The invitation called for “festive evening attire.” What the hell does that even mean? When Sprudge called on me to cover a fancy-seeming dinner at the iconic United Nations building for illy’s first annual Ernesto Illy International Coffee Awards ceremony, I thought they surely must have made a mistake. I’m a too-tight-jeans, dad sweater, and sick boots kind of homo and while I keep a few suit jackets and pants in my closet, they’re mainly for funerals. For a free dinner at the UN, however, I could clean up my act a little bit. I could even go all the way with trying to fit in with the UN crowd by looking very dignified and saying things like, “Isn’t Angela Merkel just the most diplomatic?” But “festive evening attire” threw me off. It sounded something like you might wear at a chichi UN party where I clearly don’t belong, but it didn’t indicate formal wear.
A Google search revealed that “festive evening attire” called for color: a suit with a fun tie or dress pants with a nice sweater. I opted for the latter, but found myself in disaster mode trying to assemble my outfit at the last minute. My charming blue merino wool sweater was crumpled up in a corner of my closet. While I carefully steamed it, I yelled at my husband to find his bright yellow tie so I could borrow it for the evening. I then unearthed my navy dress pants, which didn’t need ironing, but, to my horror, did not fit. It appeared I’d been starving myself when I’d bought them for the last funeral because there was no way I could clasp or button them. With no other option, I belted them to my waist, zipped them as high as the zipper would go, and threw on my pointy Fluevog boots with angel buckles.
I picked up my plus-one, my boss and one of my dearest friends, Sam Penix. Sam was even more festive in a blue jacket, tan vest, and pink and green tie. I thought we both looked pretty fly, but I was horribly nervous as we walked to the event from his apartment that we had misinterpreted the dress code and that we’d either be totally out of place or Kofi Annan would appear to shame us and permanently ban us from the UN. These feelings were heightened when we arrived at the UN to find a lot of dudes wearing black suits. I bit my lip and clenched my fists in my pockets as we made our way up to the security check-in, where we would surely be told that our kind wasn’t welcome in these hallowed halls of international accord. Then I looked around and spotted them: a man in a maroon jacket, a woman in a light pink taffeta gown, and some guy in jeans. We didn’t stick out so much at all. If anything, the stuffy suited men were the ones who should be publicly humiliated.
Once we made our way through security and began to gorge ourselves on hors d'oeuvres, Sam looked at me and asked, “So what is this event we’re at right now?” Frankly, I wasn’t entirely sure. I knew it was being thrown by illy, a coffee brand I’d seen in a lot of grocery stores, and that it was to honor their coffee farmers, but I had absorbed no other information from the invitation. I’d resigned myself to an evening of confusion when Sam pointed behind me and said, “Hey! It’s Peter Giuliano!” And indeed, there he was. Papa Pete came out of nowhere as if he knew that we were perplexed and needed major clarification. In true educator fashion, he informed us that the event was to honor the top three growers from the each of the nine countries that contribute to illy’s signature espresso blend. Peter, along with various coffee and culinary luminaries, had judged the top coffees from each country for the grand prize, an enormous gold coffee cup trophy. He had nothing but nice things to say about the experience, praising illy’s internal coffee scoring and referring to them as “the Apple of coffee.” He also praised the company’s other initiatives. “Look over there! They’re very passionate about the arts!” He was pointing at a bizarre scene where a piano player was creating musical portraits of guests by having them sit facing the piano and staring at them intensely as he improvised. Man, the arts are weird. Just minutes after he had arrived to fill us in on the missing details, he pulled a total fairy godmother move and told us he needed to leave to catch a plane.
Armed with information, we found our seating assignments and sat down for dinner. Each table represented a country and was named after a coffee varietal. Ours was “Mundo Novo”, the Brazilian table, where we were welcomed with open arms. Pink taffeta lady sat across from me, looking like the most glamorous coffee professional I’d ever seen. I quickly made friends with the handsome couple who sat next to me. Juliana Armelin and Paolo Siqueria had left jobs in finance to start growing coffee at their farm Terra Alta in Ibia, Brazil just four years ago. We shared laughs and bewilderment at the dinner menu, which promised deconstructed grilled vegetable salad, bistro chicken with crispy skin, and three desserts. The salad came out all too constructed, the chicken’s skin had no such crisp, and we received only two desserts.
The awards ceremony itself was quite brief. Bronze, silver, and gold espresso cup trophies were awarded to growers from each country. The countries represented were Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Honduras, India, and Nicaragua. To our delight, Juliana and Paolo took the gold cup for Brazil. As we deconstructed our salads and chewed on our not-so-crispy chicken skin, we had become invested in our new friends’ success. We wanted them to win the enormous gold coffee cup. Before dessert the announcement was made. The winner was… Ethiopia. As happy as I was for the gentleman from Ethiopia, I couldn’t help but be bummed for Juliana and Paolo, though I still marveled at the fact that their third harvest had put them at the top of the pack in their country. By this time, my three wine glasses had been refilled a bit too much and I struggled to retain information. Andrea Illy explained that Ethiopia won because it had the most variety and I’m pretty sure he said Ethiopian coffee also had the most “Lena Olin”. I’m a huge fan of the Academy Award nominated Swedish actress, so I wasn’t about to argue.*
*Editor's note: The distinguished Mr. Illy was likely referring to linolenic acids.
The event concluded and I stumbled into a Lyft and, reflecting on what an unexpectedly delightful and not-at-all stuffy evening it had been, mostly thanks to the warm and jovial Brazilians at Mundo Novo. One enthusiastic woman even dubbed us honorary Brazilians as we joined the table. It was true unity between nations at the UN that night. Thanks, Obama.
Eric J. Grimm is a Sprudge contributor based in New York City, writing on pop culture and film. Read more Eric J. Grimm on Sprudge.