through little towns like Mack's Creek (where, I may add, rests an incredible patch of post oak savanna landscape that can even be seen on Google Earth). Past the shuttered buildings near downtown, just at the edge of Weaubleau, was a beautifully restored early 20th century brick building. Large pots of pink petunias marked the corners of the property, emblazoned above the restored eaves with a serifed "Common Ground Cafe." My beat up travel mug had dried grounds on the bottom. It had been hours, literally 5 hours, since I had groggily made coffee back in Columbia. And I hadn't seen anyplace on Hwy. 54 since Camdenton to snag a cup of decaf to keep me and Gram Parsons company.

Literally covered in seed ticks, khaki pants rolled up to my knees to make scratching ticks off that much easier, I walked into the Common Ground Cafe with a handful of quarters. Whoa. Murals of trees, macrame all over the place, that health food store smell of bee pollen and yeast. I felt like I was in Columbia. The menu was artfully scribed above an industrial espresso machine: homemade granola with carob, poached eggs, spelt bread sandwiches, smoothies made with bee pollen, an entire menu of yerba mates (which I can't drink because they make me absolutely insane. I stay away from mate, especially when in an official vehicle), almond milk, blue green algae extract. This menu diverges rather dramatically from any and every other restaurant I've walked into in the Ozarks. The staff could tell I was stunned.

"So, do you..like...are you...you know, supported by the local community?" You bet they are. Business is good. Great, even. Common Ground offers produce (which they also sell at Columbia's Clover's and Root Cellar), bulk prices for everything from Dr. Bronner's peppermint soap to vitamins, healthful food, and, for me, a decaf Americano (shot of decaf espresso with hot water). I really couldn't believe it, so I took a takeout menu, upon which the following paragraph offers an explanation:
Have you ever read Mark Twain's story entitled The Prince and the Pauper? It tells the story about two very separated individuals who found common ground where they could relate to each other. At the Common Ground Cafe, we incite you into the warmth of our cozy atmosphere where you can find common ground with us and others from the Weaubleau area. So, please, enjoy your stay, and, if you find yourself wondering what is so different about this cafe and those serving you, please don't hesitate to ask.

I did. I shook hands with everyone there, thanking them for having such a charming place in the Springfield Plains region of the state, an area smack between my office and the prairies I'll help burn later this month. I promised to return when I had more than $1.75 in quarters on hand. I slowly backed out of there, confused but happy to have fancy decaf, wondering if Missouri's next cool town was actually Weaubleau, a town whose name I can't pronounce, or if Common Ground Cafe is an oasis among historic savanna waiting to be burned.


Sabatia said...

Please, oh please, can you find a place like this in the rural Ozarks. Better yet, why dont you quit your DNR job, expand your horizons far from the edge of your gray, grim little cubicle, and open a funky store that smells of bee pollen and yeast - you know the place, one that also has a 20 year old jade plant in a sunny window, a worn, comfortable couch, left leaning magazines, wood trim and generally a great vibe. You could do this. Peace.

Anonymous said...

Ah, yerba mate. My Argentine colleagues introduced me to this delightful custom. We would travel in a van to field locations sipping mate - the bonding was almost as enjoyable as the drink itself. Their sensations surely have been muted after years of consumption, while for me it gives quite the buzz, to say the least!

My colleagues here don't drink coffee and don't understand my irritatingly constant obsession over finding the 'right' cup each morning on our field trips. I rarely find one - I must see what beetle work needs to be done near Weaubleau.

my best - ted