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Nashville Scene "Just Passing Through"

Hackberries upset tummies, mother.

By Walter Jowers

JANUARY 12, 1998:  A few years ago, our across-the-street neighbors had two little girls, Hazel and Maeve, who put everything they touched into their mouths. They ate crumbs off the floor and leaves off the trees with determination and enthusiasm. One spring day, the girls' mother, Karen, came running up to our door, with Hazel on one hip and Maeve on the other. Karen was calling for Brenda.

"Brenda, can you come?" she begged in her English accent. "The girls have eaten some berries." Karen often asked Brenda for medical advice, even though Brenda constantly reminded her that, as a nurse, she could only advise her to call her doctor.

"What kind of berries?" Brenda asked. "Where did they get them?" Karen trotted Brenda to her driveway, where there were hundred of berries on the concrete. "These berries. But I don't know if they ate the brown ones or the red ones."

"How many did they eat?" Brenda asked.

"Just one or two," Karen said. "No more than that."

Brenda had a look at the berries, then went inside with Karen and called the Poison Control Center at Vanderbilt. She explained to the poison advisor that the girls had eaten a few hackberries. The man told Brenda that the girls shouldn't suffer any serious ill effects, although they could get a little stomach upset.

The good news calmed Karen down, and she thanked Brenda profusely. Still, she couldn't resist asking just one more question. "Brenda, what's the difference between the red and the brown berries?"

"The brown ones are straight off the tree," Brenda said. "The red ones have traveled beak-to-butt through blackbirds. Bye, now."

Brenda headed back over to our house, leaving Karen to grapple with the thought that her children might have consumed a small load of bird crap. Brenda wasn't worried about the bird factor, though, because as a semi-serious coffee drinker, she knew the tale of luwak coffee.

Luwak coffee, which goes for about five bucks a cup in trendy coffee bars, comes from the island of Java. The beans are collected not from the coffee trees, but from the lanes between the trees. Y'see, the Javanese luwak--a tree-dwelling, possum-like creature--is said to consume only perfectly ripe coffee beans, which it then excretes fairly intact. The beans emerge "still wrapped in layers of the coffee-cherry mucilage," according to the February 1994 issue of Cafe Ole magazine.

It's these beans, the ones that have traveled through the Javanese possum, that are collected by hand, then washed, roasted, and ground to make the luwak coffee. Some say it's the best coffee in the world, with a caramel-like taste and a musty, jungle-like aroma. Skeptics disagree and suggest that: 1. the coffee is just plain old Javanese coffee, with no possum between the tree and the roaster; and 2. even if the story's legit, it's just nuts to pay five bucks a cup for strained possum poop.

Brenda is a woman of simple, straightforward tastes--no chance she'd spend her hard-earned money on luwak brew. But she figured if possum poop is good enough for trendy coffee drinkers, a tiny serving of blackbird crap wouldn't do the pesky neighbor kids any harm.

Last we heard, Karen and her girls had moved back to England, where just two weeks ago, a London woman named Rachel Murray planned to give her roommate a cellular phone for Christmas.

But, don't you know, Rachel has a friend named Tony, who has a bloodhound named Charlie. Charlie is a mischievous dog, and when the cell phone turned up missing, with only a pile of torn paper in its place, Charlie was the prime suspect.

Rachel and Tony searched the house for the phone but found nothing. Charlie wasn't giving 'em any clues; he was snoozing in his bed.

So Rachel came up with a plan. She called the cell phone company, got the number of the phone, and then dialed up the number. Sure enough, she heard the phone ringing, somewhere in the area of the napping Charlie. "At first I thought Charlie was lying on the phone--then I realized where it was," she said. "I couldn't believe he'd swallowed it."

Rachel and Tony rushed the sleepy dog to a vet, who advised them to let nature take its course. The next day, Charlie passed the phone naturally. It was in perfect working order.

Visit Walter's Web site at http://www.nashscene.com>. Or e-mail him at Walter.Jowers@nashville.com.

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