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January 2005

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ZipUSA: Hot Coffee

By Peter Gwin

Rio, a hundred-pound Czech shepherd, has locked his gaze on me as if I were a giant rabbit. He can barely contain himself. Quivering with anticipation, he emits high-pitched yelps, begging his master to utter the command that will launch him at me like a canine missile. Plainly put, he looks like a dog that's had one too many cups of coffee.

A police dog is not what I expected to find in Hot Coffee, Mississippi. As an avowed coffee junkie, I envisioned a quaint hamlet lined with tidy cafés serving all manner of frothy, caffeinated libations. The citizens of Hot Coffee would know their arabica beans from their robusta, grocery store off-brands would be outlawed, and the mayor might even be part Colombian. Perhaps there would be a coffee fountain in the town square. Forget Seattle, Vienna, and other self-proclaimed coffee capitals, I told myself. Hot Coffee, if only by the perfect simplicity of its name, must surely hold the key to true brew nirvana.

But when I got to Hot Coffee, about halfway between Jackson and Hattiesburg, reality was a cold shower. Hot Coffee isn't a quaint little town; it's not even a town. Instead it's a tiny community of farms, homes, and businesses scattered along two-lane Highway 532. The 12-mile stretch known locally as Hot Coffee Road runs from the town of Mount Olive to a crossroads that dates back to pioneer days. There, according to local lore, a resident opened an inn in 1870 and sold coffee to passersby.

Apparently the drink was the only memorable thing about the place.

Which brings me back to Rio, whose owner lives in a house built on the site of the old inn. I'd knocked on the door, hoping to find coffee but found instead Pete Robinette. He and his wife moved from Hattiesburg to expand the kennel where Pete trains law enforcement dogs to sniff out drugs and apprehend suspects. It's this latter skill Pete offered to let Rio demonstrate—on me.

"You ready?" Pete calls. Rio leans forward. Although I'm wearing a heavily padded sleeve over my right arm—which Pete assures me is the only thing the dog will bite—my mind races. How in the name of Juan Valdez did a story about coffee become an episode of Fear Factor?

It's over before I know it. I vaguely recall offering the sleeve like a giant bone and Rio chomping it with the force of an alligator. I remove the sleeve and pet the panting dog, my arm throbbing. Pete is grinning. "You want to do it again?"

I politely decline and take my leave, hoping to find a coffee shop farther down the road. Instead I find a blueberry farm. I pull over, reasoning that where there are blueberries, there is pie, and where there is pie, there must be coffee.

Herman Neff, a rawboned 80-year-old with a long white beard, stands in the middle of his 60 acres of blueberry bushes, each laden with hundreds of plump, purple baubles. Over the low buzz of cicadas he explains the blueberry revolution sweeping this part of the state. His face lights up as he tells me how his neighbors thought he was crazy back in 1981 when he planted his first bushes, a special variety bred to withstand the Mississippi heat. "They don't think I'm crazy now," he says, tilting back his broad-brimmed straw hat. Many local farmers have joined him, and currently more than 800 acres in Covington County are covered in blueberry bushes.

Blueberries, Neff says, are a perfect food, veritable bomb-lets of antioxidants, which may help ward off cancer, and packed with other nutrients that some studies show will improve eyesight, reduce bad cholesterol, prevent urinary tract infections, and —ahem—keep one regular.

Neff never mentions pie, and before I can bring up the subject he's heading back to the chore at hand: harvesting his biggest crop in 23 years, more than 200 tons of blueberries. He and his two grandsons climb aboard a machine that resembles an automated car wash on wheels—a blueberry harvester. As they head down a row, the machine seems to swallow the eight-foot bushes, its fingerlike rods combing the branches, tickling ripe fruit into its belly.

I pop a handful of berries into my mouth, savoring their tangy juice in the midday heat. As the harvester chugs toward the horizon, Herman Neff is silhouetted against the blue sky. With his long beard and hat, he cuts the figure of a latter-day Ahab, cruising high above his sea of blueberries on a quest for a Moby Dick-size crop. While considering this thought, I recall that Ahab's first mate was named Starbuck.

My own quest culminates near the end of Hot Coffee Road, where I at last find a satisfying cup at Martha's Kitchen, an old-fashioned dining hall used for family reunions and other events. It's run by the Diehl family, who as Old Order German Baptists shun most modern conveniences, including electricity, telephones, and cars. "It's not that we believe these things are wrong," explains Martha, the daughter for whom the dining hall is named, "but they can create unnecessary temptations."

The Diehls don't seem to mind tempting me with food. Family matriarch Edith Diehl, dressed in a long skirt and a white bonnet despite the Mississippi heat, has laid in front of me a wedge of coconut macaroon pie that melts on my tongue with such decadent sweetness that it surely must violate a dozen biblical tenets.

Edith's husband, Bill, who has a long white beard similar to Herman Neff's, refills my coffee and explains his secret for brewing the perfect cup. "You never pour boiling water over the grounds," he tells me. "I learned that in the egg business. Lots of coffee drinkers in the egg business."

You don't want to get Bill started on the various businesses he has embarked on—that is, unless you have a big piece of pie in front of you. During the 25 years since they moved here from rural Maryland, the Diehls' enterprises have included a butchery, a bakery, and a produce stand. Today they grow fruits and vegetables, make baskets, quilts, and furniture, and, when the weather's not too hot, cook for large groups at Martha's Kitchen.

As Bill pours me another cup, I ask him what brought the family to Hot Coffee. He says friends told them land was cheap and the people friendly: "It sounded like a good place." I raise the steaming coffee to my lips and inhale the aroma. Indeed, it is.


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